“I call myself the ‘accidental environmentalist,’ because saving the planet just kinda happened”: At Preloved, the vintage fashion retailer making sustainability wearable
Preloved’s Julia Grieve is still leading the way on sustainability, 26 years after her iconic fashion brand first opened its doors.
Picture this: it’s the early ‘90s and Toronto native Julia Grieve is living in Tokyo, where she’s working as a model. No matter where she goes in the city, people stop her to ask where she’d scored her outfits.
“I’d say, ‘Well, I made it,’” she says now, reminiscing about the thrifted finds she would turn into perfectly contemporary, one-of-a-kind pieces. Of course, she was exaggerating slightly: “I actually don’t know how to sew,” she admits with a laugh. “But I can put something on and immediately [know that] the waist is too high, or it should be three inches shorter. I have a very strong vision, and from modeling for as long as I did, I think I have a PhD in fit.”
Back then, she would take vintage pieces to friends who could sew, or to a dry cleaner or even her mom for help executing her vision. Soon, she got so good at turning outdated clothing into fashionable new duds that she decided to move back home and start a fashion brand.
Enter Preloved. Founded by Grieve in 1995, the now iconic business started with a store on Queen Street where she could sell unique, upcycled apparel. At first, sustainability was a bit of an accident, Grieve says. “I call myself the ‘accidental environmentalist,’ because saving the planet just kinda happened. It was the most positive offshoots that it could have ever, ever imagined, but when we started in ‘95, it was all about fashion and creating unique pieces.”
Soon, though, sustainability became the core of Preloved’s business. The company went on to open three additional locations, but in the two-and-half decades since first opening its doors, it has evolved away from a retail model toward e-commerce, wholesale and collaborations with other companies, including Roots, Holt Renfrew, Anthropologie and Indigo. In fact, these partnerships helped Grieve see smart new avenues for her business.
“We did a whole home line for Indigo out of recycled curtains,” she says. “It was so cool. Working with these large brands, and then being able to bring in our philosophy, was a really big turning point on the other things we could do.”
Now, Preloved looks beyond second-hand clothing for material, incorporating end-of-bolt and deadstock fabric into its designs, which helps divert textile waste from landfills. And earlier this year, the company launched a collection made from new fabrics for the first time. It includes pieces in French terry and jersey, both of which are completely made from recycled cotton yarn. It’s a game-changing innovation—and Preloved is among the few companies in the world using it. The collection also includes some all-over prints, so Grieve partnered with Social Textiles, a Toronto-based textile printing business that uses biodegradable ink.
“We really search out sustainable ways to manufacture,” Grieve says. “But I will be honest we still stay very focused on creating products that people want to wear, period. I meet so many different designers who set out to put sustainability at the forefront, which is amazing. But you need to create clothing that people want to wear. We have not lost focus—we will make it sustainable; don’t you worry. But our first goal is to make something you want to wear.”