Smythe was born out of a desire to turn a trompe l’oeil into the real deal. “We would often see a blazer in a store window and think, ‘That looks amazing,’ but then we’d go in and see it was all clipped in the back,” says Andrea Lenczner, one half of the design duo behind Smythe. In 2003, Lenczner and long-time friend Christie Smythe set out to create the equivalent of a sportswear jacket for women: a feminine blazer that could stand on its own and sustain a carved-out shape without any duplicitous pinning at the back. Fourteen years later, the Toronto-based fashion label has transcended its original focus to become a full-fledged ready-to-wear line comprising jackets, dresses, skirts, pants, tops, knits, and outerwear.
Lenczner and Smythe met at Branksome Hall, a private girls’ school in Toronto’s leafy Rosedale neighbourhood. The pair reunited as roommates at McGill University in Montreal. While they had long dreamed of creating their own clothing line, it wasn’t until 2003 when Smythe made the move back to Toronto from New York, where she worked in product development at Gap, that the two joined forces to fill what they saw as a gaping hole in the womenswear market. In the quest for a jacket, “All you could do was buy an entire suit and just wear the blazer portion,” recalls Lenczner, then a buyer for Holt Renfrew. Though it was rare to bank an entire fashion brand on a single category at the time, “It felt more palatable for us to start with, and be the experts at, one thing,” she says. Smythe, the label, launched in 2004.
As much as the fashion industry prides itself on innovation, Lenczner and Smythe quickly learned that bucking industry norms would be no easy feat. “We were going off-piste with our standard for everything—sleeve length, shoulder placement, everything,” says Lenczner. The designers faced resistance from a number of pattern makers, even discovering on occasion that their specifications had been outright ignored. “We had to pivot and change contractors [pattern makers] a lot,” says Smythe. The pair persevered. “We knew we would be on to something if we could just make one nice thing,” says Smythe.
As much as the fashion industry prides itself on innovation, Lenczner and Smythe quickly learned that bucking industry norms would be no easy feat.
Today, Smythe is sold in more than 100 stores worldwide, including Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom, and by major online retailers such as Shopbop and Forward by Elyse Walker. The two friends produce two main collections and two precollections per year, and still count core items like the Duchess blazer among their top sellers. (This particular piece is beloved by Kate Middleton, for one; Sarah Jessica Parker and Beyoncé have also been spotted wearing Smythe.) This spring, ready to become retailers in their own right and armed with clothing categories that represent their vision, Lenczner and Smythe launched their own long-awaited e-commerce site. But despite their continuing success, the pair remains graciously humble. “I still have that thought in my head that everyone wearing Smythe must be someone we know,” confesses Lenczner. “We’re both parents,” adds her design partner, “so what’s fun when it comes to celebrity culture now is when the person wearing our jacket is someone our kids know.”
In the absence of ego, Lenczner and Smythe have built a working relationship that defies the notion that business and friendship don’t mix. “We actually really like each other and spend a lot of time together outside of this office,” says Smythe. “We have a real shorthand when it comes to talking about design,” adds Lenczner. “I can speak gibberish or not even finish my sentence and Christie will know what I mean.” Of course, their partnership isn’t entirely challenge-free. “No one could have more of a shared vision than us, but when you’re two designers, you’re always going to have some creative friction,” explains Smythe, recalling a debate over the use of fur a few years back. “Christie had the moral high ground,” explains Lenczner. “I don’t have a problem with fur, and I threw every argument I could think of at her, but we ultimately decided not to use real fur. It was super disappointing to me at one point, but now I’m fine.”
In a retail climate fraught with uncertainty, Lenczner and Smythe are decidedly united in their goal of longevity. “Success to us is having a line you can constantly evolve, and continuing to create a product that people still want and choose to buy,” says Smythe. For both, branching out beyond jackets was as much a personal decision as it was a professional one. “We wanted to continue challenging ourselves,” explains Lenczner. “Christie and I would wither if we weren’t trying new things.”
Looking forward, the designers hope to grow their collection into a modern lifestyle brand, with bricks-and-mortar stores a distinct possibility. Regardless of the next steps, Lenczner and Smythe plan to forge ahead as they always have, with intention. “At the end of the day,” says Smythe, “no one is just drinking lattes here and designing pretty things.”
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