Chris Tyrell and Jim Searle, the couple behind successful Toronto fashion house Hoax Couture, discuss their meteoric rise in the 1980s and their current desire to help people half a world away
When did you two first meet each other?
Jim Searle: We met many years ago.
Chris Tyrell: Twenty-eight? What does January ’84 make?
CT: Twenty-nine years. We were only five though [laughs].
When did you start working together?
JS: It started pretty soon. We actually lived in different cities when we met. He was living in Ottawa, I was living in Toronto.
CT: I moved here, we moved in together and it started just about then. I used to go around and find old chintz curtains at the Salvation Army. I would wash them and redye them and make them into the “Two and a Half Hour Dress” — that’s how long it would take to make the whole thing. We would sell them to our girlfriends and we would notice, Christ, we couldn’t make them fast enough. They were being sold out all the time. Then we did a little thing with T-shirts, where we bought a dozen T-shirts and painted on them. We took them down to Queen and Soho with a little rack on Saturday and we sold them all.
CT: We saw an ad in… what was it called?
JS: It was an English magazine from Paris.
CT: I used to read it all the time because I had this thing about Paris. I saw, in the back of this magazine, a real tiny ad that said they were having this big fashion design exposition in Toronto and there was a call for entries. I said, “Why don’t we design some clothes for this?” So we did. There were five of us involved and we made all the clothing out of…
JS: Upholstery fabric, like your grandmother’s upholstery.
But neither of you have any schooling in fashion design.
CT: Jim went to architecture school with a bunch of kids who are now world-famous architects and product designers. I went to law school, so not very creative. But my mom was a seamstress so I sort of knew how to make a pair of pants without zippers.
Back to the collection.
CT: We did this collection called Babel and it was wildly successful.
JS: We came out of nowhere.
CT: Most designers have a history. You know them from this school or they used to work with this guy. The fashion community was blown away.
JS: Holt Renfrew bought the whole thing and put a pop-up store on the ground floor of their Bloor Street store.
CT: In 1985, before pop-up stores were heard of.
JS: And then we were in business.
Do you think something like that would be possible today?
JS: No. Now everybody wants to be their own business so there are thousands of independent designers. It’s hard to get noticed.
CT: Especially when you’re somewhere like Toronto. People always think, “How come designers in Paris and London and all those places are so popular?” It’s because all the media from around the world goes there twice a year running around going, “What’s new? Do you know any new designers? What’s going on?” If that happened in Canada, the designers would be world-renowned but we don’t have that.
So after the success of Babel, you started up Hoax Couture.
CT: First we were wholesaling worldwide. Tokyo, London, Belgium, Amsterdam. We did shows in Paris, LA, New York and Las Vegas twice a year, which we came to hate. Although it sounds glamorous, it wasn’t.
JS: We opened our own store in Yorkville because we wanted to hand someone a dress and they give us the money. That was great except we found that people would come in, see something and say, “That’s great. I’d love it in pink.”
CT: We used to analyze our sales and after a while we realized that 70 percent of what we did at that store was custom work. And we thought you don’t need a $10,000 a month rented store to be dealing with custom orders.
So you set up shop in your Queen West apartment five years ago.
JS: It’s worked out really well.
CT: When you have a store, its 24/7 even when you’re not there. We were eating out every single meal. Now we’ve got our lives back. We learned to cook. Though it’s tricky having a studio at home.
JS: Having employees running through your house…
CT: Can drive you crazy.
Your fashion event in March, Dare to Wear Love, is entering its fifth year, raising funds for AIDS relief in Africa through the Stephen Lewis Foundation. Why did you choose this cause?
CT: I was really taken by the fact that the Foundation focuses on helping grandmothers and orphans. Before going into the Stephen Lewis Foundation, I really wasn’t conscious of the fact that I was an orphan. I know that sounds weird, but it’s because of how I was brought up by my grandmother and my mother’s sisters. Then I realized, “Oh my God, I’ve got to do something for this foundation to honour my grandmother and all the women who raised me.” Dare to Wear Love has raised $150,000 over the last three years. It’s a two-fold thing: supporting Canadian fashion designers, showing what they can do through an event like this, and raising money for the Foundation.
Tell me about your trip to Africa and seeing the devastation of HIV/ AIDS first hand.
CT: For me, the most heartbreaking thing was when we went to the hospices. I’d never been to an AIDS hospice before. You’d basically see people who were dying.
JS: We were representing the Stephen Lewis Foundation and they basically credit their lives to him because he secured the medicine that keeps them alive.
CT: He was the first big international figure that went there and said, “Holy Christ, what is going on here? Tons of people are dying.” In some communities they said they went to funerals three times a week. There’s a generation that just doesn’t exist in a lot of these countries. All the people have died.
And this year, you’re taking it one step further by challenging people to wear Canadian for the month of February.
JS: A lot of people can’t name more than two or three Canadian designers. Through Twitter and Facebook and people Instagraming photos of what they’re wearing that day, it’s going to start a lot of noise about what is Canadian. We’re trying to get regular Canadians, even if they can’t come to the party, to do this and raise money for the Foundation. For every $250 you raise, you get one entry into a draw to walk the runway in our show in Fashion Week in a custom-designed outfit that you get to keep.
You do a lot of theatre work, including From the House of Mirth playing this month (see story). What else are you working on?
CT: We’re working with NEXXICE, a Canadian synchronized figure skating team. I’m now totally into it. I didn’t know it existed when they first came to see us even though they’ve been the world champions like seven times.
How would you describe your style when it comes to decorating?
CT: Oh God! [laughs]
JS: It’s clean, modern and eclectic.
CT: There’s a lot of hand-me-down stuff. I don’t think there are four things here that we bought.
JS: My dad had a really good collection of mid-century modern stuff like this Charles Eames desk.
CT: Almost everything comes from friends and family.
Your rooftop garden must be incredible in the summer.
CT: The greatest thing about this apartment for me is the garden. When we first saw the apartment, I saw the deck and said even if it’s one little room, I’m going to rent it anyway just to have this garden space and a Queen Street location.
What about your fantastic art collection?
CT: Everything except one wall is done by Jim.
JS: I do it when I can but that’s not very often because I’m too busy.
And the painting that’s oddly reminiscent of the two of you?
CT: That’s from the Boys and Girls Club in Halifax. A friend of ours called us and said. “I saw this piece of art and it’s not for sale but I think you guys should buy it.” We have a lot of art so we said no. So he just bought it anyway and sent it to us.
JS: With a bill saying we owe him so-many-hundred dollars.
CT: Which we never paid.
HOAX COUTURE For more on Hoax, Dare To Wear Love and the wear Canadian campaign, go to hoaxcouture.com.
PRINT VERSION See the digital version of the original story with plenty of lovely photographs here.