Red-carpet commission Jill Sawatzky was sure her phone was glitching when she received a request to outfit novelist Miriam Toews for the Oscars
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On a Friday night in early February, Jill Sawatzky, the designer behind the Winnipeg clothing line Tony Chestnut, received a message.
Author Miriam Toews was interested in having Sawatzky design some outfits for her to wear to this weekend’s Academy Awards, where Sarah Polley’s adaptation of her 2018 novel Women Talking is up for best picture and best adapted screenplay.
Sawatzky was in disbelief. Women Talking, based on the true-life 2009 events of an insular Mennonite colony in Bolivia, where the men were drugging and assaulting the women at night and then telling them it was ghosts, Satan, or “wild female imagination,” is all she’d been talking about for the past two months. She thought maybe The Algorithm was playing tricks on her.
“I literally thought that it was my phone generating a messed-up AI message or something,” she says with a laugh.
But no, it was a real request, and a meaningful one at that. “Miriam said that she wished that there would be a Manitoba Mennonite person that could make her clothing, and then I guess her daughter-in-law said, ‘Have you ever heard of Tony Chestnut?’”
Sawatzky, 40, was excited. “I’ve been a fan of Miriam’s work for literally a decade,” she says. “I’ve always kind of felt like she was a voice for a community that one part of me definitely always identified with just being Mennonite, and being somewhat questioning of many parts of that community but also taking pride in the culture, so it’s always been a bit of a tricky road to hoe. And I feel like she’s done that really well.”
Indeed, Sawatzky has long seen herself reflected in Toews’ work. Here, now, was an opportunity for Toews to see herself reflected in Sawatzky’s. They met on the following Monday and spent a few hours together getting on the same sartorial page. Time was of the essence; Toews, who lives in Toronto, was only in Winnipeg for five days.
The result: a seven-piece capsule wardrobe of menswear-inspired separates that could be mixed and matched to create different outfits for the Oscars as well as a few other events Toews would be attending.
“My biggest inspiration for the pieces were literally just what I thought Miriam would feel comfortable in because that is obviously the most important thing,” she says.
“So I know that she is comfortable in things that are not dresses. I know that she’s comfortable in trousers. I do feel like there was a little bit of inspiration pulled from our shared heritage, which is our Mennonite heritage. So, you know, things like really nice suiting wool trousers and high-collared blouses, just taking that overall modest aesthetic and making it really, really special and beautiful.”
“It was so magical, meeting Jill, because we connected on so many levels,” Toews says via email. “And we talked for a while in her studio and we talked about the Mennonite women in Bolivia, and in Paraguay and in Steinbach, and in Rosenort and about ourselves, and then she sort of organically intuited the situation, understood what I’d need and what I’d feel good and myself in, and in a super tight turnaround came up with these very cool and beautiful and perfectly ‘Mennonite-infused’ clothes that I love so much, and have now decided to purchase one new piece a year from Jill so that eventually I’ll be all Tony Chestnut, all the time, and this is what my children will inherit.”
Over the past few seasons, modest dressing has found its way onto runways and into department stores alike in the form of higher necklines, longer hemlines, looser silhouettes, and the occasional puffed sleeve. But it’s an aesthetic Sawatzky has always been drawn to and inspired by, regardless of whether or not it’s on trend.
“I think that it’s a small part of me trying to, throughout my adult life and my career, trying to find the beauty in my heritage, because there’s often times where that is very hard for me to do and for lots of people to do,” she says. “We see, like, what our grandmothers wore, or our grandparents wore, and we don’t see the beauty of it. But if you look, it’s there.”
Sawatzky grew up in Rosenort, Man., and moved to Vancouver at 18 to attend fashion school. In 2006, she moved to Winnipeg and founded Tony Chestnut — as in the children’s song “toe-knee chest-nut nose eye love you” — and was able to take it full time in 2014. The label has taken many forms over the years, but crafting high-quality, well-constructed garments that people feel at home in has always been central to the Tony Chestnut ethos.
So, too, is connection.
“I’ve often joked that I actually don’t give a shit about clothing, but that actually it’s the best avenue that I can have to interface with people in a really impactful way,” she says. “That’s obviously mostly a joke — I find so much joy in making clothing. It’s all I think about, and I think about colours, and I think about shapes and proportions. It’s my real passion. But I do feel like overall, what my goal with Tony Chestnut has always been is to create clothing that works for people, instead of people having to work in some way to wear a certain type of clothing.”
Sawatzky hates the word “flattering.” She wants to make clothes that allow people to express themselves the way they want to express themselves.
“I find so much joy in making clothing. It’s all I think about, and I think about colours, and I think about shapes and proportions. It’s my real passion.”–Jill Sawatzky
“I’ve heard people say to me that they had a really big job interview, and they chose to wear their Tony Chestnut clothing because it made them feel strong and powerful,” Sawatzky says. “Or I’ve had people tell me that they wore Tony Chestnut to their mom’s funeral, and it made them feel safe. Stories like that are literally the only reason I do what I do.”
Being part of Toews’ story, and the story of Women Talking, then, has been a singular thrill for Sawatzky.
“When a person like Miriam, who doesn’t really care about fashion, and she’s the first to admit that, when she’s able to look at the past 16 years of my work, and feel like she connects to it, what that means to me is that she’s connecting to a story, and that story is empowerment through clothing.”
And Toews isn’t the only one feeling her new threads.
“Sorry to be that person but can I just name-drop right here, because I’ll never have this chance again? When Frances McDormand, style maven and queen of everything, in my opinion, saw my Jill Sawatzky/Tony Chestnut duds, she grabbed my face and said, ‘Oh! Look at YOU! Looking GOOD, lady!’” Toews says. “And also Cousin Greg from Succession (Nick Braun, who’s gotta be a Mennonite right?) allowed me to take a selfie with him because he liked the cut of my jib. Thanks to Jill! OK, and having said all that, I also want to say I’d rather spend the rest of my life in a Mennonite Colony than in Hollywood.”
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Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.