When Joyce Gunhouse was five years old, she entered a Buster Brown contest for designing an outfit, and won. Even though the Toronto-based Comrags designer immediately dismissed it (“I just never thought there was an option to be a designer in Canada”) she enrolled in Ryerson’s fashion program. In her last year, she met fellow bright star and design student Judy Cornish. It was 1983, the dawn of the music video. The two fell into a class show together, and everything exploded from there.
Their label, Comrags (“We wanted a masculine hybrid word”), was born, and climbed to success thanks to meticulously designed pieces with their signature twist. They showed two collections each season, garnering a huge following in their hometown and wholesaling around the world. But 15 years in, the two then–young mothers found themselves exhausted by the rigorous on-the-road schedule. “All we did was go to meetings and listen to people say, ‘If you could make it longer, shorter, wider,’” says Cornish. Gunhouse continues, “Suddenly we realized we weren’t doing what we loved, which is the hands-on part, so we decided to open our own retail space, which allowed us to go back to being in the studio, making patterns and sewing.” And so, they set up shop on Queen Street. When they left that location, someone messaged them a photo. An artist-designed sticker was slapped to the blackened window. It read, “Queen Street Is Dead.”
But Comrags is not. Thirty years after its inception (yes, it is 3-0!) the business is as robust as ever, with a sleek new flagship store on Dundas Street West and a stunning fall collection that, despite the duo’s disdain for trends, is glamorously en pointe with its clean and modern take on the mid-century silhouette.
The new building is an airy 6,000-square-foot two-storey that was once a bar called Hard Luck. The sous-sol houses patterns (they ditched two-thirds of their enormous archive because the racks were bucking under the weight, and started anew). The modernist wood-and-glass simplicity of the retail space occupies the ground floor. The renegade designers lugged their own crowbars and drills up the long set of stairs and demoed their second-storey studio themselves. The space has impossibly high ceilings, and bright south-facing windows that allow superhero colour vision for choosing fabrics, which they both acknowledge kickstarts every collection. Then they turn their backs on each other.
“It’s the only way we can work,” explains Cornish. “We start building a bridge, and playing with each other’s ideas. It’s really what’s in between that becomes the collection. It’s a ‘cut, then sew, then show,’ situation.”
Gunhouse elaborates, “If we did everything together, we’d have no time. Whatever I do she’s behind it, whatever she does I’m behind it.” Despite their disparate roles (Cornish does the books and sources all of the fabrics, while Gunhouse’s focus is on the production-related work), the two have developed a highly attenuated visual shorthand. “We’ll see someone walking down the street,” says Gunhouse, “and I just have to nudge Judy’s elbow and she’ll know that I like how the twill is on that pocket.”
“Because we’re so hands-on, there really is a signature to Comrags,” says Gunhouse. “Can you define it? Not really, but you can recognize it.” The two list the androgynous simplicity of Junya Watanabe, Dries Van Noten and Jeremy Laing as favourites. When asked about sexuality and dressing, Cornish lets out an Ooooh-don’t-get-me-started! howl. “What happens is the minute something starts to look pretty, we need to fuck it up and fight against the prettiness that we’ve imposed on it.”
Though both are cerebral, skilled designers, Gunhouse is quick to point out that they are “business people first.” How else could they have navigated the and-then-there-were-none landscape of indigenous Canadian design? Dealing with every single aspect themselves helps, though. “We’ve been insular for so long,” says Cornish, “it’s sort of like the person who goes to sleep and wakes up 30 years later and notices that everything has changed. Our world is just the same because we’ve always done it on our own.”
Cornish admits that the biggest revolution in fashion is in the communication of style. “In the old days, there were articles written about your clothes by someone who was well versed in art, photography and film. Now,” she says, as she mimics pressing a smartphone button, “It’s, ‘Awesome!’, ‘I could wear that!’, ‘Hot shoes!’”
The designers agree they are unmoved by trends. “We don’t love fashion. We like making stuff,” Cornish says. Which radiates out. Comrags has built their empire on perfect fit, enduring shapes, and tap- ping into that rush that we never tire of, the one that comes from the sense of something from the subconscious being revealed for the first time.