A new chestnut

Local designer puts function first in her latest collection

Megan Kroeker

Jill Sawatzky believes functional clothing is the most beautiful clothing one can make. The designer behind local fashion line Tony Chestnut eschews the notion of frivolity that is often associated with design.

“What I don’t like about fashion is the notion of being frivolous,” she says. “I want my clothing to primarily be functional and utilitarian, and secondly be beautiful.”

The Tony Chestnut idea is largely motivated by strong women who can balance personal, creative and professional lives. 

“I’m very inspired by women pounding the pavement every day, getting their shit done, being creative, being nurturing,” she says. “You love your partner whether it’s a man or a woman, you love your children and you give to the people around you. Then you also make sure that you’re empowering yourself while you’re doing that; that’s the most inspirational thing to me.”

Sawatzky started Tony Chestnut in 2005 as she was graduating from the Blanche Macdonald Centre in Vancouver, and has been releasing seasonal collections ever since. 

Sawatzky’s dislike of frivolous attire is inherited. She describes her background as “Mennonite from all angles” and takes inspiration from her grandmothers’ frugality when she creates.

“I’m very inspired by the practicality that comes with their clothing,” she says. “My grandmothers handmade their children’s clothing because they didn’t have any money and had to survive. They made clothing out of scraps of fabric and things that they knew would last like raw wool, leather, denim and canvas.”

The practical attitude is reflected in pieces like her trademark vests. For spring, the vests were quilted and came in blue and green. This season, the one-size-fits-all Felt Trucker Vest is gray with a bright orange interior, reminiscent of gear worn by construction workers. 

Another one of Sawatzky’s big inspirations: quirky girls.

“I love a woman with quirks: I went to an art opening and a really awesome artist, Natalie Baird, was wearing one of my dresses,” says Sawatzky, noting that she went up to Baird and told her that she looked beautiful, only to find out that the dress had been splattered with paint.

“It’s easy to move and work in, while at the same time drapes beautifully,” Baird says of the piece, her favourite from the TC line. “I wore it while painting a mural and then later to a fancy pop-up dinner - it transitioned perfectly.” 

Baird’s other favourite Tony Chestnut piece is a smock shirt she wears while painting and cooking, where she says the inevitable stains only add to the effect.

That’s exactly what Sawatzky wants.

“You mucked up the dress while you were painting in it and you still felt beautiful enough to wear it,” she says. “That’s kind of like my dream situation. I want a woman to be able to wear my clothing throughout the day and feel like it’s serving them. At the end of the day, I want women to feel like they’ve done everything in their clothing and feel beautiful.”

Published in Volume 69, Number 8 of The Uniter (October 22, 2014)

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