5 Questions with Jill Sawatzky / Tony Chestnut

Jill Sawatzky is a Winnipeg-based designer and owner of Tony Chestnut. The brand is known for its quirky, comfortable, courageous, colourful shapes that are delighting an ever-growing fanbase. See why, at tonychestnut.ca 

1. When and how did Tony Chestnut emerge? Or rather, what’s Tony Chestnut’s origin story? 

i’ve always been very creative. lots of painting and drawing and crafts as a kid and teen. but i was devastatingly unfashionable, or rather anti-fashion(?). perhaps being anti-fashion is the same as being really fashionable? like opposite ends of the same spectrum actually being meaning the same thing.
i was a hopeless tomboy with everything to prove in the way of presenting myself differently than other girls at that time. to me, this took the form of hating trends and everything linked to mainstream fashion. there were moments of oversized cargo shorts and workboots, worn with thrifted children’s tshirts, topped off with rhinestone cowboy necklaces and super short hair.
now that i write this all out for you, i guess i was a fashion icon? ha.
all of this to say, it came as a large shock to everyone around me when i dropped out of university, and enrolled in fashion school. fashion?? JILL?! i think i knew that this could be an avenue to allow my creativity to masquerade as a pragmatic career. i mean… everyone wears clothing right? it’s like the utilitarian workhorse of the arts world.
i went to fashion school, and the rest is history. tony chestnut was the name of my final graduation clothing collection, and the next year i started making clothes to sell under that name.
this was 16 years ago.

2. It was your rag knit sweaters that first caught my eye, but you design a lot more than sweaters. Do you have a favourite Tony Chestnut design? 

the rag knit sweaters also continuously catch MY eye! i’m still often left breathless when i see them. they have power!
since i started making the sweaters about 4 years ago, they’ve done the grand and unexpected job of making “sense” of everything that tony chestnut stands for. sort of a thesis, if you will. like, if you want to know the vibe, intention, feeling, aesthetic of tc, just take a moment with a rag knit sweater. one single sweater speaks to shape, proportion, gender inclusion, sustainability, colour, a sense of humour, imperfect handmade charm, and nostalgia. my grandmother taught me how to knit when i was 16, and the concept of “rag knit” is based entirely on my mennonite grandmas and great grandma’s artistic frugality. this is such an important story for me to tell, especially as i’m getting older. our history and heritage give depth and reference to what we create, subsequently, a sweater can do the work of validating a career.
at this point, these sweaters have become the proverbial maypole of tony chestnut. every single thing that i design and make is edited and balanced with how it can be worn and styled with a rag knit sweater. it feels lovely to have an anchor point for the clothes.
so anyway. the rag knit sweaters are my favorite tony chestnut pieces. but i also love the lenny trousers (a straight leg trouser with a tuck pleat down the front of the leg, and a sort of 70’s athletic stripe down the side of the leg), and a dress that i made a bunch of years ago called the lollipop frock (big and structured with a high neck and a giant peplum. it felt like the perfect response to overtly feminine dressing). it’s hard to pick favorites, though, because they all have their own little parts of a larger story. like extras in a play!

3. My own awareness of Tony Chestnut happened in 2020 I think, there was more isolation so I spent more time on my phone, I suddenly spent a lot of time on Instagram, and discovered Tony Chestnut, which caught my eye because it’s just so different, so joyful, so full of freedom and honestly badassery as well. You told Jen Zorratti you DGAS about clothes (or was it about fashion?) and I think that’s part of it – it’s so feeling-based, so free, so intuitive I think… it’s badass. That’s my vague, outsider take on it. Do you have a reaction to this or is there anything to correct or set straight here? 

you are wonderfully gracious in your depiction of tony chestnut here. i love what you wrote. i think i’m just on a journey of understanding how to marry my love of creating and dressing people, and my hatred of over-consumerism and capitalistic expectations of people. this journey seems to be intensifying as i get older, to the point where sometimes i really hate my job. the fashion industry is trife. i don’t know how i actually found myself in this industry.
i think that ideally (and i have no idea how this could actually happen), i would be able to present tony chestnut less as a collection of individual products, and more as a long running (and ongoing) story told with clothing. the story would be one of empowerment and self expression and vulnerability and joy. it would tell a story about the transformative power of clothing to help us present ourselves to the world in a way that tells each of our individual stories. i’m still fleshing it out, 16 years later. maybe i’ll figure it out one day.
in the meantime, i truly do have a blast making fun garments, and seeing (and feeling) the joy and confidence– and vulnerability– in the people who wear them. this is one of the great gifts of my life, to be let into other people’s lives like this.

4. Playful. Free. Fun. Fully themselves. Those are some of the things that I think of, when I scroll your Instagram and gaze at your designs. What’s the weirdest design you’ve ever created? 

i feel like lots of the things i’ve made over the years feel a little “weird” on paper, but by the time they’re presented to the world, they’ve come to make complete sense to me.
the sweet spot for me, is creating something that is hard working and easy to wear, while also having something unexpected and a little quirky to them. some examples of this that come to mind are a utilitarian vest, made out of carpet underlay. or an apron, complete with large pouch pockets, made out of a beautiful suiting wool. or an elegant high-neck floor length frock made out of vintage cotton athletic mesh.

5. You designed the clothes that Miriam Toews wore not just to the Oscars, but throughout the whole – what was it, a week or more – of Oscar parties in Hollywood. How did it feel to get that call, how did it feel to dress a legend for the Academy Awards, and how did it feel to see your creations on the Champagne Carpet?!

Yeah! I got to make clothes for miriam to wear for the scripters awards, the writers guild awards, the independent spirit awards, and the Oscars.
Truthfully, I don’t give that much of a rip about the Oscars. I recognize that it’s very cool that Tony chestnut was there, but I mostly just made normal tony chestnut clothes for miriam, out of slightly nicer fabrics than normal. That’s what she wanted!
The great validation of this whole experience is that someone as smart and lovely and powerful as miriam, would choose to wear my clothes during such an important part of her career. I love it that she trusted in these clothes to make her feel her best.

6. I read in Fashion magazine that you had mentioned that your Mennonite heritage has been one of your influences. Would you want to tell us a bit more about that? 

I like the challenge of accepting the aesthetic of my Mennonite heritage for what it is, and then trying to make it look a little bit “cool” or fun or pretty or artistic or whatever.
I’m always the most inspired by workwear. Whether it’s the quilted jacket liners and coveralls that my grandpa and my dad wore when they came home from work, or the comfortable trousers and button down shirts they wore around the house. But also the sensible frocks and aprons that women wore as workwear. And the jackets. And the knit sweaters. All of these pieces held a lot of practical value. It’s my fun to take them and keep the practicality, while also adding a bit of flair. Why not.

7. On New Year’s Eve, you posted a picture of your knitting yarns on Instagram and part of the caption read, “I can’t get over it. I accept. I am a Mennonite grandma.” Would any of your designs especially shock or delight your Mennonite grandma? 

I’ll keep this one as short as possible, because I feel I’ve already pontificated enough on the dang sweaters I make. About 6 months ago I put together a knitting e-book, so that people could try their own hand at making a rag knit sweater. In the book, I tell a heart warming story about my great grandma Jessie, and how she would knit rags and then use the scraps to help birds make nests. Like, what the fuck, it’s so beautiful that even writing it out now makes me emotional. Anyway. I bet Jessie would be proud of me. She would probably chuckle a little and shake her head at the drama of it all, but that’s what Mennonite great grandmas do. My grandma elma was always hopelessly proud of me, she told me so all the time. I have a photo of her up in my studio. My grandma eleanor wears tony chestnut clothing with pride, even now, in her care home.
I think I’m probably pretty lucky to have this answer, and it’s a reminder for me to be proud of the people around me for being their true selves.

(Erin’s note: yeah this is more than 5 questions, I break my own rules sometimes. Hashtag worth it amrite)