Preloved’s Julia Grieve on 25+ Years of Championing Upcycled Designs

Photography by Emmett Charuk

Plus the eight local, sustainably-minded brands this “accidental environmentalist” loves.

“How have I been doing this for so long?” Toronto-based fashion entrepreneur Julia Grieve says with a laugh when she’s asked to reflect on the beginnings of her innovative label, Preloved. A former jetsetting model in the ’90s, she had a penchant for altering vintage duds to transform them into more modish pieces to wear to go-sees and gigs. While she loved the creativity and excitement surrounding her career, Grieve yearned to return to her home base and embark on a new project. So she came up with the idea of a clothing label that features second-hand finds that have been reworked into more contemporary garments.

So fetching were the pieces she had modified to wear herself that people would ask her all the time “Where did you get that?” It’s what gave her the push to launch Preloved in 1995. Eventually, the business grew to include four physical stores across Canada; now, though, it’s focused on wholesaling and e-commerce. “Preloved has evolved with demand,” she notes. Retailer requests eventually prompted Grieve to reconceptualize its designs, taking them from being one-off upcycled items to also being pattern-based. “We moved into using vintage pieces as fabric to ensure consistency,” she says of the point when the brand started to get the attention of major retailers like Urban Outfitters, which needed a larger volume of items to sell at their multiple locations.

Photography by Emmett Charuk. Preloved Spring 2021 collection.

Grieve adds that working with Roots in 2012 on a collection that blended its heritage fabrics with second-hand togs sourced by Preloved nudged her toward even further reconsideration about the potential of its pieces. “It laid out the future of how we could work with different materials and blend them with our vintage,” she says. “It sparked an interest in using ‘new’ fabrics, and from there we started learning about dead stock.” At one point, Preloved’s pieces featured lining made from unused textiles procured from a liquidating fabric store in Montreal.

Twenty-six years after its launch, Preloved (which has partnered with the same local manufacturer, Redwood Classics, for about 15 years) is still poised to lead the fashion industry from a sustainability angle — even though Grieve labelled herself an “accidental environmentalist” because at the outset, the notion of making old clothes into something new was centred on exclusivity and aesthetics rather than eco-friendly intentions. And she’s thrilled that today, reusing materials is more de rigueur than démodé.

“It’s really exciting and really wild,” she says about today’s sustainability focus in the fashion world. “For so long, we were out there on our own and nobody under- stood what we were doing.” This season, Preloved will introduce pieces made from material entirely composed of recycled yarn, adding another feather to the brand’s forward-thinking cap.

Here are Julia’s favourite sustainably-minded brands from across Canada:

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