When we gathered Constantina Douvris and Kaili Brown, landscape architects from HTFC Planning & Design, with Jane Puchniak, manager at Kit and Ace, it was clear how the disciplines of fashion and urban design have more in common than one might initially assume. What was more inspiring: a mutual love for Winnipeg’s burgeoning Exchange District.
In their earliest forms, fashion and urban design shared roots in basic protection and shelter. Today, according to Douvris, Brown, and Puchniak, fashion and urban design represent an opportunity to make people feel comfortable, both in their own skin and in public spaces.
Kit and Ace, a retail store located on one of the Exchange District’s more prominent strips, McDermot Avenue, has found success not only by Canadian design-led clothing, but also by featuring artwork and photographs by local artists. With a focus on innovations in apparel, Kit and Ace creates products that reflect the community by creating with their customers. In the same sense, Douvris and Brown design communities for communities, drawing inspiration from the area’s residents, history and businesses.
Both mothers and trained landscape architects, Douvris and Brown bring to HTFC Planning & Design years of design experience, and are described by their peers as the office fashionistas. Puchniak, having lived in Japan, Australia and England, found herself moving back to Winnipeg working for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and within the music industry.
All three were eager to share their thoughts about fashion and urban design and how the two disciplines can come together to advance new opportunities for Winnipeg.
Their main thesis: design is about people — it is expressive, multicultural and unique to the flavour of a community.
Kit and Ace could have easily located in a suburban locale. Yet, it chose to move into the Exchange District, helping to position this area as a destination for unique retail. Why was this decision made? How has it changed people’s perceptions about downtown?
Puchniak: There is a strong community component within the brand and we always aim to be in hubs of activity and learn as much as we can from the communities that we are a part of. Part of our overall retail strategy is testing different kinds of areas, and we have a variety of stores in different areas internationally. I love how Winnipeg’s Exchange District has a large density of heritage buildings, beautiful architecture and design. It’s great to see them alive and thriving. I truly believe that the downtown is the heartbeat of our city, and it’s great that Kit and Ace is part of this renewal.
Douvris: Downtowns are the heart of a community. Having retail prosper, grow and expand is key to any downtown revitalization effort. I’m hoping that continues right here in Winnipeg.
From a design and planning perspective, how do you feel the increase of density of people affects public space?
Douvris: It’s critical to creating a vibrant downtown. You need people to make the area feel safe. Retail helps to add eyes on the street. It’s one of those classic urban design elements — you need to have people, you need to have critical mass. That helps to attract more people. You need to be cognizant to make sure there is enough of the right type of development on the main floor of buildings — like retail, like restaurants, like commercial spaces that are open later and longer. Features like Kit and Ace’s sandwich boards are a great way to showcase what’s happening in the Exchange District. We don’t want to commercialize the public realm but we want activity to spill out onto the streets, connecting the inside to the outside.
Brown: Increasing population density is incredibly important. But you need a variety of amenities to support people living here along with comfortable, pedestrian-friendly streets. It takes retailers, urban designers, city officials and the public to communicate the importance of more walkable, urban spaces.
Tell us a bit more about Kit & Ace’s design process, from the clothing to the design of your space?
Puchniak: We value mindful, technical design — creating something that is aesthetically beautiful and functional. You see this in our clothing but also in our spaces. Every Kit & Ace space is different depending on the city — the touches of our brand are reflected in the copper and iconic blue, but we also incorporate local design. Winnipeg interior designer Renee Struthers designed the lighting fixtures — they fuse copper fixtures with concrete to emulate Manitoba snowdrifts, connecting our space to our hometown. It casts a beautiful light in our space. We also feature local visual artists on our walls, and celebrate a new Winnipeg or Manitoba-based artist every three months.
Douvris: We really love how Kit and Ace cues into the tastes of its customers, looking at how clothing can meld with the person’s personality. Fashion for Kit and Ace isn’t about what looks perfect, but more about personality. I think the consultation Kit and Ace does with its consumers is like our process of design. It’s really neat. Kit and Ace’s design process is about understanding its client base. That’s what we do — we design in the public realm for our client base. Consultation is part of the process, understanding how people use space. It’s never perfect and it’s a space for all people. It’s a similar process in some ways.
Brown: What we do as landscape architects is constantly talk to our clients, trying to determine what exactly we can do to make their projects come together in a way that makes them happy. Our process is about understanding our client’s needs and making successful projects for them.
What more can be done to build great places?
Douvris: What’s important is that we’re designing spaces that are flexible. Successful spaces provide opportunities for activity, just like Kit and Ace has — with moveable tables, chairs and infrastructure. We don’t try to be prescriptive. We design spaces that can be malleable and people can take over and take ownership of. You see places that are overdesigned and programming is pigeon-holed.
Puchniak: Something that I find innovative about Kit and Ace is that our space is used beyond just fashion and a retail space. We look at how to incorporate the community through artists launches, pop-up events, supper clubs and brunch clubs. When you brought up not pigeon-holing a space and its use, Kit and Ace has become flexible, too — we constantly try to think of new ways to include the community and how they can use our space.
Brown: It’s so unique and beautiful and wonderful that your brand can be active in the community. In our work we try to inspire our commercial activity to spill out onto the street. What you are doing is exactly what we want – how do we get more businesses to be community-minded?
How can fashion and design bring people together?
Barteski: I think one of the reasons why I started to love winter was living in Wolseley and accessing the river when it was frozen. I would look forward to the coldest days of the year. It was this huge expanse of people walking their dogs, snow twinkling at people’s houses, and new perspectives. You could see into people’s homes, see people as they woke up, on your way to the river.
It was like people sharing a secret. We would meet, we would form a sense of community. It was an unexplored, uncelebrated space, that’s now being promoted. Urban space brings people together. I do Pilates at Manitoba Hydro courtyard and you see all types of people in urban space — families, babies, farmers’ markets, and kids on rolling hills. It’s amazing to see the space come alive.
Community space is so important and it needs to be walkable. There are cafes, retail — they engage you in your own community. If you have to get in your car to go to another place, you miss out on the gossip and interaction in your own community.
Brown: When you see other people on the street — it’s vibrant and you feel alive. Outdoor spaces showcase how multicultural our spaces are. You can see all types of fashion, fabrics and textures, all types of people expressing themselves in their own unique ways. There are fashion shows in back alleys — bringing arts and culture to our spaces.
During the 19th century, as industrialization made it easier and quicker to inexpensively produce fashion, it often diminished the discipline’s craftsmanship. The same can sometimes be said with the production and reproduction of our urban spaces — are they built to last?
Brown: We build spaces to last, but we want them to have the ability to change in order to suit the user. What is unique about landscape architecture and urban design is: we deal with living materials.
Douvris: We’re designing for living things!
Puchniak: I love that parallel! Fashion is all about designing for living things, too!
What can be done to fashion a better Winnipeg?
Puchniak: If we were to try to pin down on what the fashion of Winnipeg was like, it would be impossible to pin down a specific example. It speaks to the diversity of our community. There’s a strong freedom of expression, which is truly a beautiful thing. What’s the future of Winnipeg fashion? I’d look to the winter months. We see much more fashion in the winter months than we’ve ever seen before and the options for winter attire have really expanded.
As a city we’re seeing more winter events, which has been incredible as it makes up such a big part of our calendar year. This renewed interest in celebrating winter, brings winter fashion to the streets, to the Red River, whether it’s in the hats or footwear or coats on the river trails. Design is responsible for winter becoming my favourite season — both in the design of public spaces and the fashion we create.
Douvris: Winter has always been an important consideration for landscape architects, making spaces more comfortable. But winter cities have now caught on with the general public, and are in vogue — creating ice bars, restaurants on the river. There’s an acceptance and celebration from the community to animate in the winter. You even start to see voyageur fur hats or culture reflected with mukluks.
Want to duet with us? Email HTFC Planning & Design at email@example.com.
Everyone designs. From inspired entrepreneurs full to the brim with ideas for our city to the many pop-up shops that have emerged in our downtown. From the local coffee shop on the corner to the delicate, delicious artisan pastries that we can’t help but devour, design is everywhere.
Duets is an exclusive Winnipeg Free Press monthly series that pairs design experts with local champions and innovators to brainstorm new opportunities for civic building.
Duets is written by HTFC Planning & Design’s Jason Syvixay, with imagery and photography provided by Kal Barteski and David Moder Photography.