Meet the Maker: Rachel Hill of Origami Custom

Victoria who? La Vie En what? Vancouver Island’s own Rachel Hill is making way for a new wave of body-positive intimates and swimwear with Origami Customs. The eco-conscious brand, which features Hill’s handmade, custom-fitted lingerie and swimsuits designed to embrace and honour all body types, is Hill’s livelihood and greatest passion. I got the chance to shoot Rachel in her beautiful wares, and interviewing her proved to be a very informative and fascinating experience. DSC_0597

Above, Rachel shines in the Retro One-Piece Swimsuit  from Origami Customs. 28 colours to choose from! Photo: Stephanie Deline (She’s So Eco) This young entrepreneur’s preference for local and penchant for sustainable practices and materials are key factors in her rightful change-maker status. Hill isn’t afraid to get wild and sexy with her designs, and she encourages her customers to get in touch with their flirty (and sometimes darker) side with pieces that are très chic, totally unique and utterly unapologetic. Origami Customs strives to be an eco-friendly and people-friendly business, conforming neither to the dime-a-dozen mass-produced standards displayed at malls everywhere, nor the notion that you’ve got to be a certain size to get your sexy on.  From a business perspective, Rachel Hill is whip-smart and seriously savvy. From a design standpoint, she is fearless and wildly creative, simultaneously balancing sexy and sweet with an innovative mix of bold modernism and classic elegance.

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Smokeshow Rachel boldly braving the cold last November, in the super sexy Mesh and Lace Sheer Slip Dress (with cutout designs). Photo: Stephanie Deline (She’s So Eco).

From a personal standpoint, if you don’t mind me getting a little personal here, Rachel Hill is spunky, conversational and downright darling. Though I have met her just once in person, and briefly at that, she’s just one of those people who instantly makes you feel like you’ve known them your whole life. She smiles frequently and easily, she speaks with conviction and kindness, and she is up for anything. I mean, this is a woman who stripped down to one of her gorgeous swimsuits and her sheer lace slip dress in chilly late November, tossing away layers with zero inhibitions. By the ocean. In public. She grinned for my camera, her jangly laugh ringing out the whole time. She fluttered and bended, nary a complaint among the shrugged-off shivers. As this beautiful scene unfolded, I realized that I was witnessing the exact brand of irresistible, contagious confidence and self-acceptance so prominently displayed in Hill’s work. That message is a powerful one: complete confidence and total empowerment, plain and simple. It’s a formula Hill exudes, along with a healthy mix of charm and smarts. Simply put, this girl is awesome. And her brand is awesome. Which is why I’m stoked to let you in on my exclusive interview with her. Without further ado, then.

She’s So Eco:  You’ve been a seamstress since high school. Most teens have hobbies in high school, but I’d venture a guess that not many turn those hobbies into careers. Was it just for fun back then, or have you always known this was what you wanted to do with your life? Rachel Hill: Sure, the signs were there when I was young. I made clothes for my dolls instead of playing with them. In high school I was ripping up old rock tees and making corsets. I wore clothespins on my ears and a  three-pointed hat. I wish I had known when I was in high school that I would be a fashion designer one day! I wouldn’t have believed myself. But after high school, I started my degree in Sociology and, for a long time, I thought that’s where I was headed.  I had a lot of other friends getting similar degrees at the time, and finding that they couldn’t get work in their field after school. I didn’t want that for myself- or the crippling debt that came with a university education. I wanted to take a career that I could travel with and that felt creative but ethical. I wanted to work with my hands and invent things. So I honed my sewing skills (on stretch fabrics- I’m still terrible with non-stretch sewing!) in order to open Origami. It’s not my plan for forever – I still see myself going back to Sociology later on- but it’s a fantastic career for a young person. SSE: You began designing swimwear when you lived in Honduras (2007-2012), as you identified a need among the locals for quality, custom-made swimwear that would stand up to daily ocean exposure. Was lingerie the natural evolution of this? What drew you to designing custom-made lingerie?

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Photo- Greg Parch

  RH: Yes, that’s exactly right. Once I had mastered swimwear construction and had made a good collection of patterns, I realized how easy it was to alter the same patterns for lingerie.  I started researching new materials like mesh and bamboo, and different construction techniques that were required. But the pattern-making that I had taught myself transferred over seamlessly. (Note from She’s So Eco- SEAMLESSLY! Haha, get it?! I don’t even think Rachel intended that pun, but it’s a GREAT one)  

SSE: You’re a well-traveled soul, but your roots are in Vancouver Island, where you now reside. What are the differences between that market and the one back on the Honduras? Do you find it more of a struggle to sell here, less of one, or about the same?

RH: Well, being in a tropical climate to sell swimwear really doesn’t hurt! But the community in Victoria really honors handcrafters like no other place I’ve experienced. People are committed to buying locally and it’s seen as a much more legitimate career than it was when I was living abroad. In Central America there’s still a stigma that if you have to make your own clothes, you are too poor to buy new ones. It’s not seen with as much respect as it is here.

SSE: Why is it important to support local? Do you feel you get enough support from your community? What are some of your favourite local brands and businesses?

RH: Supporting local, besides the economic advantages, really helps build community. I’ve been trying to find out what “community” means to me for a long time, but I’m finally starting to feel it here. When the owners of local brands like Morena, Floating Gold Iceberg, and Bonspiel Bags and Accessories put on local trunk shows and craft sales, you can really see the community respond in an exciting way. I’m thrilled to be a part of events that feature some of my other favourite local artists. We also have some amazing talent in local leathercrafting, like Labyrinth Leathercraft and Rad Juli Custom Designs. It’s great to be able to barter within our community. I’d like to do more of this in the coming year.

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Photo- Rachel Hill

SSE: Tell me about what makes Origami Customs an eco-friendly business. Do you use eco-friendly materials? Employ sustainable business practices?

RH: Besides using dead-stock materials, the majority of my lingerie line is made with super sustainable bamboo viscose. Bamboo takes hardly any water to grow, it has natural anti-pesticide properties, has super-fast regeneration; not to mention, it’s incredibly soft. As I mentioned, I use materials of the highest quality to ensure that each piece will last for a long time. In this way, the customer will need to buy fewer items and throw away less waste. The studio where I work is extremely efficient- I only throw out one small bag of garbage every two weeks! Many of my materials are bought from the local and family-run Gala Fabrics rather than large chains. As for packaging, all my shipments are packaged in recycled /biodegradable bags from EcoEnclose. I also buy materials and other items for myself from other Etsy sellers and local crafts-people to support other hand makers. In every aspect of my production, from buying the materials to how I cut my patterns to the packaging I use, I think about the environmental impact and limit waste in every possible way.

SSE: One challenge I always hear about from the artisans I work with is that people don’t understand the value in something handmade locally versus the quick, cheap dime-a-dozen, mass manufactured products from China and other places around the globe. I find that many people still don’t grasp the reasons that a handmade, quality piece has the design, time, and materials worked into its value. Do you run into this a lot? How do you approach it?

RH: I do run into this often. Luckily, on a platform like Etsy and at the market events I was mentioning, people are already there because they are looking for handmade goods. But the common question I get is “I saw this outfit online, can you make it for cheaper?” Which makes me launch into why a custom made item is going to cost you more than a mass-produced one. It is frustrating when you have to convince people that you are worth it over and over, but it’s part of a growing consciousness and I don’t expect everyone to be there yet.  I can try to change people’s minds by explaining that a custom piece that you love to death is going to be worth it in the long run and that $50 bikini is going to fall apart after on summer, and hopefully I get through to a couple of them!

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SSE: You are an advocate of embracing all shapes and sizes and celebrating all body types. Tell me why you think that’s so important.

RH: My principle was always just to cater to Every Body, with no limitations. I never started out as a ‘plus size’ store, nor was I dedicated to being a gender non-binary inclusive store. I wanted every person who came to me to have the same experience, no matter if they were a larger sized body, looking to cover scars, looking to present themselves in a newly gendered way, or anything else that led them towards a custom made store. I think it’s really important that I’m not seen as catering to any one body type. I deeply identify with the body positivity movement and focusing on body acceptance in the world of fashion, but It’s also important to include a range of bodies in that discussion.  This year, I’ll be focused on incorporating many different body types into my photography and promotional materials. It’s important that I represent a cross-section of society, including people of different ethnicities, of different ages and abilities, people all along the gender spectrum, and of different sized and shaped bodies. I want people to be able to see a reflection of themselves when they see my brand.

SSE: Have you ever encountered a customer who just hadn’t been able to find a bathing suit or lingerie that made her feel sexy, and found that your designs changed that all for her?

RH: I’ve had many customers who have spoken to me about how my lingerie or swimwear has changed the way they see their bodies. I find that this is especially true for Transitioning or non-binary customers who have a hard time finding things that fit their body or that they can buy in a positive environment. There aren’t many businesses focusing on custom made underthings for people all over the gender spectrum- so I’ve had quite a huge response from people in this community praising the customization, sensitivity and inclusivity of  what I do. It feels amazing to help people dress according to their chosen gender, when buying “off the rack” is sometimes difficult,  not just for sizing, but in terms of how non-binary folks are treated in retail.  I had one customer lately tell me “thanks for making me feel more like me”, and that without my designs, they would have never had the courage to start dressing for their true gender identity in public.

SSE:  What are your best sellers, and why do you think they sell so well?

RH: My best seller right now by far is the strappy harness bra. It’s a piece that works on any body type, with or without other lingerie, under or over other layers, where you can switch the straps, and it works for a wide range of gender presentations. I constantly get positive feedback not only on the style, but the comfort of the materials and how easy it is to wear. I like pieces that can be worn in so many ways- and that’s why I’m switching a lot of older items over so that the straps can convert, or so they are reversible, or you can wear them in more than one way. You should always have a ton of options for every piece, not just something that only goes with one outfit and ends up sitting in your closet for a year.

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Above, the same outfit in a different colour on two different lovely ladies. This clearly demonstrates how when something is made correctly and custom-fit, it can look amazing on a wide variety of skin tones and body shapes! Left photo (black outfit) by Rachel Hill. Right photo (purple outfit) by Luna Wolf.

SSE. What advice would you give to someone just starting out with their own business? What do you wish you could go back and tell yourself in the early days?

RH: I would tell myself that it’s OK to give up on projects you know aren’t working. There were so many times when  I just couldn’t let a pattern go, or  I really wanted to use a certain fabric even though it wasn’t holding up like I wanted it to.  There were a lot of early experiments that I can now chalk up to learning experiences. but at the time I was determined to sell them or wear them.

SSE: I get the feeling that you’re one of those people who needs to be working for themselves. I’m like that, too. I can have clients, but I can’t have a boss. Now that you’ve had a taste of owning your own business, is that how you see yourself making your living for the rest of your life?

RH: Honestly, I love working for myself . But another huge part of that is being able to hire and train other employees. I’m really loving that new aspect of the company and I’m excited to do more of it. I don’t see myself working “under” someone else (even though it would certainly not be the end of the world) but I do hope for some more collaboration in the future. Working by yourself gets lonely sometimes!

SSE: Tell me about a time when you thought about throwing in the towel. How did you pull yourself out of that and keep plugging away?

RH:  I had a very unfortunate experience last year. I had just moved back to Canada, and very suddenly my Mom was hospitalized for a month and lost the use of one of her legs. I was her only family in town, so I spent a lot of time caring for her. At the same time, I got my first large wholesale order from a mega-online retailer (one with a website within the top thousand websites, ever). I thought it was my big break! I would take my pinning and hand sewing to my mom’s hospital room and work on the order and again after I got home from the hospital late at night. Finally I completed the order and sent it off to Boston.  I was thrilled when the entire order sold out in less than two months! But this company went bankrupt and could not pay me. It was one of the most crushing moments because I felt like there was nothing I could do. It really gave me a sense of how small the ‘little guys” are in the industry and how much we are influenced by the big fashion companies.  But I’ve learned a lot from that experience, and choose the companies that I want to work with very carefully. I’m being offered more and more wholesale opportunities but I stick with only the ethical ones- the ones you can tell are run by good people.

SSE: Tell me about the best, most affirming experience you’ve had while owning your own business.

RH: Recently, I was amazed to have so many people come up to me at a trunk show and  tell me that they already know about me and that they love my mission and my line! It’s amazing how word of mouth works, a lot of people had friends who had bought a piece from me and were told about the experience. I still get amazed to see people wearing my clothes on the street.

SSE: What is your mission statement for Origami Customs?

RH: My mission continues to be to cater to All Bodies, to be place where people can come to co-create pieces that make them feel radiant and truly themselves.

SSE: What do you want people to know about you, your process and your products?

RH: I want people to know that I’m conscious of the positive change that can come from having brands reaffirm that there are no “bad” bodies. By supporting brands that are challenging body stereotypes and banishing harmful stigma about who can wear skimpy little things, we can consciously evolve the fashion industry together.

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Photo- Luna Wolf

Find out more about Origami Customs, and shop til you drop: origamicustoms.com Custom Handmade Bliss (250) 686.0243 Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest : @OrigamiCustoms

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