Julia Grieve may not be able to sew, but she has relied on her others skills – namely, a love of vintage fashion and an entrepreneurial drive – to build a re-purposed clothing empire.
The former model and mother of three, an energetic woman with an infectious smile, laughs at the long-running joke of her business: she’s never quite learned her way around a needle and thread. “My daughter goes to Brownies or Girl Guides and her badges are safety pinned on because I don’t sew them,” she says. “My son is in grade seven and he took a sewing class, and he sews better than I do.”
But if we’ve learned anything from the fact that Steve Jobs couldn’t build a computer, it’s that sometimes the best person to stand at the helm of any venture is a passionate visionary. And what Grieve lacks in the manual prowess of her trade, she makes up for in enthusiasm and hard work.
Grieve’s love of vintage clothing began with her grandmother’s wardrobe. “I used to pull little Jackie Kennedy suits out of her closet,” she reminisces. But Grieve wasn’t satisfied with simply adopting those pieces into her own wardrobe; as a young girl, she was already honing her sharp eye for aesthetics. “I always find that when it comes to vintage clothing, if you don’t alter it slightly, it’s very costume-esque,” she says. Grieve would solve this by taking her finds to a dry cleaner and asking for subtle alterations: maybe taking it up two inches, maybe removing the sleeves of a jacket, or maybe even just changing the buttons.
It began to catch on. “I was modeling in Japan and people kept asking me where I got this, and where this was from, and I would always say, well…I made it, I guess!” She laughs at the memory. “And people wanted to buy it. And then I thought, people will actually buy this stuff.”
And so Preloved was born. The clothing label would become an eye-catching balance of vintage and contemporary flair, reshaping and reimagining aging garments into modern pieces.
Grieve views the transition from modeling to her current career as something that happened almost organically; she is perfectly happy sitting at the other side of the table. This is partially thanks to the fact that she began modeling at such a young age, she reflects. What began as catalogue jobs when she was thirteen turned into an opportunity to spend a summer working in Milan at sixteen. By the time she turned twenty, she had already done everything that she wanted to do.
“Once you get [into modeling], you realize there’s a certain point where you’re going to go in it,” she says. “And in the beginning it was all, ‘Where’s the shoot? Oh my gosh, who’s the client? Oh my gosh, where am I going?’ And then by the end of it, it was, ‘How much? – Not enough’, ‘How much? – Not enough’. And it just got to the point where I wasn’t happy anymore. I was in Miami, wearing bad tracksuits with bad lipstick, and this was just not what I wanted to do.”
Grieve describes herself as a very positive person, and when the industry ceased to make her happy, she knew that she needed a change. She compares this short modelling career to checking off points on a list; once the list was full, it was time to move on and try something new.
Preloved began as a brick-and-mortar store in Toronto’s Queen West neighborhood in 1995. When its first location was destroyed in a 2008 fire, Grieve moved her business to a new storefront near Trinity Bellwoods Park. In 2014, she made the decision to close the doors on her retail location and focus on an e-commerce model. Today the line is available in boutiques across Canada and the U.S., as well as in larger retail stores like Roots, Anthropologie, and Indigo.
When I ask whether she misses having a storefront, Grieve becomes passionate. “Every day. Every day. I miss it so much! I love retail – that’s another thing that’s just so deep in my soul, and I find that retail is such a key part of fashion. I think it gets so misguided; people get so caught up in the glitz and the glam of the fashion industry, but the real success happens on a Saturday afternoon in a store. When someone tries on a dress and loves it and uses her hard-earned money to buy it, and it just makes her week, it makes her day – there’s just no feeling like that.”
Despite the challenges that have come with switching to e-commerce, Grieve says that she has been very lucky this year; as part of Preloved’s twentieth anniversary, the label collaborated with different boutiques across Canada, adopting a similar model used when dealing with large retailers and applying it to small, independent shops. Preloved created individual collections for each boutique, from Victoria to St. John’s to Yellowknife, and Grieve herself visited each of these stores to help promote the collections. She was also promoting homegrown fashion, as manufacturing in Canada is incredibly important to her.
That mandate hasn’t always been easy. “It has been a conscious decision,” she says, “but it’s been tough to compete, price point-wise.” Grieve does believe that it’s getting easier; there’s a growing awareness of what it means to buy in Canada, or to buy products that have been made in America, and why that costs more. “The awareness is getting there, and that’s helping it a lot. But yes, it’s very challenging. And you see that with all Canadian designers – they struggle with it. That’s one of our ongoing things: how can we make a product that’s going to sit in the marketplace, that’s going to be priced competitively, but still be made here?”
While proving to be a successful venture, the switch to e-commerce hasn’t been without hurdles. “It’s a bit of a wild west out there,” says Grieve. “The e-com shopper is very different than your brick-and-mortar shopper. Originally we took a lot of knowledge and information from our store customers, what they wanted to see and how they wanted to do it, and it turns out that that type of shopping isn’t what happens in e-commerce. E-com is so fast; you have to sell fashion. You have to sell lifestyle – not so much a blue sweater with red arms. It’s a very fast-paced industry. I always think it’s like a bit of a game. It’s almost like the customer thinking that she’s winning…And then when the package arrives, it’s either Christmas morning, or like she’s really pissed off on Christmas morning because it’s not packaged the way it should be. There’s not a connection. So you’ve got to grab her fast online and then hold her with the package once it arrives, so that when she opens it, she still loves it. It’s a very different way of shopping, and learning that was a big hurdle.”
Grieve remains open to the idea of returning to a brick-and-mortar model. “I think I would love to have a store almost like a really beautiful showroom,” she says, “where customers can come and try things on and have that connection. It’s almost the opposite of building a brick-and-mortar and then adding e-commerce to it; I would like to establish the e-com as strong and then add the brick-and-mortar to support the e-com.”
Preloved has been known to appeal to celebrities and tastemakers; the label’s website sites Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Angela Lindvall, Hilary Duff, Anne Hathaway, Christine Horne, Kate Hudson, and Daria Werbowy as devotees of the brand. And while Grieve is now in the stages of more aggressively seeking out influencers, those celebrities all found the brand independently of her efforts.
This impressive list of customers hasn’t strayed Grieve from staying grounded, however; she humbly admits that she still gets excited to see others wearing her brand. Whenever she passes someone in the street wearing a Preloved piece, she isn’t shy about engaging. “I totally attack them!” she laughs. “I call that ‘Preloved In The Wild’. And I always say, ‘Oh my god, and you’re not even related to me! I don’t even know you!’”
Grieve also isn’t shy about wearing Preloved herself. “There was a phase there – you know, I have three kids, all within two years apart, eighteen months apart, so probably during those years while I was pregnant a lot – I didn’t wear a lot of Preloved. I think I really lost touch with the brand at that point. I think my customer is very wide, it’s not just me. But if I don’t like it, and I’m not wearing it – well, that’s just one nail in the coffin.”
As for what’s next on the roster for Preloved, things have almost, in a sense, come full circle; these days, Grieve is all about the vintage denim. “It’s actually what I started out with twenty years ago,” she says. “Buying Levi’s – we used to turn them into skirts and little dresses – and even just selling the Levi’s as is. A good pair of vintage 501’s – I’m so into it.”
For vintage-loving Grieve, the future may look a lot like the past. But she’s into it, and so are we.