“Anything you do, work or pleasure, you have to do it with zest. You have to live with zest … and that is the secret of beauty and fashion too. There is no beauty that is attractive without zest.”
– Christian Dior
At 17, Imke Hanscomb would rather work than party with her friends.
Still, she said in an interview in her studio office in Elora, “They really support it.”
Even so, “A lot of them don’t understand I don’t have a lot of time for partying and things.”
Artists who follow their muse seldom have much spare time. They immerse themselves in their work.
For Hanscomb, her work has come early. She has been running her own clothing design and sales business – JohnnyWishes.com – for over two years, and is selling her hand sewn designs all over the world, with those in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia among her most consistent and loyal customers.
What is unusual for the Elora girl is she has just finished high school and has applied to study fashion and design at George Brown College – after having run her successful fashion and design business since she was 15.
She said she is looking forward to learning a whole lot more about the trade that she has already taught herself, but she already exhibits the sense of a hard headed and practical business woman.
There are few things ordinary about the daughter of Neil Hanscomb and Gisela Ruehe. She comes by her artistic side as honestly as possible.
Her father is a stained glass artist who has done commissions all over Canada and her mother designs decorative glass work from their studio home. Growing up in Elora gave her plenty of opportunity to meet artists and artisans.
Besides their art, the Hanscomb family loves to travel, and Imke said it was two years ago, while visiting Africa for a month, that she decided she did not want an ordinary summer job where she would work for someone else.
“It was actually just a whim,” she said. “I told my parents I wanted to start a clothing business. They didn’t take it seriously. They didn’t think it was going to fly.”
And, she added, “Neither did I.”
But she had a few things going for her. First, ever since she was a little girl, “I would cut my clothes up to what I wanted them to look like. That’s basically what got me started.”
In many households, she would have been punished, but her parents showed patience with her early scissors couture experiments.
“They didn’t mind.. I was given freedom of expression. I think because they’re artists, they understood it.” Growing up in such a household had other benefits, too.
“Just living in the whole artistic environment [the glass studio and store are part of her family’s home at Church and Geddes Street] I had the feel of it. I could say ‘I know that’.”
Her studio contains piles of fabric, clothes ready to ship and The Beatles Abbey Road poster, as well as one of Bob Marley. She loves The Beatles, and Bob Marley’s music she hears all around the world on her travels.
To start her summer job, Imke began cutting up classic women’s clothing and altering them to suit her sense of style. She has her own sewing machines in her studio. The next step was the tricky part: selling them.
She headed straight for the internet.
“I posted them on my My Space [an internet social website] account,” she said. “I ended up selling them all in one day.”
She admitted, though, she had a big learning curve. At first, “I wasn’t selling a lot. It was my first project. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into.”
But, within a couple of months, while still in high school, Imke started to purchase fabric rather than using vintage clothing.
“I expanded what I knew, and started teaching myself different designs,” she said. Her clothing retails to girls from age 8 to women up to about 24.
“There is a huge span,” she said of her four biggest sales countries. Much of it appears to be party-style clothes, colourful and flashy. Imke said, “The newer dresses sort of have a funky feel.”
While some of her more elaborate designs have an eye catching appeal to them, she said, “I get a lot of ordinary girls buying. Others find me inspiring so they buy clothes to get started.”
She uses her youth to understand her customers. “Because I am the age of my clientele, I know we don’t have hundreds of dollars to dish out on style … Everyone likes affordable clothing.”
No business succeeds without some frustrations and trial and error, and Imke’s is no exception.
She built a website called johnnywishes.com, the name on her store, taken from a rock song. Getting the site up and running to its current, very professional standard took her and some friends a lot of work.
“I got a guy at my school to do it,” she said of the first construction of johnnywishes.com. “He worked on it for six months – and left me hanging with all the HTML [code] and stuff. I learned a lot myself. A designer in Kitchener taught me how to hang banners.”
The result is an array of colour, a good marketing setup, a site with easy order forms and a huge number of pictures of models in Hanscomb’s designs. Some she models herself, but other models come from all over. Some of them are her friends from this area. Others contact her about her clothes.
“I’ve got models who model for me in Brampton, California, Peterborough and Texas,” she said. If none is available, “I’ll scout them out online.”
She has learned to use the barter system. “It’s a trade. I get the photos and they keep the clothes.” She said the models find their own photographer, get the digital pictures taken, email her pictures for her website, and keep the others for their own portfolios. “It’s a win-win situation – so far.”
The Hanscomb family has travelled all over the world. Her older sister, Yanna, just returned from over half a year in Australia, and Imke and her family have backpacked in Africa, Asia and South America.
“A lot of my decision to become an entrepreneur came from seeing the world and seeing the freedom,” she said.
But, that freedom came with responsibility.
She took off a semester of high school to travel, but she noted when she returned to complete school while running her business, “It was a pretty stressful year. I’m not going to lie.”
The Christian Dior citation at the start of this article is on her website, but Hanscomb said one of her biggest influences is New York Couture, a private design and fashion company with its “wicked style.” All of those clothes are also hand sewn and designed.
But, Hanscomb said, her muse can come from anywhere.
“Even just boutiques can get inspirational,” she said.
The economic recession that hit around the world was anything but harmful to her company.
“This year has been my best. That says something. I’ve put a ton of money back into it. I don’t mind, because I know it will pay off one day.”
Her parents, like Imke, are no longer skeptical about her ability to run her own business.
“I think they’re really proud. My mom is like my number one fan,” she said.
When she graduated from Centre Wellington District High School, she won the Document Imaging Group award of $500 for “the most business drive and independent thinking.”
While waiting to hear if she is accepted at George Brown College, Hanscomb is keeping busy. She just ordered a huge amount of fabric from New York for the coming season, and she plans to be sewing and designing madly for the next three months. She likes spandex because it stretches and can fit any body shape.
She will be sewing and designing to a deadline, too. In three months, she will be heading to Asia for more travel with her best friend.
So the pressure is on again to have clothing completed and ready for sale on her website. She said it really helps that her boyfriend and her best friend are both understanding and support her efforts.
She learned from one travel experience that she should never shut down her website, because it took a long time to recover the business from a backpacking hiatus.
So she will be take a laptop this time to keep current with orders and what is selling. Her mom will do the packing and shipping. Her site also notes that she does not take credit cards, but works through Pay Pal, a longstanding web guarantor for cash transactions.
She also knows that her love of travel is an optional career. She said half of her is a fashion designer and “the other half is a travel writer.”
Still, after four semesters at George Brown College, she plans to study for a year at Ryerson University – more fashion and design.
When asked where she wants to be in the next five years, the answer is to be running a successful business out of Toronto.
“I want all my clothes hand made in Canada – and have boutiques around the world. Dream big!”
M. Dior would have approved that sentiment.