I Want Your Job: Irene Stickney, Owner of The Make Den
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I Want Your Job: Irene Stickney, Owner of The Make Den

The owner of a fashion-focused educational centre talks about how she found her calling.

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Irene Stickney started teaching people how to alter their own clothes in a makeshift classroom in the cinderblock basement at 69 Vintage, on Queen Street West. She had already graduated from Ryerson University’s fashion design program, and she’d worked as a production assistant at Jones New York, but it was the combination of clothes and education that turned out to be her calling. In 2010, she launched The Make Den, a fashion-focused educational centre near Bloor Street and Lansdowne Avenue.

The Make Den’s spirited DIY culture is impressive. Gorgeous fabrics are stacked next to a handmade minidress that would look chic in a King Street club. In the back, a quilting class shares workspace with the organization’s 2013 designer in residence, Jorge Rejas, who is piecing together a leather bag. The Make Den offers a huge variety of classes, from one-day workshops on bridal hair accessories to a week-long, teens-only class designed to build up a college-ready fashion portfolio. It also offers a community of people who are committed to making beautiful, wearable art.

Stickney spoke to us about how she got into this line of work, and about the virtue of making and repairing one’s own clothes. Our interview is below.

Torontoist: How did you find your passion for all things fiber-arts? Was this a childhood thing? Did you come into it later?

Irene Stickney: Can I tell you two stories.

So, the first story is that, when I was in high school, I was a bit of a black sheep, and I wore a lot of really intense outfits to school. There were a lot of, like, ripped tutus and combat boots. And so the defining moment of high school for me was when I couldn’t find a fun outfit, and I didn’t want to wear something that I’d worn before, so I wore a garbage bag to school: I ripped armholes and a hole for the neck and I stapled darts down the front of it. The comments about me in my high school yearbook were, like, “Most likely to start a fashion trend.”

The second story is that I dropped out of university when I was 19 [her stint at Ryerson came later] because I didn’t want to do science, and because I knew I wanted to be in something creative. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but when I started sewing, I was like, “This is what I want.” I like teaching because I feel like fashion design really got my life on track, and I feel like, if I can help other people find their passion, that’s very satisfying.

What made you decide to open The Make Den?

It was an opportunity to partner with a really great charity. [That would be PACT, an organization that works with at-risk youth.] I don’t think I would have started a business otherwise. I was really excited to work with a charity that wanted to do good things for kids, and had a great funding model. They were already doing things like gardens and films, so I really trusted them—and they really wanted to do something that was for girls. So the fashion program was an opportunity for me to work with kids, and for fashion to be more than just fads and trends. It really has done great things for the kids that I have in my classes, and I really believe in that model. They love coming to the studio, and they love each other.

There’s a diverse schedule at The Make Den: you’ve got screen printing, garment making, and quilting, and you also offer 3D printer nights. How do you find the balance between old technologies and new technologies?

It all works together, and they’re all kind of related. Like, some people will do a screen-printing class and then make a pillow out of their screenprinted fabric. For the 3D printing, we’re thinking about all kinds of stuff: we can do clips and buckles and buttons. We’ve got all kinds of plans for garment-related 3D-printed options. It depends on what people’s goals are. There are kids who want to go into design as a career, so they want to take everything and it’s professional. They’re all creative and empowering in their own way.

Do you think of yourself as being part of a larger maker culture or a DIY movement?

Definitely. I think people are tired of fast fashion. The factory collapse in Bangladesh was an eye-opener for a lot of people. It was upsetting to see the footage, and it makes you question, “Why don’t I ask where my clothes are coming from? Why do they allow the factories to use sub-contractors? Why do they pay their employees so little? Why don’t we make things in North America anymore?” I think there are a lot of people who really care and don’t want to be part of that. This is, maybe in a small way, an antidote or a way of stepping back from the fast fashion. I had a mendings and alterations class of six women, all of whom were PhD scientists, who all said, “I don’t want to throw out my clothes, I want to fix them.” They were all environmentalists, and I thought, this is exactly who I want to be helping.

Any success stories coming out of The Make Den you’d like to share?

I have one kid who’s been a student for three years, and he went from not being able to sew to sewing prom dresses for the girls at his school. And then he started styling, and I recently introduced him to a photographer friend of mine, and he styled her music video. Then I introduced him to a student who’s doing a movie, and now I have several PACT students taking portfolio camp, where they can work on the costumes for this movie, and the movie producers get to collaborate with a really creative team of volunteers. The students get an amazing experience working on the movie, and the producers are getting amazing work.

Photo by Kaitlyn Kochany/Torontoist.