What It's Really Like to Be an Outerwear Designer

In our 9–5 series, we ask our favourite boss babes what a day in the office entails. This week, outerwear designer Ella Mae Waters gives us a glimpse into her daily grind

outerwear designerAge: 28

Education: Part-time courses in fashion at Central Saint Martins

Length of time as an outerwear designer: Two years

You describe your jackets as an alternative to the winter jacket. That’s an interesting idea for a Canadian designer—what exactly do you mean by it?
It means I don’t want to get into Canada Goose territory. Our jackets are not as insulated, but they do last me all winter because I’m not out playing in the snow. I’m walking to my car, to work, going to the movies or the mall, and I don’t want something that warm to wear while doing this.

Did you always know you’d be making jackets and coats?
Yes. I’ve been a jacket hoarder for so long, that I figured, if I’m going to be a hoarder, I should hoard my own stuff.

Despite working in L.A. and studying in England, you’ve set up in Toronto.
I feel like I learned way more about fashion living in a place like the UK than studying there. The people walking around, the way they carried themselves and even what they put on just to go to the grocery store or Starbucks… They had this confidence and they would wear so much colour; I remember getting back home and missing it, so I wanted to bring some of it here. We manufacture in Toronto factories too. I love this city, and it’s so cool that our work is made here.

What did you think was missing in the Toronto coat-scene, specifically?
I’m not trying to talk smack, but I think we lack some imagination and creativity when it comes to outerwear. I know it’s cold and dark in Canada, but I feel like that’s the time to brighten up and have a nice pink or green jacket. I thought we could pick up on the fun a little bit more. We have our Canada Goose jackets and our Moose Knuckles and that stuff is so warm and fabulous. But we were lacking a nice wool knit in good quality with chunky fabrics in good colours—or at least I couldn’t find them.

outerwear designer

How did you break into the fashion industry?
School and I never got along; I could do a project but I was awful at tests and caved under pressure. I took fashion merchandising at Fanshawe College in London, Ont.; I liked it, but I felt like it was restrictive and I didn’t really know how to make what I wanted to happen, happen. I met this girl in the shoe department at Barneys when I was in L.A. with my parents. She had a stylist sticker on, and I had decided that that was what I wanted to be. My mom asked her what she did, and they got to talking; the stylist gave me her number, and when I got back, I called her after my first year in Fanshawe; I had decided, no more school. I asked, is there any chance you need help right now? She said she could use an intern. So, two weeks later, I was living in L.A.

What did you learn from this experience?
Work ethic! As a stylist, you’re the first person on set and the last to leave. It’s still one of my most favourite life experiences, but at the time, there was not a day that went by where I didn’t bawl my eyes out or call my mum and say, ‘What am I doing?’ I had signed up for four to five months in L.A. and I loved everything about it—except that I found that the people were the reason I just couldn’t stay. I’ve never been a shark, and I’m not good at stepping on anyone else to get to a better place, and I think I got that vibe there. I knew it wasn’t for me, at least at 19.

What happened next?
I came home and I was so sad to realize that that life wasn’t for me, because for so long, that was the dream. I started taking fashion courses at George Brown and trying to figure out what to do. I ended up in Florida, visiting my parents, and I met this woman who was wearing some beautiful handmade beaded jewellery. She offered to teach me how to make it. So I spent years in the bead world, going back and forth to Miami and Tucson, AZ, to get these rocks, and I had my own jewellery business from my bedroom. I had my own e-comm site and was sold in stores across Canada—it was great, but when I was 25, I decided to move to London and take courses at Central Saint Martins.

outerwear designer

What was it like to study in a such an influential school?
It was the people in England that influenced me more than the school. I used to hide in the library and try to be late for class. One day when I was hiding, I was looking through these old books on denim and leather, and there was a Johnny Cash quote, “This morning, with her, having coffee,” which was how he described a day in paradise. I went to the photocopier, photocopied the quote, put it in my binder. I came up with my idea of putting quotes in the lining of my jackets. That’s what I took away from that class—nothing to do with drawing, but I learned how I was going to make an emotional connection with my customer.

What was the next step?
Through LinkedIn, I met this woman in New York who makes patterns. I had these eight jackets in my mind that I wanted to make and I had already bought fabric for them. I shipped it all to her, and she introduced me to this manufacturing company in New York, and I made these eight jackets. It was stressful going back and forth and not knowing anything about combining different textiles, but learning by doing was the best way. I also realized that I still have a little more to learn, so I went back to England for six months for more courses at Central Saint Martins. Then I got back and decided, “Okay, there’s no more learning. You just have to do it.”

Who is the Ellie Mae customer?
She is not overly trendy. She’s always on the lookout for something new that will set her apart, and she’s not afraid of colour.

When it comes to designing, what’s your process?
A thought happens in my brain. Usually I pull as many pictures as I can, [think about] something that I bought that I liked, and do lots of research on websites, lookbooks and anything else I can find. At this point, I have an idea of the colours we’re working with, but we don’t really know textiles till we get to a fabric show and pick a bunch of material. From there the sketches start coming. It’s kind of a messy process, and I think each jacket has a different one. Then we make the pattern, make the muslin, and then we put it in the real fabric, and it either looks exactly how I want it to look or it’s just, ‘What was I thinking?!’

outerwear designer

How long does it take for a jacket to jump from your brain to the sales rack?
It depends on how the flow is going. This year, we’ll have a good chunk of our fall ’17 collection done by mid-December. I’ve been doing fall since May, because we go to the fabric show in June. For spring ’18, I’m going to go see the fabric in January.

I imagine it’s a learn-as-you-go process, similar to any startup. Is that correct?
I feel like a million people can tell you, “Don’t do that or that, and that fabric is bad.” I remember one of the fabrics that I had for our first season, and this guy we were working with then said, “It’s just way too feminine to put with leather.” I didn’t listen to him; the end result was the lace and leather floral “Yazmin” jacket that Sophie Grégoire Trudeau wore in Washington, DC last March. Those are the moments that make you trust your intuition. It’s okay if you do it and it goes poorly; it’s okay if you do it and it goes well.

Each season, the lining of your coats feature different quotes. Where do they come from?
There are usually from soundtracks I listen to as the whole design process is happening and things that I’ve read over that chunk of time. I write them all down, and at the end I match them to the garment. I think people like that emotional connection that’s they can have with the garment.

What exactly is that connection?
Although they are “just” jackets, they are also the blood, sweat and tears of a work family. The process is so personal, from the travel and the hundreds of conversations that go into the one jacket that you’re wondering whether you should buy. I think we forget sometimes that there are people behind everything. Everyone has a story, and this collection has one too.

What’s the number-one think you have learned as a businesswoman?
If you’re creating something people want, it doesn’t matter where you are based. You have to travel to get your stuff out there, but that’s inevitable. Nothing is going to come to you.

What’s in the cards for the future?
We did toques this fall, and I’d love to get into sunglasses or even frames for prescription eyewear. But I’d like to make our jackets as strong as we can first,  then expand into other things.

I think many people consider outerwear in terms of function, not personal expression. What’s your take on this?
I don’t believe that! Outerwear is your shell, and for us Canadians, it’s for so many months. It should definitely be how you feel.

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