I’m Kaiser, Betty and Kora’s new fashion correspondent, and this is Part One of my interview with Rabbit and Empee.
I sat down to chat with Chad White (Rabbit) from Rabbit and Empee in their Commercial Drive store front in East Vancouver. They are by far, one of my favourite brands and vendors. Always original, organic, durable, and sold with a few jokes and a smile! I wanted to get to the bottom of this festival fashion thing, and they seemed like the perfect place to start. Go to the experts right?! Their clothes are great for mixing and matching with items you already have, and are easily taken into the real world. They don’t conform to any particular style, so a great brand for the first time festival buyer who wants items that will look great for the weekend, but will also blend into the city or the woods.
I really love their clothes. Perfectly designed and tailored. Original, but not too out there either. What I intended on being a straight forward spotlight on the clothing company, it’s ethical and organic production, and its origins, really turned into a deep look down into it’s roots, coming out of many layers of festival dirt! A slice of West Coast rave history through the eyes of one talented and well travelled designer!
Towers of Fabric, Belts with Pockets and Buddha Eyes.
Photo credit to M3 Artistry
Kaiser– So on your website, it says that you kind of founded the brand at Shambhala Music Festival. How many years ago was that?
Rabbit– This upcoming Shambhala it will be 9 years ago. A long time! But yeah, before that I was there with The Cats Pyjamas, which was a collaboration with this Australian guy, Kurt The Cat and Michelle from the Fairies Pyjamas, and then we just all made different things and collaborated and we did that for a few years (before forming Rabbit and Empee).
Kaiser– So the Cats Pyjamas isn’t around anymore?
Rabbit– No, now it’s in Australia…He’s the one who taught me how to sew, and how to think about how to do market stalls, and kinda outta the box. Especially since there wasn’t that much going on here then.
Kaiser– Right, cause Shambhala was pretty low key then and there weren’t that many vendors. I think it was even free to vend there back then, wasn’t it?
Rabbit– No it wasn’t free but it was just before that. There wasn’t the dialled hub of people who are specializing for it. There was nobody there yet. I remember bringing these belts with pockets. I went to Tibet, and I brought these ones from Tibet, and no one had ever seen a belt with pockets! They had this really awesome embroidery on them.
Kaiser– That’s amazing! And that really took off absolutely. The utility belts, that’s like a mainstay of festival fashion now.
Rabbit– Yeah it is! That’s like our bread and butter!
Photo credit to M3 Artistry
Kaiser– A lot of people talk about Shambhala having this really transformative influence in their lives, really taking them in a different direction. Did you find that Shambhala had that effect on you guys, and your collaboration?
Rabbit– Yeah, well it totally changed my life actually! If you think about it, because of that festival, because it was so established and it kept going on every year, people were so receptive to what we made. I could start depending on that every year as a big chunk of our sales basically, and people were being really receptive to my creativeness for electronic music. I ended up moving to Nelson because of it. We were in Toronto and I was like, “oh lets just move around Nelson, it’s really cool, Shambhala is right there!”
Kaiser– So how long were you in Nelson then?
Rabbit– About 7 years.
Kaiser-Oh cool! I’m from Rossland originally, so Shambhala is sort of my home festival.
Rabbit– Oh ok, yeah we went out there, had chickens, did farming and then did the organic clothing. It was just sort of this central hub… It’s like country mouse, city mouse, you go back and fourth, just different costumes! It’s fun to be out here too.
Photo Credit Discover Nelson
Kaiser– So your clothing is made in Bali, and then you get some hardware and accessories from Nepal, is that right?
Rabbit– Well since we had the shop (in Vancouver), then we had to expand for winter stuff, so last year I went to India and Nepal to try to find new sources for different material. Indonesia has more summery time material, so I went to India and I wanted to actually find wool, like felted wool. So I did that, I went to Delhi and I started to search these insane material markets by Rickshaw. I spent like ten days there, and eventually found this tower! Literally it was, I dunno, six stories in this guys building! So I bought some wool, just as a trial. Then carried that to Varanasi, to another city and I was looking for like, raw silks. I was just looking for other alternative material. We also did get a bit of wool stuff from Nepal, but that’s just in the store, in the festivals we don’t sell it.
Kaiser– So it seems like from the photos on your website, you have a pretty close relationship with the people who manufacture your clothes in Bali, right? So how does that work, how long have you been working with them? What makes the community aspect of what you do?
Rabbit– Well, I guess its a range but we’ve been working with them for about 8 years. 8 years for different tailoring and sewing, and as for the dying about 5 years. Yeah we’ve got about 5-8 years with most of the people, and we work with them, and they kinda get to know our styles and how to make our patterns in ways that we like it. You just build up a personal relationship cause we’re there for like 5 months. You’re seeing them every day. You get sometimes huge problems, things go wrong, and you’ll get 100 pieces of stuff that are really incorrect. But then, they’re your friends. We do sustainable, fair trade, so when stuff like that happens, we don’t just fire people! We just try to solve problems, not take things personally. We’re a business, so I want to make money for them.
Kaiser– Right, you want to make sure that they’re getting a good deal out of it, versus someone they would normally be working with?
Rabbit– Exactly, so its a long term relationship. And as for the price and sewing ,I tell them basically what I project I can sell it for, what I need to kinda make it work. Then they say what they need and we come to an agreement. I’ve seen a lot of those people buy houses and buy cars. They’re definitely successful! I mean there’s other people they work with, but I can tell I’m definitely a big part of their business.
Kaiser– Great! And you can see that their lives are improved because of it, right?
Kaiser– So would you say a lot of your inspiration comes from this ethnic, tribal environment, or the countries you get your stuff from?
Rabbit– Um, yes and no. I dunno, I used to just have the ideas for inspiration come from whatever is in my environment at the time. So it doesn’t matter where I am, I’m always trying to be open to different influences that are not from a mainstream source. Have your Buddha eyes set to real creation. It’s hard to define what that is, but just not mainstream fashion. If I go to an exotic country, they have so many different ideas that I definitely try to absorb some of that stuff. But then also because I go to festivals here in Canada and there’s different influences, like the forest and the animals, and even just like driving in the truck down big highways. It is what it is, so I just try to gather different stuff from everywhere.
Kaiser– Right! I really like to look at it as the style relates to the music in a way, and that there’s this idea of sampling. Mixing and matching things to create something novel. I think the fashion really does that in a way too, where you’re taking all of these different influences and making it work in something that’s really amazing and useful.
Rabbit– I totally see what you’re saying, I can relate to that. You’re just getting little segments of this and that, different segments of people’s clothing. Or the music, like the repetitiveness of it or the different shapes, like geometric shapes that you can imagine. The visuals, decor. Oh yeah! Cause I’m at festivals so much, that’s a huge part of it, the decor. I always love different installations and all the lycra art and lighting, and just abstract views. I mean cause it comes down to that, it’s a pretty psychedelic experience. So I try to reflect that in the designs.
This interview was such a gem, I had to split it into two instalments. Rabbit and Empee are such an amazing business with the best intentions, beautiful items, and such a strong connection to the scene here. They really deserve a double feature.
Part two of our epic conversation coming soon
Rabbit and Empee -1044 Commercial Dr, Vancouver, BC