Behind the Business: Fashion Designer Nicole Bridger
Posted by: Jesse Wallace September 2, 2014
From a young age, Nicole Bridger made her own clothes. She had a knack for sewing, and growing up in the free-spirited Vancouver neighbourhood of Kitsilano, she was predisposed to becoming a creator, rather than a consumer. But in a romantic twist, it was her first love that set in a motion the series of collaborations that would land Nicole at the head of her eponymous design label.
We interviewed the namesake and founder of Nicole Bridger Designs – a Vancouver based women’s fashion label dedicated to sustainability – and spoke about the amazing people she met early on in her career and the steps she takes to drive her company forward while maintaining respect for the earth and her people.
As early as Grade 7, Nicole Bridger was into sewing. She would make her own clothes and it seemed like a perfectly straightforward thing for any Grade 7 kid to do. Even still, it didn’t occur to Nicole that sewing dresses could become a career. But then along came a boy.
“My very first love was named Adrian, and his dad is John Fluevog. John was like a second father to me for 4 years – I’m still very close to all of them.”
Being around them turned the lightbulb on for me: it’s possible to do what you love and make a career out of it.
John Fluevog, of course, is arguably Canada’s most famous shoe designer, certainly one of the most successful and definitely the most unique. It would be impossible not to be inspired.
“Yeah, so from age 16 on, I was like, ‘Okay, this is what I want to do. So how do I do that? Where do I learn that and who do I learn that from?‘ So then I discovered there were schools that taught fashion design.”
At the time, Toronto’s Ryerson University was the place to be for design, so Nicole headed East. It was while in her early days as a fashion student that Nicole got the opportunity to work with another icon in the industry.
“I was accepted to go into an exchange program to London, England and I really wanted to go because I adored Vivienne Westwood and I really respected her and wanted a chance to intern there.”
Nicole landed the internship and began a period of intense education – on a variety of levels.
I learned the art of draping fabric, which was incredible. And you can see that now in my own work although much more toned down. I wondered, though, personally, if I’d have to sell my soul to work in the industry – because I’m not a fashionista at all, I’m very down to earth. But I saw, through Vivienne, that it was possible to be whoever you are and still be in this industry.”
It was while working with Ms. Westwood that Nicole developed her own ideas on what kind of fashion company she wanted to create.
“I love making clothes, but ever since I was a kid I’ve had the feeling that I wanted to be doing something with my limited time on the earth that was going to create positive change. Vivienne uses her clothes as a vehicle for the messages that she wants to get out there, which I thought was cool. So I was piecing it together – I knew that I wanted my own company and that I wanted retail stores – but I also saw her going through her second bankruptcy, so I realized that it’s awesome to be a creative genius – which she is – but if I don’t know business, I’m going to go bankrupt and not help anybody.”
Upon her return to Canada and the completion of her formal education, Nicole set about leaning the business end of things. Cue her third amazing collaboration.
“I knew I wanted to live in Vancouver and I’d worked some summers for Chip Wilson at Lululemon back when it was very small, so I went to him for advice. He’s a true entrepreneur, he’s always got new ideas, seeing markets before they happen. So as we talked he asked me to help him start a new label. I told him my goal was to start my own company, so I’ll stay for a year, but then I wanted to do my own thing.”
Nicole ended up working with Chip for two years and together they launched Oqoqo, the Lululemon eco-wear line, which was a perfect fit.
“It’s just been ingrained in me to be considerate of the earth and the people on it.”
Almost 10 years later, the ideas that Chip and Nicole baked into Oqoqo – organic, sustainable, natural fibers – are no longer radical or ground-breaking, but de rigueur. And they’re ideas that, of course, Nicole considers central to the Nicole Bridger Designs ethos. Indeed, in 2010, just before she opened the retail location, Nicole was awarded Canada’s Eco Designer of the Year.
“For two years before we opened the store I was wholesaling to other stores and one of the hardest things about that was sourcing sustainable fabrics. And not only sustainable but aesthetically pleasing and available in the quantity I needed. The fabrics come from all over the world – Turkey, India, China, Italy, Portugal – and it’s getting easier, but it’s still tricky.”
Nicole Bridger Designs remains steadfastly devoted to principles of sustainability, and especially in light of the recent tragedies in Bangladesh’s garment manufacturing industry, they rely on international organizations for certification.
“10 or 15 years ago, things were really questionable in the mills of China and now you can really see the progression. We’re hopeful that places like Cambodia and Bangladesh are next to evolve.”
But while many companies are bringing manufacturing back from overseas, Nicole doesn’t believe that local manufacturing is the one and only solution.
I believe that our borders are imaginary and that we’re one planet.
“I think it’s our responsibility to help other countries with our stronger economy, which is why I like using our Fair Trade factory in Nepal because I know that it’s done in a way that I can feel good about and it’s promoting a better life for those people.”
In the rush of emotion following the collapse of the factory in Savar, Bangladesh, many thought the right course of action was to boycott companies that used the cheap labour. Nicole believes that’s the wrong approach.
“It’s almost unfathomable how little those people have. But instead of pulling away, and leaving them with nothing, we should be doing it better. We need to invest more, because they’re very skilled people. Skilled sewers are hard to come by.”
It’s why Nicole enjoys owning the factory where the majority of her clothing is made.
“Our factory is mostly Cantonese speaking, having come here from the factories in Hong Kong, and they come here hoping to continue working in the industry they’ve been trained in. For me, owning the factory is great because I know exactly how many hours everyone’s worked, how much they’re getting paid and how they’re being treated. I can control that, and as the company grows, we can just give them more and more. Benefits, profit-sharing. All those goals are achievable.”
Nicole spends as much time as she can in the retail store, connecting with clients, maintaining her awareness of what’s important to them, instilling in herself what she believes they want, so that she can continue to realize these needs in her designs.
But even though the store is just down the block from the original Lululemon and Oqoqo locations, Nicole Bridger Designs is not another yoga pants company.
“I was born and raised here, so the design and function, the aesthetic of the clothes, is very much West Coast. For me, it’s clean, it’s high-end, but it’s not pretentious. It’s comfortable, sure, but elegant. But the inspiration comes from whatever life lesson I’m learning at the time. I’ll have a certain mood which will dictate the colour palette, which will also dictate certain shapes and structures.”
“Clothing is like art. When you look at it, it draws a certain emotion and not just for the observer but also for the wearer. For me, what’s really important is that someone feels truly like them self when they’re wearing clothes, whatever that looks like. When you feel connected to yourself, you have more to offer. It’s much more significant than sporting an expensive label.”
Nicole Bridger clothing is available in stores across Canada and in the US. The flagship location is at 2151 West 4th Ave. in Vancouver, BC. Her collections are also available online at nicolebridger.com