Notable Designer Series: A Chat with Bustle’s Shawn Hewson

Shawn Hewson of Bustle Clothing hit our brand new, exclusive Notable Lounge last night in our second intimate gathering as part of our week-long designer series in celebration of World MasterCard Fashion Week. The series kicked off on Monday with the team behind the famed Mackage brand, and Hewson kept the energy going last night in his often animated and filter-free chat. In a sharp deviation from their day jobs as Bay Street lawyers, Bustle was founded by Hewson and his wife Ruth Promislow in 2002. It has become a leading Canadian sportswear label, known and loved for its cheeky twist on menswear classics, and has become a Fashion Week runway fixture.

The designers have appeared as style experts in numerous publications, and on numerous Canadian and International television productions, including Hewson’s residency on Celebrity Style Story, and his tenure as the full-time Designer Judge on the beloved Project Runway Canada series hosted by international supermodel and style icon Iman. Quickly catching the attention of Hollywood, Bustle’s roster of celebrity clients includes Mike Weir, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Buble, Andy Summers (The Police), Alex Lifeson (Rush), Jesse Metcalfe, Andrew Stetson, Stacy McKenzie and Nicole Richie. Not bad.

Here are some highlights from the chat…

On getting started…
Throughout my life I have probably planned less than most. I have to be honest: I have been pretty lucky. I didn’t like my French teacher and I didn’t like my science teacher, so I stopped taking those courses in early high school, and that left me with a couple of options. I had studied arts as an undergrad degree and decided on law school because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. Back in the day, people were starting to do these innovative, creative jobs that nobody had heard about, but law school was the easy route. 

Law was fun, but I felt that at one point my brain was starting to atrophy, and the creative side was starting to shrivel up. My wife, who is also a lawyer, and I thought, ‘well, we know a little about business, we know a little about fashion, we are pretty fashionable, we should start a clothing line’. We were shoppers and had a couple of bucks from our first jobs and saw that there wasn’t that much great stuff out there, so we decided to start our own line. Luckily I was super naïve, because it wasn’t easy. It isn’t easy at all to start a fashion line, but we did it anyway.

I suppose it was a happy accident that we did well… this husband and wife team, both practicing lawyers. For two years, we practiced law and ran this thing on the side. It was often like, ‘I can’t go I’ve got a closing’. It wasn’t uncommon to see me walk through the copy room with a bolt of fabric. It was fun, but at a point I was able to leave my job while Ruth stayed working because she had just joined at a new firm. But with me, there was a merger and some company politics that made it easier to walk away from. That was it. I’m not a great planner, yet my advice to others is to have a plan. But we really didn’t know what we were doing.

On leaving the corporate world…
I didn’t love the corporate world and I was naïve and arrogant enough not to care about walking away from it and to have faith that the other world would work out. Plus, there was the thought I could go back to it if it didn’t work out. 

The business structure in a law firm is amazing. In fashion, it was like, ‘OK, if my computer breaks down, I just have to go do something else’. So the business infrastructure was gone. But more so than that, I think that the way that people deal with people in a professional context like a law firm, is much different; there is a code of conduct. You can’t lie to each other. You can’t tell another lawyer that your client is going to sign that agreement if it is not going to happen. There is no professional code of conduct in the real world really and, in particular, in the fashion world. It is full of noise and people saying, “oh, I’m going to do this for you, I am going to take you to the next level, come to Milan Fashion Week.” So much of it is talk. I found it difficult to wade through the noise and bullshit, especially when you are new to the game because people do try to take advantage of you.

On formal fashion training…
I did not have any formal training in fashion. But when I was articling to become a lawyer, I remember sitting in this guy’s office and he was a tax lawyer who had this blackboard and was trying to teach me tax law. I kept thinking, ‘eff this is hard’. But, I got it and finally understood it. Then I thought, if I can understand that afternoon, where I sat in someone’s office and they taught me some pretty complicated stuff, then I think I can learn this. It gave me the confidence to admit that I knew nothing about sewing, and was not going to pretend that I did. I used to pretend I knew more than I did until I ended up in that law firm. So, I really learned on the job. That was one of the reasons I started my production facility in Canada – in Toronto, in fact. I may have an idea, and then when it comes to actually sewing and making the garment, I bring it to my team and they are like, ‘yeah, that won’t work’. I am still learning every day.

On getting the word out…
We would find cool ways to market ourselves, like with fun pool parties with cheerleaders and things like that. We got a lot of editorial attention and relied on that as opposed to costly advertising.

On having a boutique…
I don’t want to have a store. We have had pop up shops… and I get very anxious, pacing around, thinking, ‘why isn’t anybody in here, there is nobody in here. This is so stupid, look at all these great clothes’. So I wouldn’t be able to go into a store. It isn’t for me, but it is a great way to interact with your customers and direct feedback.

On the turning point…
After five years, I was called for screen test for Project Runway Canada and I got there and everybody was there… Alfred Sung was there and I was like, ‘what am I doing here? But there was only one thing to do and that was to not even think about it, and just go for it. Then they called me back in and again, there was nothing to do but go for it. The next thing you know I was on TV. And when you go on TV, then everyone thinks you are a big deal, so a lot changed when that happened.

On a memorable Fashion Week experience…
It involved Robin Kay – who I love, by the way. She is misunderstood by some, but is totally fantastic, brilliant and unstoppable, and has made the week what it is. Robin gets what she wants and can be tough. I know someone else like that whom I happen to be married to. One time, we were actually backstage and we were mic’d and Fashion Television was doing a story on us and had been following us all day. Robin charged up to Ruth in the middle of this and told her she had not paid her show fees and demanded a cheque right then and there. We were super stressed and the cheque was the last thing on our minds. Ruth reassured her that she was going to get the cheque but that she didn’t have it on her… and then things got heated. Robin threatened to cancel the show and Ruth was like, ‘that’s fine, you go out there on the runway and tell everyone that it’s not happening’. Tempers flared and it was like a reality show, all filmed. Robin turned around and ordered everyone to turn the cameras off. It was actually this super dramatic and exciting scene, but 10 minutes later, they were sitting together in makeup, and Robin turned to her and was like, “we are still friends, right?” That is when I really started to understand Robin. I also felt that we were now respected, because she definitely respected Ruth after that.

On a memorable experience on Project Runway
We were shooting the finale of the second season in Ottawa and I got a call from my wife, who was pregnant and said she was in labour. I was like, ‘are you going to have that right now?’, and she said it was really slow and they had told her not to come to the hospital until the next morning. I went to set the next day and I always used to kind of coast around and be like, ‘I will get changed in a minute’, because you would always have to get dressed and then they would mic you and you would then stand there and try not to sweat for 40 minutes until something else happened. But this day I was zipping around that set and was the first guy dressed. I went to Iman’s trailer and knocked on the door and her makeup artist answered. I basically pushed right by her and found Iman and was like, ‘please get dressed quickly, we have to start soon, my wife is in labour’, and she kept saying, ‘ok, now get out’, and in was like, ‘don’t you understand that my wife is in labour?’ Then I looked down and she was not wearing any pants. Then I left.

Final thoughts…
I am grateful to still be here and relevant in fashion. That is 80 per cent of the battle – being around the next year.

Click here to see our full gallery from the event.

#LYNL | (Live Your Notable Life)

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