(Photo courtesy of Smythe)


Royal exposure for Toronto fashion designers

When Meghan Markle stepped out in a Smythe camel-coloured coat in January, royal watchers and fashionistas took note. The luxe clothing line founded by Toronto designers Christie Smythe, BA’95, and Andrea Lenczner, BA’94, has a high-profile – and royal – following.

Story by Brenda Branswell

June 2018

Fashion designers Christie Smythe and Andrea Lenczner were over the moon when their PR agent contacted them with thrilling news: Go online. She just got onto the plane wearing the blazer.

The year was 2011, and the woman in their blazer, was Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, as she and Prince William embarked on a tour of Canada.

“We were so excited,” recalls Smythe, BA’95, over the phone from Toronto.

It was the first royal exposure for Smythe, their luxe clothing line that made its mark with tailored women’s jackets. Meghan Markle, who married Prince Harry last month, has also worn their clothes – including two coats this year – as have a host of celebrities.

The designing duo met in high school at Toronto’s Branksome Hall. They ended up in the same Grade 11 math class and became friends.

“We often talked about fashion, mostly our prom dresses – during class,” says Smythe, whose great-grandfather was Toronto Maple Leafs founder and owner Conn Smythe.

Their interest in fashion extended to their time at McGill where both did Arts degrees.

“We did a lot of vintage shopping in Montreal together,” Smythe says. Their favourite haunts were Rue de la Montagne and Boul. St-Laurent.

Smythe went on to the Parsons School of Design in New York for a degree in fashion and merchandising and worked in the industry. With an MBA under her belt, Lenczner ended up in investment banking.

Over the years, they talked about “oh, wouldn’t it be great to have a store one day”, Lenczner, BA’94, recalls.

When Smythe called her to say she was moving home to Toronto and ready to start something, Lenczner had shifted into fashion and was a buyer at Holt Renfrew.

They launched their label in 2004 and their first collection sold out quickly.

“We were kind of lucky because when I resigned from Holts, the head of womenswear at the time was very gracious and she said ‘well, please come and show it to us first.’ So we had an ‘in’ that also a lot of young designers don’t get. We walked in there and we sold our first collection to them,” Lenczner says.

They initially focused exclusively on jackets and blazers – something they were drawn to during their vintage shopping expeditions in Montreal.

“When we started the business, we talked about how that piece of clothing was so instrumental to any outfit and it was like a transformative piece of clothing that you always felt good in – that pulled everything together,” Smythe says.

They liked wool for winter, linen for spring and summer, and a very tailored fit. She and Smythe were small and frustrated by the lack of fitted things, Lenczner says.

Now they do everything – really oversized and androgynous-looking pieces – she adds, but a large part of every collection is quite body conscious.  

When Kate Middleton first wore their one-button blazer – now called the Duchess Blazer – Lenczner says they were “pretty slow to react.

“We’re a lot better at monetizing these opportunities now. But at the time we were ‘Oh my gosh’, and ‘can we get more fabric?’ and ‘how long is that going to take?’ And we also, I think, didn’t understand the impact that the Royal Family has. We didn’t fully appreciate how many people pay attention.”

Markle wore their Brando coat in January on an official engagement with Prince Harry. Traffic on Smythe’s website spiked that day – a 2,900 per cent increase in visitors versus its daily average. The company says it rushed to meet demand by putting the coat up for pre-order and sold nine times its average number of coat styles in three days.

The co-designers working relationship is “fairly unorthodox” according to Smythe, who notes they do every part of design together, from initial concept to the final hanging sample, including fabric, thread, and button choice.

Their friendship remains intact.

“The foundation of a great partnership is trust and we started with that. Trust and loyalty, and also respect for each other,” says Smythe.
“We’re friends and we have fun. And we enjoy our process together. And I think we both bring different things to it.”

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