Ryerson grad flies back to Toronto with Birds of North America

Hayley Gibson’s love for vintage clothing began in Victoria where she grew up finding cheap threads, and with access to the decades of fashion. Rummaging through dead stocks and dusty racks taught her to make trends not follow them. Today, the 36-year-old has her own vintage-inspired brand, Birds of North America, a well-fitted womenswear line with quirky prints and modern structures that would turn any fashionista starry eyed.

“I think people rely on designers to show them the way to dress. I feel like there’s a trust there that I won’t lead them astray,” says Gibson. “So I really try to do stuff that I feel good in, that’s attractive and dignified, but awesome.”

The Canadian-made label started in 2007 where it was based in Montreal, until Gibson decided to move it to Toronto about seven months ago. This is her first time back to Toronto since 2002, when she graduated from Ryerson’s fashion design program.

Stacks of boxes full of the spring collection crowd the studio as they’re ready to be shipped to the 27 boutiques across Canada and the United States. The studio space is a compact and concise room of clothing racks; photoshoot props like a moon, cactus, and lighthouse; several bolts of fabric; and a sewing machine on the edge of a large workspace.

Gibson’s idiosyncratic and unconventional methods create an eloquent collection of classic dresses, tops, and skirts. But, designing every collection is based on what prints are available and whatever sparks Gibson’s eye as she browses through vintage clothing online.

“It’s sort of strange, I don’t keep a sketchbook going all year. Mostly, the design happens in the process of creating the patterns and samples,” says Gibson. “I don’t nail it down in the beginning. It’s really quite organic.”

Gibson’s inspiration is truly from what she wants to wear and comes naturally. She finishes every sample by hand, where attention to detail is key in a chaotic industry like apparel.

“I’m just shocked at what she can dig down and pull out from her soul and this line is an expression of that. When we talk about the fashion world, for her, it’s coming from a really deep place,” says Neil MacCormick, her partner who also shares the studio.

So many things are on her mind: online orders, designing the next fall collection, selling the spring collection now, shipping boxes to stores, finalizing fall samples, photoshoot ideas for the fall collection, curating what pieces to bring for their second One of a Kind spring show, dealing with their Montreal manufacturer, and the list goes on. “She’s really calm in face of how much she’s doing, it blows my mind and it’s amazing to see,” says Amy Bewcyk, a studio assistant and recent Ryerson fashion design graduate.

Whilst juggling one item at a time, Birds of North America strives for good quality clothing, because it’s what Gibson lives for. “The thing I care about most is the clothing itself. We’re not in this for the glory or anything,” says Gibson, hugging her mug of black coffee.

One thing she took away from her time at Ryerson is finding her inner strength to design clothes for herself, not the industry. Her fourth-year collection was complete with costumes where she let go of her plan to go into fashion and instead, go into costume design. As a result, in summer 2002, Holt Renfrew put the costume collection in their front window displaying Gibson’s hard work.

“I felt like that was one of the first times I had the courage to say, ‘F—- it, I’m just going to do what’s in my heart and what I really wanna do,’ and that was an incredible, unexpected outcome,” says Gibson. “Regardless of what everyone else is doing [or] what the industry tells you what you should do, it’s really been about finding my independent mind and spirit.”

Someone who has seen a constant wave of support for Gibson is MacCormick, a photo realist painter who helps her with photoshoots, making props and collaborating on future ideas. “We talk about the line 24-7, we’re together all the time. It’s basically non-stop Birds of North America,” says MacCormick.

Early in their relationship, MacCormick noticed Gibson’s incredible skill and nudged her to create her own brand. Before Birds of North America was born, Gibson’s first business was custom clothing where she did alterations back home in Victoria. “It was really burning me out. I wasn’t enjoying the work anymore, and it was the furthest thing from creative possible doing work people wanted me to do,” says Gibson.

Independent, local designers are what illuminated Gibson’s path to Birds of North America and reignited her dream to have a career as a designer. She never thought she could breakout on her own as a fashion brand because of preconceived notions of making it through high channels of fashion weeks and big launches.

“I didn’t even know you could slide up from the bottom,” says Gibson, “Once I realized I could do that, I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do, [make] clothing.”

In 2007, Gibson and MacCormick moved to Montreal together to embark on a new endeavour, Birds of North America. However, connecting brand awareness across Canada was difficult to from Montreal. Toronto is where Canadian media is at the centre says MacCormick, which is one of the reasons why Gibson decided to relocate the business. The gruelling and overwhelming experience has evolved to become Gibson’s proudest moment.

“Relocating a business is astonishingly difficult, especially from a province that has a different language. We’re almost through it but it’s a life changing thing,” says Gibson.

Despite the fact she’s in the same city as her alma mater, she didn’t think she would come back to Toronto. “I’m so happy to be here. I thought [Ryerson] was when I was done with Toronto. Everything winds up for me here and I see a future,” says Gibson as her turquoise hair glows. Steadily approaching is Birds of North America’s 10th anniversary which is miracle says Gibson. Her goals for the next few years are to launch a retail store in Toronto and present Birds of North America at World MasterCard Fashion Week on her own terms.

“Some of the experiences I’ve had with other fashion shows, there’s just been too much [loss] of control over the image of the brand. It really is a personal, artistic expression and I don’t want it reduced to just another runway show,” says Gibson.

 Birds of North America’s next fall collection will encompass the 1970s comeback with Gibson’s hand-picked retro prints, an experimental colour palette of brown, and high necks accompanied by pussy bows.

“A few years ago, I was doing fall collections really dark for a while because I thought that was something you were supposed to do. Now, we use a lot of colour,” says Gibson. “It’s more of my personal creative vision rather than a line that’s created just to reflect trends and fit in.”

Featured image courtesy of Birds of North America