“So did he think, I want to hitch my wagon to a winner?” I ask Sarah Stevenson, of her fiancé’s timing. Just after she took the New Labels prize, with its dowry-expanding $25,000 purse, her MBA student boyfriend asked for her hand in marriage. “He’s had the ring for six months,” she demurs, laughing. “He was waiting because I was so stressed with the competition.”
Each of the six judges had a different bias; Susan Langdon, the grounded but glamorous mother hen of the TFI, chose us to form, collectively, an accurate reflection of the demands the real fashion world would make on the contestants. I, FLARE EIC, favoured looks that, shown in our pages, would inspire our style-savant readers; Arie Assaraf, owner of TNT boutiques, wanted work that could stand up to the major players on his racks (Acne, Brunello Cucinelli, Helmut Lang); the two Target team members, Elisha Ballantyne and John Morioka, asked whether the ideas would translate into mass appeal in the capsule line they had promised to produce; David Dixon, the established designer, was the empath who hounded on fit, fabric and construction; and Suzanne Rogers, the prize’s funder, is a philanthropist inspired by beautiful, wearable clothes. These very different personalities and tastes had to agree on one person.
As Stevenson’s quietly lovely pieces moved up each round, her professionalism grew on us. She incorporated our suggestions, readily eliminating a less-successful yellow and red fabric in favour of more black, from which red flowers spring like ghosts in an echo of Dutch Renaissance still lifes—her collection’s starting point.
Stevenson’s mother, who, before moving into finance, sold intricately smocked girls’ dresses, brought her brood of six up in North Toronto in creative plenitude: “I remember tons of art supplies, and her making us playdough on the stove, and cooking and baking. She was an avid gardener. Everything was just…at our fingertips.”
“When Sarah was seven,” Mary Stevenson says of her studious daughter, “she gave me very specific instructions about how to make her First Communion dress: a silky organza over a soft batiste lining with short, puffed, lace-trimmed sleeves and a cinched waist with a double-tiered skirt, trimmed with a scalloped lace we chose together. Instead of a full veil she chose to attach some tulle to the back of a little wreath of baby’s breath. It was a beautiful dress, unlike anything I would have made.” When a 12-year-old Stevenson showed up at school in the suspendered bloomers she’d sewn, kids made fun of her. But Stevenson “never bought into” the need to be “in.” She wanted to paint, draw and craft. As is often the way when you follow your own instincts, though, she’s uncannily on-trend with her flattering digital-print frocks; their by-hand warmth-meets-futurism speaks to our generation’s defining schism. Because the technique uses less water, it also fits her environmental ethics (at her day job at a mining company, she supports geologists who find less damaging ways of extracting rare earth minerals).
After earning her BA in fine arts and psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University, she got a diploma at George Brown College, then went to the Istituto Europeo di Design in Milan, where she could fully explore the medium that Peter Pilotto and Proenza Schouler have made a runway favourite. “It’s really exciting to take a piece of art that normally would be framed on a wall and put it on a body, out walking around.” We’re looking forward to seeing more Stevenson-clad bodies as she takes on Target and invests her winnings with the goal of increasing her retail presence. If you want a Sarah Stevenson original now, they’re sold through her website at sarahstevensondesign.com and at Canopy Blue in Toronto.