March Calendar Feature of the Month: Origami Customs by Stephanie Deline

Victoria who? La Vie En what? Vancouver Island’s own Rachel Hill is making way for a new wave of body-positive intimates and swimwear with Origami Customs - her handmade, custom-fitted line of lingerie and swimsuits that embraces all body types. With a passion for local and a penchant for sustainable practices and materials, this young entrepreneur is a change-maker in Canadian business. Hill isn’t afraid to get wild and sexy with her designs, and encourages her customers to get in touch with their flirty (and sometimes darker) side with pieces that are unique and unapologetic.

Origami Customs believes in being an eco-friendly and people-friendly business - conforming neither to the one-off mass-produced standards displayed at malls everywhere, nor the notion that you’ve got to be a certain size to get your sexy on. Jennifer Davies picks the brain of the founder and seamstress behind Victoria’s hottest lingerie and swimwear line. -Stephanie Deline

Bee Green: Have you lived on Vancouver Island all your life?

Rachel Hill: I grew up in Victoria, but moved away after high school to live in Honduras and Costa Rica. I was away for seven years and only returned in 2014 to set up my business here and be closer to my family. I missed the Island so much!

B.G: How did Origami Customs come to be?

R.H: I've been designing all my life- reworking and creating outfits all through high school- But I started designing swimwear when I lived in Honduras. The Island of Utila was a haven for scuba divers, and I found that people were looking for quality and custom made swimsuits that would last while they were in the ocean every day. I owned a beachwear store while I lived there, so I started selling my work in this shop and opened my online store at the same time. I honed my skills at home until I achieved great swimwear construction, and then I started to see my online shop really flourish. I saw that there weren't any stores online offering affordable customized swimwear and lingerie. The "plus- sized" stores were either more expensive or weren't the fun, interesting designs that I wanted to see on people. The more I heard feedback from my customers that this was a real need, the more determined I became to honor the principle of 'all bodies' customized clothing.

B.G: How long have you owned your business?

R.H: I opened my web-shop in 2008, but I was working other jobs in PR and marketing simultaneously up until 2012. That year I "quit my day job" to work on Origami full time. I took a few months to create my branding materials and promo photography, and then jumped right into my busiest season yet. That was the year that I also used my knowledge of intimates construction to start a lingerie and active-wear line.

BG: What was the inspiration for opening your businesses?

RH: I wanted people to be able to find quality, handmade clothing that they knew would last. I knew that swimsuits and lingerie were within the realm of garments that brought up feelings of shame and self- consciousness. I don't know anyone who can buy "off the rack' for such personal outfits, as almost everyone has a hard time finding a size that fits them well. We all need personalization, and we want to shop in a place that feels safe and welcoming. I wanted to offer a joyful shopping experience that I didn't see already in retail. Too often I hear that people aren't comfortable buying intimate swimwear or lingerie, and I wanted to offer an alternative where I could design pieces together with the customer, based on how they wanted to feel when wearing them.

BG: What was your ultimate goal when you decided to open your businesses and has that goal changed?

RH: The core message of my brand is the same as when I started the company- that people should have a safe and sustainable way of ordering intimate items, regardless of what their body looks like. I wanted a personal connection between the maker and the customer so that I could tailor each piece to the specific needs of the person. I was sick of seeing size caps or higher prices for larger sizes. However, my goals have evolved over the years- now I focus a lot on Queer, Gender-queer and Trans* bodies, and it's for the same reason. I now have a specific line for non gender conforming bodies which helps support people to express their gender with comfort and esteem. I want to make space those people who feel they can't find it in the fashion world for diverse gender expressions. They can have these intimate swim and underwear pieces made for them in a way that honors them and helps them to expresses their unique identities. I'm so proud to be able to provide this service to my community and it will continue to be one of my main focuses in 2015.

B.G: Do you spend more time working in your businesses than you did when you were employed by someone else?

R.H: I do- one of the biggest challenges when starting a business is knowing how to value your own time, skill and hard work. I started by paying myself a wage that was barely the minimum in BC. Once I started learning and connecting to other people who were hand making goods, and they started to convince me that by placing appropriate prices on our goods we elevate the legitimacy of handcrafting in society. I started to see my work as a "real job", worthy of a wage that reflected the countless hours I was putting into research, development, honing my skills, prototyping, photos, media, marketing, website design and all the other numerous tasks involved. Now I find that even though I've raised my prices to reflect the quality of my goods, I'm still well below the industry standard. One of my main principles of this business is that it remains affordable. However I am getting better at taking time off an offering myself a break from time to time!

B.G: How important is it to recognize loyal customers?

R.H: It's become huge for me. I've offered discounts for every single returning customer on my website this year. I love getting to know the personalities of the people I am making pieces for- and this often leads to barter, trades, discounts and lots of other ways of exchanging goods that only comes once there is a relationship established. One of the saddest parts of selling online is that you don't get to see or interact with your customers. In this way, I love to chat with my customers online to learn about when while I'm designing for them, and stay in contact after to see how they are using their new clothing and how it is lasting.

B.G: What percentage of your customers come from your local community?

R.H: Since I just moved back to Victoria, my studio and customer base here are just beginning to grow. I'm having more and more people find me locally every day but the majority of my sales still come from my web-store. I frequently have orders from around the world. One of the reasons I have a studio that's open to the public is because it means a lot to me to connect in person with my customers. I invite anyone local to come have tea with me and we can talk about any design they are imagining!

B.G: What community events or charities to you support or sponsor?

R.H: I'm just starting to get involved with more events since I've moved back to Victoria. I volunteer with the SPCA to do fostering for rescue pets. I worked with the local chapter of the global NGO Children's International Summer Villages for years, running peace education programs and facilitating summer exchange and camp programs around the world. Through their local partnering projects, I've worked with many local organizations like Our Place, the Kool Aid Society, the UVIC pride society, and the Intercultural Association.

B.G: Do you have a motto or mantra that keeps you going on a day-to-day basis?

R.H: "Be yourself, have faith, keep smiling". It's been my motto since I was 11. My definitions of the words keep changing as I mature, but it resonates with me as much now as it did then.

B.G: How did you come up with your businesses name?

R.H: When I started Origami, I was working with more recycled materials than I was making swimwear or lingerie. Because of this, I saw my art as origami- taking an old, flat medium and reworking it into a beautiful piece of art. Even though the focus of my line has changed, I love the principle of making each piece individual and the time and care that goes into each one.

B.G: Do you use recycled materials?

R.H: Recycled materials aren't as common in swimwear or lingerie construction- instead I focus on dead-stock and sustainably grown materials such as bamboo viscose. Dead-stock is, in a way, a type of recycling. When big brands such as Lululemon have leftover fabric from a previous season that they can't use, I buy it from them to eliminate waste. Often this dead-stock gets thrown out if it's not bought. This also reduces the distance that these huge bolts have to travel, as I can buy them from where they already are. I'm always conscious of my carbon footprint, but I am also not sacrificing the quality of my garments by buying materials that aren't up to my standard of quality. If a garment lasts longer, people will need to buy less.

B.G: How is your business sustainable?

R.H: Besides using dead-stock materials, the majority of my lingerie line is made with super sustainable bamboo viscose. Bamboo takes hardly any water to grow, it has natural patricidal properties, has super-fast regeneration; not to mention, it's incredibly soft. As I mentioned, I use materials of the highest quality to ensure that each piece will last for a long time. In this way, the customer will need to buy fewer items and throw away less waste. The studio where I work is extremely efficient- I only throw out one small bag of garbage every two weeks! Many of my materials are bought from the local and family-run Gala Fabrics rather than large chains. As for packaging, all my shipments are packaged in recycled /biodegradable bags from EcoEnclose. I also buy materials and other items for myself from other Etsy sellers and local crafts-people to support other hand makers. In every aspect of my production, from buying the materials to how I cut my patterns to the packaging I use, I think about the environmental impact and limit waste in every possible way.

B.G: What makes your business unique?

R.H: Each person who works with me will tell you that my attention to the specific needs of the customer is paramount. I approach making each garment as I would making a wedding outfit- you should feel like your best self every time you put it on. And what type of clothing is more important to love than the layer closest to your skin? I pledge myself to creating an exciting and comfortable shopping experience no matter what type of body you have.

BG: How do consumers find you?

R.H: They can read more about my company and order with their specific measurements on origamicustoms.com - but I take individual appointments in my studio for people who live nearby. We sit and talk about the individual needs of the garment, what their expectations of it are and how it will be used. We pick the materials together and have a free, comfortable fitting. You can book appointments by calling 250 686 0243 or emailing origamicustoms@gmail.com

Photo Attribution: 
Stephanie Deline

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