TORONTO — Since its inception in 2013, Holt Renfrew’s in-store and online H Project shop has made brands and designers backing social responsibility the core of its business. The ethically minded initiative and its “Uncrate a Culture” program returns this spring, making Canadian craft, culture and local artisans its focus as the country celebrates its 150th birthday in 2017 — and Canada’s premier luxury retailer turns 180.
Following earlier H Project spotlights on India (2014), Africa (2015) and South America (2016), Uncrate Canada debuts Wednesday with a new logo bearing a minimalistic tree-motif in tribute to this nation’s natural beauty from coast to coast. But it also returns with “more polish,” according to Alexandra Weston, Holt Renfrew’s director, brand and creative strategy.
“Our big challenge this year was finding products Canadian editors have not seen before. But our previous experiences with H Project gave me new confidence. I knew aesthetically that our final picks this year would exceed people’s expectations,” Weston said during a preview of the Uncrate Canada collection here.
Indeed, over the last year Weston and her team have pulled together a selection of women’s apparel, handbags, jewelry, children’s shoes and hats, as well as home and beauty products from 26 brands spearheaded by Canadian-based companies.
The assortment includes ethically minded brands like Smythe x Augden, whose playful sweaters priced between 395 and 425 Canadian dollars, or $296 to $318 at current exchange, are all hand knit in Bolivia using sustainable alpaca wool.
Other notables include Fellow Earthlings sustainably constructed sunglasses from Prince Edward Island; Fogo Island Shop homewares, and Minimoc moccasins, a kids’ line handmade in British Columbia using hides that are naturally tanned in Germany with 100 percent organic agents.
There are also whimsical wall-sized dream catchers from Ontario’s Brunwisk+Co. collection featuring hand beading by Cree Nation artisan Tracy Jobin, as well as the supersoft T-shirts from Toronto’s Kotn, which uses Egyptian cotton sources from family-owned farms and factories in Egypt.
“What’s new this year is that everything will be available in store and online right in to the holiday season,” said Weston. “But as always everything in H Project is curated like a runway show.”
Starting off with hundreds of possible brands and designers to consider, Weston and her team whittled down 2017’s Canadian contenders based on how sustainable they were in their day-to-day operations.
“These products also told great stories,” Weston emphasized as she crossed the showroom and pointed to a sampling of watches from Berg+Betts, a British Columbia-based company that uses surplus scrap leather and watch parts to make its fair-trade offerings.
“To look at these watches you’d never know they were made from scrap parts. This stuff would normally have ended up in a landfill. But look what a little ingenuity and real concern for the environment can produce,” said Weston, who then directed her attentions to a colored quilt from Dignifiy.
These fair trade quilts and blankets inspired by the kantha, or “patched cloth,” tradition use six layers of reclaimed sari cloth in their designs to achieve their luxurious look.
Moreover, the blankets are hand-stitched in Bangladesh, providing jobs to at-risk women, many of whom once worked in the sex trade.
“This is all about making a difference in people’s lives,” said Weston.
“Looking back, I believe that H Project’s success, in part, has come from choosing products that make an emotional connection with consumers and translate well into Canadians lives. It’s not always easy to do. But we’re going to keep on messaging our story and educating people here at H Project so that we can continue to support great local artisans in Canada and around the world.”