The Comrags studio, situated on a relatively quiet stretch of Toronto’s Dundas Street West, is a designer’s playground. Its long and narrow layout is filled with bolts of fabric. Paper patterns, draped over hangers, span the length of one wall. Mannequins are clothed with works-in-progress, teasers of the coming seasons (a linen with distressed stripes, I’m later told, was the spring line splurge). Above everything hangs a simple sign: “A TIDY SHOP,” it reads, “IS A SAFE SHOP.” Beside it, as though to counteract the soberness of the sign’s message, a disco ball glints in the natural light.
This duality between work and fun, business and artistry, is all part of the Comrags identity.
Judy Cornish and Joyce Gunhouse, the creative minds behind the longstanding Toronto fashion brand, lead me beyond the adjacent storefront – not yet open for the day – to a minimalist white room with a kitchenette, where we sit down to chat. It only takes about a minute in their presence to understand why Cornish and Gunhouse work well together. Far from finishing each other’s sentences, as one might expect from two people who have worked side-by-side for as long as they have, the two women listen to one another as closely as though hearing each other’s opinions for the first time. They let each other have their say, and only then do they comment or elaborate.
Perhaps it’s this mutual respect that’s contributed to the sheer longevity of Comrags; the clothing label began in 1983 and is still going strong today. The two met while studying Fashion Design at what was then the Ryerson Polytechnic in Toronto. When I ask what drew them to one another all those years ago, fashion sensibilities surprisingly take a back seat.
“I think that we had a similar kind of work ethic,” says Cornish. “We liked what we did when we were in school, but we weren’t martyrs to fashion. And we weren’t obsessed with fashion so much as we were obsessed with things like bands and music and second hand shopping. So it was more a connection on what we liked and how we worked, rather than the actual thing that we did.”
“Judy back then would re-work vintage pieces [and] that was interesting to me,” Gunhouse adds. “It was almost like I met her pants before I met her.”
As for their process, their shared career has allowed them room to explore and discover the happy medium between independence and collaboration.
“I look at fabric first,” says Cornish. “We both work kind of independently for a while…Whatever Joyce wants to do, she does; whatever I want to do, I do. And at a certain point we just kind of have this show and tell. One of us is usually somewhere really far away from the other, so then we start trying to bridge the gap. And so it’s kind of the bridge that becomes the collection in the end. I’m influenced by her ideas; she’s influenced by mine.”
Their process has, understandably, undergone transformation over the years. “In the beginning we worked much closer together,” says Gunhouse. “And now – you know, we just don’t want to be here all the time – we work separately and then bring it together. But it’s still the same design sense because we’ve been doing it for so long.”
“Joyce can draw,” adds Cornish. “She can draw what she wants to make and makes it. I don’t really draw. I have a vague idea of what I want to make, so I get something vague up there, and then [try to] repair the vagueness…I take longer to get where I want to go, because I’m trying to see where I want to go as I’m going there.”
I ask whether she’d call her process trial and error. “I have no map,” says Cornish. “Joyce has the map. That’s kind of the analogy.”
But what happens when they do disagree?
“We used to have a thing that if one person hated the other person’s idea you’d have to prove it, which means you’d have to stay after hours and make it, and so that sort of fell by the wayside,” Cornish shares, and laughter fills the small space. “If there’s a real problem we can really dig in, but for the most part you find a way around it to make it work because you don’t want it to be adversarial, and you have to trust that the other person has a valid reason for saying whatever it is that they’re saying.”
The designers have also been known to change their minds. “What is kind of funny is that I’ll fight to have some piece in. Well – then I’m over it,” says Gunhouse. “And then the next season Judy will be like, ‘Oh no, we’ve gotta work on that one you did last season!’ Now she likes it. Or she’ll do something that makes me think, ‘I don’t really get that,’ and then that’s the one piece I wear from the collection for the whole season. So that’s why we trust each other; even if the initial reaction isn’t good, by the end of it, it’s true Comrags.”
When creatives run their own business, the tension between artistry and entrepreneurship can often be a struggle; financial matters can’t help but infringe on vision. But for Gunhouse and Cornish, it was the business side of things that came most easily. “It took us years before we even thought of ourselves as designers,” says Gunhouse. “The business has to come first. Judy and I thrive in working in the box; the more challenges we have, the more creative we are. But I think where we are the most creative is in problem solving and how to stay in business.”
Wearing multiple hats, though, hasn’t always been easy. “I see so many amazing fabrics that I really, really want to get,” says Cornish. “They’re either ridiculously expensive or they come with the caveat of ‘This is really great but it’s going to have these problems.’ As a designer it’s a great thing, but as a businessperson it’s problematic. You’re always jumping back and forth – and then sometimes you say ‘Screw it, we’re going to buy that great expensive fabric anyway and be impractical.’ But we’ll balance it by making sure we have this other thing that is practical. It’s a game.”
The Comrags brand has long toted with pride that its pieces are made in Canada. Asked whether they’ve ever felt the pressure to manufacture overseas, the women are thoughtful for a moment before speaking.
“The only time we feel the pressure,” says Cornish, “is when we look at something that someone’s selling full price for twelve dollars and think, ‘How on earth can you make a pair of jeans for twelve dollars? How can you buy the fabric, manufacture them, ship them from China – how can you do that for twelve dollars?’ And then we feel the pressure because we can’t come close to that. We’re paying someone more than twelve dollars to make the jeans.”
“The pressure is not to produce there,” Gunhouse corrects. “In fact, it would be the exact opposite. The pressure is: how do we make our product more valuable and more relevant so that people make that investment?”
“The problem is, we live in a place now where everyone says, ‘It should be fair and equitable and everybody should be paid a decent living wage, but oh my god, I want to only pay twelve dollars for my jeans,’” Cornish says, her voice exposing her passion on the subject. “Until Pages went out of business on Queen, I would go there and I would pay, knowing that I could go to Chapters two blocks away and get it for 30%. But you pay the money because what you want is an independent, more creative world to live in. And if you knock all those people out of the game because they can’t afford to do what the mass-market manufacturers can do, you have a really uninteresting environment to live in.”
“We’re losing the village,” Gunhouse agrees.
But Comrags is, in some ways, exempt from the pressure to outsource; a typical Comrags customer is already conscious of where the clothing is made and therefore willing to pay for the quality. “We’re kind of preaching to the converted,” Gunhouse says simply.
It was, in part, a burgeoning corporate takeover that led Gunhouse and Cornish to leave their original location in 2012, trading in the hub of Queen West for the relative peace of the Dundas strip.
“We were ready to leave Queen because it’s so crowded now, much more like a mall. It’s full of chains,” says Gunhouse. “Dundas is a much quieter street, but we’ve always been a destination. And it just is a very nice neighborhood.”
“It’s still a real community here,” Cornish adds. “It hasn’t flipped. Like the shoe store two doors over, they’ve been there for fifty, sixty years. Then there are new little places across the street. It’s really a nice mix. It is quiet, but like Joyce says, we like that.”
So what advice would these powerhouses, who have managed to make Comrags the destination it is despite the pressures of an ever-changing industry, offer up-and-coming designers?
“You have to decide what your passion is,” Gunhouse states firmly. It’s clear that these women have little patience for ambivalence; when it comes to work ethic, they are laser focused. “When [Judy] and I went to university, it was because we wanted to make things, not because we wanted to be famous…Judy and I are like carpenters. We want to see something finished.”
“I would say work with what you’ve got,” says Cornish. “It’s the same as when Joyce and I started – we started by making four things, sold them. Then we made eight. Then we made twelve.”
This work ethic – this careful balance between the business and the art – has served them well. And they have no intention of slowing down.
“Comrags does work in a bit of a bubble and I think other people want to know what the secret is, how we lasted this long,” says Gunhouse. “And it really is just that we make choices that suit us and we don’t care about being famous or being super wealthy. We just like to maintain so that we can get up every morning and do what we want to do.”