Interview with Jason Matlo from Matlo Atelier

Portrait of Jason Matlo from Matlo Atelier and Alexandra Suhner Isenberg of The Sleep Shirt

Jason and I met over twenty years ago when we were fashion design students at the now-defunct Helen Lefeaux School of Design in Vancouver. Jason was talented, professional, and showed huge design promise. I was straight out of high school, partying too much, and not particularly talented. But we were both driven and motivated and while our careers took different paths, we maintained a solid friendship through the years. It has been so nice to collaborate with him on this project, and I was very excited to sit down with him and have this chat about his work, his career, and the Matlo Atelier brand.

An interview with Jason Matlo

Alexandra Suhner Isenberg, founder of The Sleep Shirt: You've had a ready-to-wear collection, I know you've done some work in costume, and now you're doing a lot of made-to-measure. Tell us a bit about your journey.

Jason Matlo, founder of Matlo Atelier: Well, you know how crazy the journey can be. Because I stayed in Vancouver, I jumped around in several areas in fashion, trying to find the sweet spot of where we can sustain something that allowed us to creatively do what we wanted to do and also make some money. At the start, the goal was to build a ready-to-wear division of the Jason Matlo brand and get into as many stores as possible and to land the department store deals. I had a luxury ready to wear line, a diffusion line called Babe, and a bridal collection.

At one point, probably in the mid-2000s, we even talked about doing a freestanding Matlo boutique but we just found, around 2012, that it wasn't for us. I hit burnout at that point and decided we were actually going to close the atelier altogether and I was going to go into education full time. When we pulled back from wholesaling, the clients who couldn't access the brand anymore, for example at The Room at the Hudson's Bay, started to send us emails, buzz the studio and ask for private appointments to do made-to-measure pieces. We found that we were able to do more creative work doing made-to-measure because we weren’t restricted by the limitations of garments that are manufactured in factories.

Sometimes certain elements and details are difficult to produce through the manufacturing process but in my atelier we were able to create these amazing one-off garments. And during that time we started doing television costumes as well. We did costumes for the TV show Supergirl and something for the TV show Flash. Last year we rebranded as Matlo Atelier Vancouver, just so that people understood that there was a delineation between what we were doing before and what we are offering now. This has become a more sustainable and enjoyable way for us to work.

The Matlo Atelier x The Sleep Shirt Helena dress in process on a mannequin

Alexandra: Who's the Matlo Atelier woman? Tell me about her.

Jason: Well, the influence has always been the same. The original inspiration was my mom when I was growing up in the seventies. I grew up in Calgary, on Chestermere Lake. There were seven houses there. So with exception to TV and living on that street, I didn't have exposure to many other women and other people.

My mom and dad had a recreational vehicle business at the time. It was quite successful and they'd be taking clients out to dinners and entertaining and I would see my mother getting dressed up and she was always very glamorous. So at the time, my references were the Charlie's Angels and my Mom.

I've always resonated with the 1970s. So that's always something that I look at when I'm designing, as well as all the things that I loved in design school, particularly Haute Couture.

We want to create clothes for women that are powerful, strong and bold, but also simultaneously feminine at the same time. The Matlo Atelier woman is someone who loves her body in whatever size or shape she is. She wants to be feminine, her style of dress is sexy and confident, not overly fashion directional, but still forward thinking. She loves quality and cares about the construction of clothing; how things are patterned, how a sleeve fits in the garment. My customer looks for quality and longevity in her clothing.

Running a Fashion Business in Canada

Alexandra: I've got mixed feelings about having a fashion business in Canada. On one hand, the media and Canadians are really supportive of local brands and The Sleep Shirt owes a lot of its success to the press coverage we've had here and the support of our Canadian customers.

On the other hand, it's nearly impossible to break into major retailers. You've managed it. I have not. And we don't even have an association that represents us, an equivalent to the CFDA for example, and I find that that makes it so much more challenging. It feels like the fashion business isn't taken seriously in Canada, as it is in other countries. What are your thoughts on running a fashion business here?

Jason: Well, I stand in solidarity with you on all those points obviously and I don't want to shoot myself in the foot because as you've said. I've been very fortunate. I think that the reason I was able to crack into the major retailers and do the things that I've done is because I built strong relationships when I was doing the cut-to-measure pieces.

Our business was very customer service driven and very personal, and I got to know and dress a group of influential ladies over the years. Because they're influential, when these retailers came in, those introductions were made for me. I think that without those women, this would not have been necessarily possible for me to do, as Canadian stores are always looking for those international brands.

Canadian customers are supportive of Canadian brands but I find major retailers aren’t. I haven't found one that regularly carries Canadian brands, even though I think there's great design in Canada and the quality is usually very strong.

I think the industry has changed a lot and Canada is a challenging country. I tell all my students to move to Europe or the United States if they really want to do serious work in fashion, unless they want to work for Lululemon, Arc'teryx or Aritzia.

We don't have the level of press here and we just don't have that celebrity culture even to use to push the brands as well. I don't think that putting clothes on a Canadian celebrity does as much as if you do this in the United States, so it's definitely a challenge. You have to be super creative to run a fashion business in Canada.

Alexandra: Yes. Plus, COVID-19 has forced a lot of us to change how we run our businesses. How have you adapted?

Jason: Well, we adapted by doing masks, but we got into masks because a client of mine that I dress had started an initiative called Mutual Aid Vancouver. They needed masks for their volunteers that were delivering medications and food to the elderly and immune-compromised, so she approached us to do it. We didn't really realize we were going to be launching into a full online business of building masks at the time.

So again, a business opportunity happened because one of my influential clients reached out to us, pulled in a favour. And then by doing that, we got media exposure. It got put there through social media, then Montecristo Magazine reached out to me to do an interview about masks and COVID and they were really pressuring me being like, "It'd be great if the public had access to these masks. You're not really doing it in a way that people can buy them at retail. You should think about doing this." So through client influence and media exposure a new business was once again launched.

We really debated whether we wanted to go back into retailing. I mean, it's a sad state of the world we're in, but the return to retail was profitable, so we're continuing to do it. But now we're having to figure out how we're going to continue to service clients with COVID protocols in place that keeps us and them safe. Our business is very intimate and very face-to-face, this is how we design clothes.

We are starting to take appointments again and letting clients know that we're open for business. We are taking it day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month to see where things go, but the plan is to get back to doing some business.

Women wearing short a line dress with a neck tie in blue, black, and white

The Helena Lounge Dress by Matlo Atelier x The Sleep Shirt

Alexandra: The last thing I wanted to talk about was the dress, the Helena dress. So this is a collaboration between Matlo Atelier and the Sleep Shirt. It's basically a combination of a little bit of my brand, a little bit of your brand. Tell us about it.

Jason: Well, I've been wanting to do a collaboration with you for years.

Alexandra: Same!

Jason: It's interesting. You're really the only person that I've kept in touch with since graduating from design school and maintained a 20 plus year friendship with, even when you lived internationally we kept contact. And I've always respected you as a designer. I love your work ethic. And I've always thought that we work sort of similarly in a lot of ways so a collaboration at some point when the time was right, would be something we'd be really excited to do.

Alexandra: Absolutely.

Jason: We've talked about the loungewear over the years many, many times. And so it's been exciting to work in that capacity with you and sort of bring our aesthetic into that.

It's been a great process. I really enjoyed it. I love the dress. I love the design and I never get to work in a shape like the one we have done. I love the silhouette, it's quite a fashion shape.

I find that our customers want everything really, really cut super close to the body and I actually really enjoy moving fabric away from the body and playing with volume in a way that creates a more fashion shape. And I think that with the state of the world right now, women are going to want to look glamorous but comfortable and have something easy and cool to wear. So I think we timed this sort of perfectly in spite of everything that's going on in the world.

Alexandra: Agreed. Me too. I also feel that, because we're unlikely to have our typical holiday season this year and we're probably not going to as many parties and everything, it's nice to have something that's a little bit dressed up, but that's also not too dressy. It's still in classic daytime loungewear fabrics.

Jason: From the minute that we started the designing, collaborated on the fittings, I feel like it all went smoothly and there hasn't been any sort of major hiccups. I wasn't sure how the two styles were going to marry together, but I think that Matlo Atelier and The Sleep Shirt look really cool, chic and modern together.

Shop The Matlo Atelier & The Sleep Shirt Collaboration