Metsa for Free/Man

I interviewed Steve Tam and Markus Oran, the duo behind Toronto's Metsa clothing line, about their distinctly Canadian company and the motivations behind it. You can check out the story on Free/Man's site over here, or check out the full interview, with some photos I shot to run alongside it, below.

It seems like you guys draw inspiration from a lot of things, not just the world of fashion. What else inspires you, and why cast such a broad net?

Markus: I think it's that ability to see things beyond what they are, picking it up from a totally different place.

Steve: Recently I was up at the Barrie Flea Market, the Barrie Antique Mall it's called.

Markus: It's so good.

Steve: There's just rooms and rooms and rooms of anything. If you go to the Junction right now you'd have to pay like $400 to get an old wooden crate and they've got that for $15. They've got this rack of vintage Pendleton blankets, beautiful blankets that everyone wants. Sixty per cent of them were hideous, 40% of them were palatable but maybe 5% people would buy in an instant. It was interesting to see how the attention to that craft has existed for so long, but no one cared about it.

And that influences your designs, as much as anything in fashion?

Markus: Totally. Finding gems in piles of old stuff, there's something here that someone totally forgot about that you can bend into something new. That's also what makes good design fun, finding something that's old and trying to make it relevant.

Steve: I feel like it's a progression of interests as well. You don't just enter the game and know exactly what you want or what you're going to contribute. It's been a very long process. Metsa years ago was printed tee shirts and 40s and Wu Tang...

Markus: Which are still things I love...

Steve: Yeah (laughs), which are still fundamental cornerstones. But that grows into something that's more refined and eventually becomes boring and grows into something else. Now it's into accessories, bags, dishes.

Markus: You learn to look differently at things you would have overlooked. It's like anything: the longer you write the better you get at writing. You do it more concisely, you get from point A to C, skipping B. It's the same thing, you're able to pick out something where earlier on I would have overlooked it.

Steve: You don't appreciate the detail. I think we're seeing a lot of brands that are a few steps ahead of us but have been through similar progressions. Like the other week I was cleaning my closet and found this Wings + Horns tee-shirt from probably first or second season, and it is weird. It's a raglan, short-cut printed tee and in the back in scripted tattoo letters it says, "Call A Spade A Spade." And the inside tag is a huge thing with a Wings + Horns tattoo logo on it. This is where it started, and there's a point where I was like, 'Yeah, this is the shit.' Then it went to colourful terrycloth hoodies and crew necks and slowly through this refinement. That's where it started for me, getting out of all-over print tee-shirts and hoodies and street wear, slowly getting into more mainstream men's wear and moving beyond that. Starting to look at furniture, at accessories, other handmade things. I think it's only something that can come over a long period of time.

Markus: It's an invested interest. When both of us started, you looked for things to be perfect. And now you get better at it, you notice all these things that are perfect because they're crude. You have to get to a point to understand why that crudeness is so good, it's not something that you can just do.

Which brings to mind your dying process, which is so unique exactly because it's so organic and tenable, no two shirts come out exactly the same.

Markus: The dye process is really simply, taking a fabric and cooking up different percentages of whatever dye we're using, whether it be logwood, pomegranate, whatever and different weights of fabric. Different percentages will dye it brighter, more vibrant. Then, depending on what else we mix with it, that shifts the colour. 

We started doing it because Metsa is small, and it was a way we could take fabrics and make them ours as opposed to just shopping off a shelf. Everyone's privy to the same stuff. This was a way to do what we wanted with it; we could make it look that much different than someone else. Also it was a way to inject a colour that we wanted. That was a brand statement, those colours drove a lot of it. It's a great narrative that people are interested in and it's not perfect. Now we can control that, there's a wobble to it that you know someone's taken the time to do it.

What about that process, that wobble, do you like?

Markus: For me it took a certain amount of confidence to be like, 'I like this, and it's not perfect.' It's not chemically perfect. It's a craft. It's personality.

Steve: It brings an element of uniqueness and ownership. The time that the dying process really hit home for me was when we first looked at the thick-striped shirts. We finally got one back where we nailed it, it felt awesome. And the next day Selectism or Hypebeast or something posted the exact same fabric. At that point we were selling stuff in stores right beside Gitman stuff: so two identical shirts, one from a shirtmaker that everyone's familiar with, and one from a shirtmaker that not many people are familiar with. How do we differentiate ourselves? 

We don't want to underprice our goods, we still want to have that quality and sophistication and effort going into it. Then we took that shirt and overdyed the stripes and turned it into something completely different. If you sat there comparing them, maybe you'd clue in that it was the same fabric underneath, but all of a sudden it was a completely new piece. They're all shirts that we can confidently take to retailers and shows knowing that no one is going to have the same thing. Still this season we're picking fabric for next year, and we spend hours poring over swatches, and then you go to a store and they're just like, 'Yeah, we just got this new shipment from X…'

Markus: There's only so many places where people are buying fabric from. The fact that we're dying every season, it's like having a brand book. It's something we can carry over well.

Are you still rinsing them in the lake? That method's become central to the Metsa story

Markus: Yeah. Pomegranate dyes a burnt yellow/orange, and we dip it in iron afterwards. Iron saddens colour, it'll take something that's really bright and plunge it to green. That's what's so fun about it, I love this stuff. If you dye it in pomegranate and dip it in iron after, it's green, but if you mix the iron in with it, it's gray. It's funny too: the lake itself actually looks murky because it has a high iron content. So it's learning those things and building a swatch catalogue that's a lot of fun. 

The name Metsa came from that little treehouse that my grandpa and I built. There's something about working in a studio. But at the lake, you get a burner outside, it's on the rocks, and you're doing everything outdoors, it's a lot more fun. It turned out to be a narrative that everyone liked, but I really did it just because there's more space. I'm not someone that likes sitting around, I need to be doing stuff or I get frustrated.

So why that name? What about that place resonates with what you guys are doing?

Markus: At first it was, if I've got to choose a name I'm going to choose something that I'm not going to get sick of, something that means something to me. I thought this just works. I love being up here, I love drawing up here, if I didn't have to leave here I probably wouldn't. 
For my grandfather, I was really lucky. I come from a pretty creative family. My mom was a potter, my grandmother was a potter, my grandfather was a carpenter. So going up there and maybe that's why I'm restless all the time and I can't sit still, I was just encouraged to make stuff. You're outdoors, you're in a forest, just pick up some wood and make something. And if it sucked, that was fine: make it again until it's better. So I was always just encouraged to do that. It's such a good headspace and I hope to carry that around everywhere.

Steve: And the translation of Metsa is...

Markus: Metsa basically means 'My house in the forest.' There's also a worn quality, the wrinkledness of the clothes, and the fact that it is imperfect, that suits a cottage well. There's no hot water up there: if you want hot water, you're boiling it. There's a natural quality that comes with it that, just through the evolution of that interest, reflects itself in the brand.

Steve: It's something that's important for us to always draw inspiration from, to know that that's where it came from, even if one day not every shirt is going to be able to be dyed in the lake. To acknowledge that that's the process we went through to get where we are, that's important. It's the steps of building that story that I think give each piece value. 

We've been very adamant about this Toronto-bound idea. When Markus was going to New York, it's like, alright well what happens now? Do we try and find someone who's going to make these in New York? Does it become another 'Made in New York' thing? Sure, that gives things a kind of inherent coolness, but we've stuck by our guns for this long to be made in Toronto, to be from Toronto, and I feel like that's finally being appreciated. 

When we were at Project it was the first time people from New York said, 'Oh, you guys are from Canada? We love going to Toronto, there's so much cool stuff coming out of there.' I feel like for so long everyone from Toronto's been trying to embody a New York persona, or a London, or an LA. I feel like over the last year or two we're going over this progression where people are staying here instead of leaving. They're proud to put Toronto, Canada on their label or on their artwork or whatever they're doing, and I think that people from other places are starting to recognize that: good stuff's happening, people are being creative and producing awesome stuff. It's actually how the things are made: driving two hours up to the cottage, having this fresh water, being able to source natural dye...

That's interesting. Made in America, American heritage, these are such established things, but Canada, at least in terms of fashion, seems to have no counterpart. But you feel that's changing now?

Markus: Canada is just the underdog.

Steve: I think Made in America is important. It's helped people understand why things cost the price they do, because it does cost more: to find fabric or labour, doing your design in-house, it costs more than outsourcing to other places. So it is paving the way for something, but I think the market is much larger than that and we see that as trends come and go, super tailored-Italian meets Japanese work wear meets Americana...

Markus: We're not American. Made in America has a very certain look. I think it's good to be one of the companies that's doing it in Canada. It's different. Americana, you say that, you know what you're getting. You know the aesthetic. What's the Canadian aesthetic? We've talked about that a lot.

Steve: That's a lot of people's issue: Canada lacks its own identity.

Markus: And that's why I think people get so excited when they see something they like out of it. It feels unexpected.

Steve: So what can you do other than try to make things here to help build that identity, that recognition? A lot of the pieces embody that. 
It can be well-made, great colours but there's also something about - I feel every Metsa product can be worn at the cottage, while I have a lot of other clothing that doesn't work there. I'm not wearing a Margiela shirt at the cottage, it just doesn't jive. But somehow that Metsa shirt that's relevant outside the city for me is also relevant in the city for me. That versatility is important; that dichotomy of being in the city and being out of the city and I think that as Canadians who live in the city, we all value that. There's no one in the city who hates going to a cottage. 

Acceptance of the Canadian space and wilderness, that's an important thing that we try to capture in the clothing. I feel that doesn't necessarily exist in New York and LA. I don't want to speak for them, I just feel like the difference of the natural meets the city is very important here.

And that's an idea you've kind of lived by, isn't it? Markus's design background is more well known, can you talk a bit about where you come from, Steve?

Steve: I went to U of T, did English and Geography. Lacking focus, I just didn't know where that was going. I took some time off, went to South America, surfed for six months, was really trying to figure out what my groove was and around that same time I met a bunch of Markus's friends from OCAD on a ski trip. 

They were illustrators and graphic designers and I think it was reading week, everyone at night had to get some work done and we were skiing during the day. These guys were drawing stuff and designing magazine layouts and all this stuff and I was probably writing some essay on Chaucer, and I was looking over and would say, "What's that? What's that?"

When we got back to Toronto and we started to hang out with them more and meet the people in their environment I was blown away by this creative force that was still young and growing. Markus and I met, and at that point I had very little interest in graphic design, but I loved clothes. Markus was working on his thesis project which was a clothing line, so we started talking about that. We could geek out over clothes, which none of my friends wanted to talk about and none of his friends wanted to talk about. 

There was a long process of me playing a more informal role, just helping him out when I could. I was on the west coast in Whistler for three winters. It was a completely different lifestyle; I lived in a log cabin with no heat, I skied 140 days a year, it was amazing. But at the same time I really lacked that progression career wise. Markus and I would be on the phone talking about what he was working on here. When I moved back to Toronto we both realized we were still really set on working together and we formalized the relationship.

So do you have distinct roles in the company?

Steve: Markus definitely has the graphic design and fashion design background. I have much more of a background in distribution and retail, contact with stores and figuring out our marketing strategies and placing ourselves. Markus doesn't have time to read the cool blogs, he's out of touch, man. I've got to keep us relevant.

Markus: I think the reason why it was fun working together was because we were able to nerd out, sit around drinking whiskey arguing about collar shapes.

Steve: That's all we do. Drink scotch, listen to rap music with twenty shirts laid out and think: what is it about this shirt or that shirt, how does this fit, how does that fit? How do we want to fit into that? 
Working by yourself is lonely. I think working with someone else is good. We both catch things. Markus might get super hung up on one detail and it just takes one other person to be like, 'Hey, it's gonna be okay. We need to make a jacket.' 
I think we're able to kick each other into these different modes to really execute and at the same time keep the big picture in mind. Leading into spring/summer 2014 will be a pretty big change of gear for us. We've both had to work full time and then leave our full time jobs at 5 o'clock and pound stuff out until the wee hours of the morning. Now that we're between Toronto and New York we get these weekends of two and a half days where you just get through as many things as you can. Thank god for that GMail phone app. 
M: What's App.

You've mentioned narrative a lot, the idea that the story of a garment is essential to its worth. Why do you feel that's important?

Markus: It's versus buying an equally expensive garment that's just chosen off a rack. It's that wobbliness: there's a narrative behind it that means something. Everything's considered. Like for last season, the way that the pockets go: we drafted it in a way that it's asymmetrical. Like we said, we put out twenty shirts on the floor, and what do we like about them, what don't we like about them?

Steve: Also being the underdog when someone walks into a retailer. People go into a shop because they know that shop carries brands that they want to spend their money on. But also hopefully people shop in places where they trust that buyer to bring in new things that they haven't seen before, that are a little bit different and that bring those things in for a reason. 

We might be sitting beside four other brands that people know, so how are we building our own value? We build that through the story of why the product is the way it is. So if there's a hangtag there that just tells a little bit about where this piece is from and why it is the way it is, maybe that's enough to build some confidence in that customer. 

We're asking people to really go out on a limb. If you've never seen a Metsa product before and you like the way it fits and the way it feels, to buy it is a big vote of confidence that you believe in what we believe in. We want people to buy things because they see the value in the things that we think are important. 

A lot of people add stuff to make things look cooler, or add details, you know there's patches on everything now, or four different fabrics in a shirt, or pockets in places where you would never expect. Rather than jumping on board with that, one thing we talked about quite a bit was how do we start taking things away to become simple.

Markus: Which is design school. A lot of those things, like an allover print, just date themselves. They're relevant for such a small amount of time. I want to know I'm going to want to wear this in a couple years. 
The narrative is also in things like the dying. That narrative has to carry through in order for people to understand why it's not always going to be a flat colour, they need to understand there's something behind it that makes it special. That process of education. Things like porcelain buttons…

Steve: How can we take the things that are already on the shirt and improve upon them? Someone once said to me, 'Never buy something with a shitty button.' That's a detail that's so easy to overlook, but is also so important to a shirt. Buttons are something we talk about probably way too much, whether it's a handmade porcelain button, or corozo nut, or pressed cotton, tons of different types that have great feeling or great shape, something unique to them. Why put a fluorescent patch on the shoulder when you can just make the button a little better to bring attention to that detail and recognize that that's an important thing? 
Little details like that are easy, they aren't going to pop out at you off the rack but when you get home and you're looking at this thing you just bought, we have these added values.

That minimalism, that simplicity and detail, that's the Metsa trademark?

Markus: No superfluous things but just so far, for what we've needed, it's been minimalist. That's not to say that if we needed something else, we wouldn't go for it if it made sense for that specific item and that worked for everything else.

Steve: Yeah. Just not adding things for the sake of adding things. We don't deny that designing for yourself and designing for the people you know are going to buy them are two different things. There's people out there who compromise their personal integrity, but they know something's going to sell. You can't blame someone for doing that. What we're always trying to do is find the balance between the product that we think is perfect and how it meets the consumer. We don't just design for ourselves. We want things that are going to be worn and enjoyed.

So where do you see Metsa heading?

Steve: We're still learning all the time. The cuts are changing, the details are changing and we're finding things that we can own as a brand. The dying narrative is a great part of that, but we're also looking for ways to make the whole Metsa picture fit together better. 
One thing that we're really zoning into now for the fall season and for spring/summer next year is seeing a few details across the whole line. In the past, because the collections were so small, the pieces were more individual products: how do we make this piece special. Now we're trying to take those details across the whole line. So when you walk into a store and there's eight Metsa items on a rack, you'll be able to identify that they're in a collection together. 

I'm really looking forward to seeing all those samples rolling out. We have all these individual pieces that people have loved, but now how do we tie them into the bigger picture, how do we release a full collection that's really a collection. Any designer's dream is to eventually be able to take your name off something and have people recognize it for the feeling, the personality that the piece has. We're trying to build that story. 

It's something that goes beyond what you wear. It's what you do in your home, it's how you keep your space, it's what your desk at your office is like. Our interest goes far beyond shirts. We spend just as much time in clothing stores as we do in furniture stores, in an art gallery, in antique markets.

Markus: That freedom is a lot of fun.