It’s a large task to improve ethical standards in a world where “fast fashion,” mass-made, inexpensive clothing dominates. But shops like Black Market and MXM, both unique to Halifax, are making a difference one dress, T-shirt, and bracelet at a time.
Stores like these offer designs that were made in good working conditions and bought directly from the designers. Black Market, a well-known shop in downtown Halifax on Grafton Street, has been open for over 30 years.
Inside is a colourful culture blend: walls covered in arrays of earrings, shelves holding sticks of incense and handmade journals, and racks of stylish cotton dresses and flowy jumpsuits. The most interesting part of the store might not actually be what’s sold, but how the owner acquires it—personally from international vendors.
Lauren Parsons, co-owner along with Wiebke Kunjl, has been on 13 of the yearly buying trips, which might include countries like India, Thailand, Bali, Ecuador, and Turkey. “It’s nice when we can get a full story from the vendors and a good feeling from them,” she says. Parsons believes the authenticity of having direct sales from vendors is why the customers respond well to the store.
The original owners, Dawn and Dominique Villermet, now retiring, have made many connections through their travels, often by popping into a new spot or even following the trail from a beautiful piece of jewelry worn on the street. “We’re always meeting new people,” Parsons says, “We’ll wander the streets of Delhi looking at little stalls, and keeping our eyes open for what’s beautiful and original.”
Parsons says they buy from working-class producers, family businesses, and independent artisans; sometimes they see the whole process of how an item is made. She says in India the staff have fostered many real friendships. “When we do business there we’re laughing, joking, and having chai,” she says. “They genuinely care about us too, and that’s a special feeling.”
They work with small factories in countries like Thailand and India. “In places in India,” she says, “it’s a floor where the tailors all work. We can walk in to see 20 of them saying hello. It’s all very relaxed.”
She says often tailors already have clothing designs, but also heaps of fabric to choose from. “We can tweak the designs too,” she says, “or bring our own ideas. We like doing that, and people back in Canada are loving that stuff.”
Parsons says Dawn and Dominique set an excellent example on how to work in different languages and cultures. “They’re very creative,” she says, “and have a lot of fun with it. It’s about giving back to the countries.”
Samantha Reid, an employee at Black Market, says she decided to shop at the store long before working there. “I like what they stand for,” she says. “Fast fashion is really damaging to the planet and there are so many other options. It would be silly to not to try your best. You end up with original pieces as well.”
MXM on Lower Water Street also showcases international designs. The store is geared toward what’s fashionable and trendy, with a collection of bright designs from Korea and China, plus designs from local fashion students at NSCAD University.
The store’s owner and creator, Emily Xiao Meng, majored in textiles and fashion at NSCAD. Originally from Beijing, s he says the idea for MXM came to her because wanted a business opportunity that would allow her to stay in Halifax post-graduation. “I wanted to find a job as a fashion designer or assistant, but couldn’t,” she says. But with this idea, she says, it’s only the beginning. “It’s not only a clothing shop, but like a little gallery, showing different things from designers. I think that’s a new model,” she says.
The store also sells its own line of handmade jewelry and designs made by Meng, sporting the MXM label. She says that because Halifax offers a relatively small client base, her brand doesn’t need a large factory to make clothing. “It’s all local,” she says. “The next level is to design our own clothing and maybe even make our own fabric.”