Hayley Elsaesser on Creating Body Positive Silhouettes and Promoting Ethical Manufacturing

Images by Che Rosales / LARAWAN

With bold pop culture-inspired prints and body positive silhouettes, it’s no surprise the Toronto-based Hayley Elsaesser label has quickly become a favorite amongst the fashion elite. Helmed by the sassy, Hayley Elsaesser, the brand offers a whimsical take on clean and timeless wardrobe staples. Since debuting in 2013, Elsaesser’s tongue-in-cheek designs have not only embellished the runways of international fashion weeks (including: Toronto, Melbourne, Sydney and New York), but also, graced the bodies of Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Kesha, Joe Jonas, Lilly Singh just to name-drop a few.

We had a chat with Hayley about her childhood, her wearable art pieces, and the importance of promoting real-world sizing. 

What is the most interesting thing you’ve seen in fashion recently?

A couple of months back, Nike released its second iteration of the E.A.R.L self-lacing basketball shoe. The Nike Adapt BB, which is app-driven, is designed by Tinker Hatfield to counteract damage caused to player’s feet from wearing super-tight-laced shoes during games. This type of technical innovation is crazy. I would love to connect with a tech company and develop transformable clothing. 

What can you tell us about your childhood and your awesome mom?

I was born in Surrey, British Columbia. My family moved to Australia shortly after I was born when my dad was transferred there. We only lived there for about 6 months before my parents separated and my dad encouraged us to move back to Canada. My mom, who is originally from Nova Scotia, applied for teaching posts across Canada. She ended up getting a part-time job in Cambridge (Ontario), which was great because it was close to two of her sisters in Mississauga. During her first year of teaching, 75% of her paycheck went towards daycare. I was only 2 or 3 at the time, but my mom was always very career driven. She constantly enrolled herself in courses and applied for promotions to get ahead. 

You also have a brother?

Yes. My brother and I spent a lot of time together, I remember, we were often the first two kids at daycare in the morning and the last two kids there at night. That said, my mom always made sure she gave us every opportunity, despite not having a ton of time. We went to an elementary school where most kids had 2 parents, but my mom never let us feel like we were missing out on anything. She encouraged us to play sports, and participate in extracurriculars. I was very quiet and shy at school, but at home it was a different story. I was always doing something creative with my hands, like building Lego, or making my own Barbie clothes. My mom influenced us to think independently and work hard. I have always been very headstrong and stubborn despite being quiet, and I think this stems from my upbringing as my mom never compromised or showed weakness despite being in a less than ideal situation; raising two kids with her ex-husband living in Australia. My dad paid child support, but we only saw him for 2 weeks in a year. That was the only time my mom got a break.

When did you realize you wanted to be a fashion designer?

I remember on multiple occasions picking out outfits that made my family question my sanity. My mom being very busy meant that I had to dress myself from a very young age. This manifested in my developing a very unique style. As a 7-year-old, I once wore a gymnastics leotard in the middle of winter. It was great! Cambridge is a fashion wasteland and by the time I was in high school, I was regularly shopping at thrift stores; reworking and selling vintage clothes. My brother bought me my first sewing machine while I was studying Psychology at the University of Brock. Needless to say, I ended up spending most of my time sewing instead of studying. This was clearly a sign that I was in the wrong field of study. It wasn’t long before I dropped out in favor of a fashion design program, first at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in B.C. and eventually at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. 

What designers have influenced you? 

I am influenced by designers who always do their own thing and are unapologetic about doing so. Vivienne Westwood is a huge inspiration of mine. 

What about mentors?

In terms of mentors, when I was studying in Brisbane, I was very lucky to have amazing teachers who took their time to work with me; encouraging me to develop my own unique voice. 

How would you describe your personal style?

Bubblegum chav.

How was the Hayley Elsaesser brand born?  

I started designing eponymously upon graduation in 2013. I was selected as one of 12 graduates from across Australia to participate in Melbourne Fashion Week, and received such a great response that I decided to roll with it. 

Images by Che Rosales / LARAWAN

What is Hayley Elsaesser’s definition of fashion?

My definition of fashion is wearing whatever you want and not caring what people think. 

Your rebellious tongue-in-cheek designs are ‘wearable art pieces’ that challenge the status quo. Where do you draw your inspiration from? 

I am inspired by a lot of things. Pop culture, art, movies, dreams, books, literally everything. My designs are basically me digesting the world around me and trying to create beauty out of tumultuousness. 

You create all of your vibrant prints from scratch. Can you take us through your design process?  

I generally start with a basic theme or an element that I want to work with. This can be really abstract or very specific. Once I have an idea of direction in my head, I start to draw icons, or graphics that morph into prints. Once I have the basic prints done, I try multiple colour combinations and variations on size and scale and then go from there. My brother works with me on the business side of things, and he is good at putting words to my abstract images and creating linkages so we can present a cohesive collection with a message. 

How should one feel when wearing the Hayley Elsaesser label?

I would like everyone to feel like they can express themselves in whatever way they want as long as they are not harming anyone. I think our gender roles are too rigidly defined as a society, and that people are made to feel uncomfortable about their bodies. Women specifically are forced into demure, overly-sexualized silhouettes that are not at all functional. On the flip side, men’s clothing is often exclusively about utility. I like to flip that on its head, and offer unisex options, and generally comfortable shapes and fabrics. Our clothes are such that a 6’5” man, like our employee, Ethan can wear one of our maxi dresses, or a 5’2” woman can feel comfortable in one of our “menswear” button-ups. It’s just about being true to yourself and wearing what makes you feel happy and confident. 

Which celebrity would you love to design for and why?

It would be a dream to design for Rihanna. She is a style icon, and so unabashedly confident. She is the very definition of a ‘bad bitch’ which is a vibe I am super into. 

We admire the fact that your clothing is made with ‘love’ by suppliers who are vetted and audited by international bodies (including the ISO and BSCI). How important is it for you to promote ethical manufacturing? 

As a small business, it is very difficult for us to specifically create custom fabrics for manufacturing in North America. Conversely, manufacturing overseas carries the risk of not knowing the inner-workings of local laws and regulations. Looking at this through the lens of morality rather than strictly profit makes this easier. Personally, I want to be a positive influence in the industry and in my life in general. Many people have a negative opinion of China, but we are very much bombarded with western ideology so the ‘American way’ is lauded as being the best, but this is not the current reality. We are in close contact with our suppliers and work to create mutually beneficial relationships. We have worked with smaller suppliers in the past that can’t afford the certification and auditing, but we strive to go above and beyond where we can. Maintaining close contact throughout the process and not just manufacturing based on the lowest cost option is definitely a good start. 

Your sizing is ‘real’ and a reflection of the world we live in today. How important is it for you to be body positive and encourage a healthy ideal? 

This is hugely important to me. I’ve risked my career to feature non-agency models who are not conventional model size, and I will continue to push for better representation. It’s such a narrow mindset to view beauty as having a specific set of measurements, and a lot of industry folks are actively against opening high fashion to more people. This is part of the ‘old boys club’ of designers like Karl Lagerfeld who view models as ‘clothes-hangers’ and not people and is emblematic of bigger societal issues around male and female dynamics and personal autonomy of women. I’ve personally been attacked for being a bigger woman, and have gotten more opportunities since I’ve gotten healthier and as a byproduct lost a bit of weight. It’s an unfortunate reality, but any way I can push our industry in the right direction, I will. Being inclusive and fostering healthy ideals is not, and should not, be sold as a trend.

Images by Che Rosales / LARAWAN

How did your collaboration with Nike come about? Can you tell us about some of the exclusive co-branded merchandise you have designed?

They approached us to do a window installation as part of their Air Society campaign in July 2017, which featured Canadian designers alongside the Vapormax silhouette. I worked with my artist friend Char Da Silva to create an ethereal landscape for my clothing to be styled alongside the Nike shoes. Since then, they have provided footwear for our runway models on multiple occasions (including custom hydro-dipped shoes last season) and have been a great partner. We even started our own run club to get people who wouldn’t necessarily be into physical fitness to start running, which resulted in former model and amazing human, Madison Schill getting over fashion-industry imposed body issues and running a half-marathon. As an extension of this, we created exclusive content for the Nike Dispensary activation they did on 4.20 in 2018. The idea was that you can get a natural runner’s high by being physically active. It was also a play on the concept that, despite the fact marijuana was illegal at the time in Canada it was easier to get than some Nike shoes. I thought it was an interesting idea, and created a couple t-shirt designs as well as a bandana and a tote bag that were available exclusively at the activation. Obviously, I would love to do more with them and it’s a dream to design my own shoe one day, but this was a fun start. And Bill Nye the Science Guy was there! 

An integral part of your designing team, and on occasion model, is Ms. Misato Fang Chippers Softserve Elsaesser. What can you tell us about her? 

She is an amazing angel from heaven who comes to work with me every day and inspires me to create. She has been surrounded by fashion since birth, so she is also my harshest critic.

What role do you think social media plays in fashion today? How important is it?

It is so important. Instagram has helped me build my brand to the point where it is today. If it wasn’t for celebs wearing my stuff and posting on about it, I might not have gotten as many of the opportunities as I have. That said, I think I need to focus on organic growth this year to supplement social. I think a lot of people think you can just do social and be a success and it’s very over-saturated so I think peppering in conventional marketing techniques will pay dividends. 

Can you give us a teaser of what to expect from Hayley Elsaesser for 2019?

It’s all confidential at the moment, but 2019 will be a big year in terms of visibility across Canada. Aside from that, I am going to continue to put out clothes that are designed to make people happy and feel confident. You can also expect a healthy dose of me trying to make people question ‘so-called’ norms and fight back against inequality. 

What advice do you have for anyone wanting to follow your steps as a designer?

Get as much experience as possible. Learn to sew. Get your hands dirty and roll-up your sleeves. Also, get your sleep in now, because you won’t have time.

Images by Che Rosales / LARAWAN

by JSK

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