Britt Barkwell and Alia Bissett, each with impressive careers in the fashion industry under their belt, identified an intriguing gap. They saw the need for shirting-first brands that embodied timeless elegance and accessibility. In response, they birthed T.Line, a brand that redefines the essentials of every wardrobe, offering sophistication and ease in equal measure.
Drawing inspiration from the meticulous craftsmanship associated with men’s shirting, this Toronto-based brand proudly bears the hallmark of Canada, with all products thoughtfully designed and meticulously crafted within its borders. In an industry notorious for its cutthroat competition, their journey stands as a testament to the possibility of not just surviving but thriving.
In the enlightening conversation that follows, Britt and Alia share their insights and experiences, a glimpse into our recent episode on The Brand is Female podcast. Their story is an inspiring and illuminating guide for aspiring fashion entrepreneurs looking to infuse a classic twist into their products.
From each of you, growing up, what kind of career were you envisioning for yourselves? And was it at all connected to what you’re actually doing today?
Britt: Alia and I have very different paths, which makes us such great partners. I went to McGill University and I studied political science, and it was an amazing experience.
I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I was graduating. So I figured, why not go to law school? And I wrote the LSAT and very quickly realized this was not the path for me. So I’m now married to a lawyer!
I ended up going to Paris for the year, pursuing a Master’s degree. Being in Paris, it’s obviously such a beautiful, inspiring place to be. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out ways I could pursue that career path [in fashion].
I ended up moving to New York, and had a job in the marketing department at Club Monaco, which was owned by Ralph Lauren at the time. That was a really exciting first real job for me because growing up in Winnipeg, Club Monaco was where everyone shopped.
It was nice. I had spent some time working on the floor at the store. It really also was very much the way I dressed, and I love the pieces and the aesthetic. This was a very exciting first job. It was funny: the CEO at the time would be going through the women’s wear lineup — he knew I was the quintessential Club Monaco customer —, and he’d say, “Do you wear this? Why would you not wear this? Would you do like this? What don’t you like about it? What do you like about it?”
So it was an amazing experience because very quickly I had to form an opinion and be able to communicate that in front of these executives. It was an amazing learning [experience]. I was just starting to dabble in content marketing.
That was where I got my start, and then I moved back to Toronto and ended up at Holt Renfrew as well and spent almost a decade there. It was a really exciting role because it was kind of the beginning of content marketing at the time. I was hired to launch Instagram, start creating a content marketing program, blog and all of that.
It was really challenging in the sense of, especially at the time, Renfrew didn’t even have online commerce. So how do you show a team of executives what you’re doing when the ROI is very difficult to measure? It’s where we were creating content and trying to drive customers into store to shop, but it’s very difficult to show our value.
Alia: I never really locked into any particular career path that I wanted. I was sort of always interest-driven. At one point I really wanted to work at mission control in Houston because I was really into space, and astronauts. My mom was like, “You better not be the actual astronaut!”. At one point I wanted to open a restaurant because I liked to cook, and I found I never really had a really clear and distinct vision of what it was I wanted to do.
A lot of my family is in the medical profession. Everyone has a very defined and wonderful career path. And I just really like the idea of being able to keep my career open-ended. And being able to always find areas of growth for myself, and not just sort of be doing the same thing every day.
Because of that, I took a family leap and I went into commerce. I went to Queen’s [University] and it was a fantastic experience. And from there, I kept following my interests and things that I wanted to get my hands into and found a really interesting career path from there.
Making shirts is not something the two of you had done yourselves, even though you’ve spent time in fashion. So what were those first few steps and challenges came up with finding the right suppliers, getting the design and materials to the level of quality you were hoping for?
Britt: That was a huge learning curve for both of us because manufacturing and producing these products was something that neither of us had any experience in. But we have an amazing partner that also brings a lot of production expertise to the business.
I take the lead a little more on the design side, and I definitely had a very specific vision for what the product should be, what our shirting should look like.
We really spent a lot of time going through our wardrobes and looking at the pieces that we wear. A big part of our business is we’re trying to create these pieces that are really beautifully made, but we’re not technical designers.
It’s taking all these different pieces and figuring out what we love about them and bringing it together. And we have a really amazing team that helps us translate that vision into technical sketches and technical design. Those people are so crucial, and our production team is amazing and helped us really find these great.
All of our shirting is produced in Toronto, which has been wonderful. Starting this business and just learning, it’s been so useful. We can pop over to the factories and get on the floor and see, how they’re attaching a button, and doing the gusset on a certain shirt and be really involved and hands-on [with] this product, our product, which has been hugely helpful.
Did you have any fears around what obstacles you might be facing? What kind of conversations did you have around what the obstacles might be?
Alia: I think Brit and I are generally pretty relentlessly positive people, especially as it relates to our business. I don’t think we ever at any point when we were starting this thought like, “Oh my gosh, there’s going to be so many obstacles. How are we going to get over them?”
We just had fun creating the vision. When we started, we started only with three apparel items. It was Isabel’s shirt; we had sort of a Merin top, and then a Rowan t-shirt that we still sell as part of our core collection.
Britt: We really structured it as a test. We said, “Okay, let’s see what the response is. We think we have some really fantastic pieces here”.
Alia: Britt cultivated an incredible following through Truvi, and that gave a lot of legitimacy early on to the brand. And the test was really successful. We were really surprised, I think, at how well we did right out of the gate. From then on, it’s almost like the business has just continued to gain momentum and grow, and we haven’t really had the opportunity to step back and say, “Okay, what are the things that we think we’re going to be dealing with in the future?”
Because we’re now dealing with things as they come. And because we both are pretty positive people, I think we just kind of keep believing there’s always going to be a way. And we keep listening to our customers.
Britt: We try to always put our customers first, try to do right by them and learn from them. And we find using that as our guiding principle has helped us overcome a lot of the obstacles that we’ve already faced.
Alia: We’re also both realistic in the sense that, as entrepreneurs, we are always going to be facing obstacles. But we really try to use them as learning opportunities and ways for us to figure out if we are doing the right things in our business or not. And growing from there. At this stage, everything we’ve overcome, we’ve been super proud of, and it’s set us up for continued success, which is great.
Britt: One thing we adopted early on was this idea of on-demand production. So we really had the benefit of listening to our customers, seeing what works, what doesn’t work, what is selling, what people are liking, and why they are liking it.
And then kind of that reflecting in what we’re producing, how much we’re producing, and we’ve been really nimble and able to react to what our customer is saying. I think that’s the best thing that producing locally has given us, and we’re both committed to growing responsibly and not trying to grow too quickly.
We’re being very strategic about what partners we take on and what wholesale opportunities we pursue. That’s really helped us, and we’re both really aligned with that because one thing you do see is a lot of brands grow really quickly, and they do it sitting on merchandise, overproducing… It’s also very wasteful, and we’re both really trying to be as sustainable as possible with this business.
So we’re growing responsibly and looking for the right partners and also really trying to keep our brand laser-focused on what we’re trying to achieve. We look through everything through a very specific brand lens. And if a partnership doesn’t feel right or an opportunity doesn’t feel right, we don’t need to do everything and be everything to every customer.
We’re really trying to stay focused on what, we’re trying to achieve and what we’re trying to bring to the market that differentiates us.
How do you approach working with retailers? And what kind of opportunities are you seeing in the market for a category like yours?
Alia: We are being really strategic about who we’re partnering with from a wholesale perspective. The majority of our business is still definitely DTC, and we love being able to control the brand, but as far as growing our customer base, there’s nothing really more efficient than doing it via wholesale and reaching out to different customers.
Right now in Toronto, we are at TNT, and we also have a fabulous store on Yonge Street called Vert, and they have a lot of brands that are really, really strong adjacencies to ours, like Toteme and Filippa K. and a few others. So we’re trying to be very careful about where we go from a branding perspective and also just from a business growth perspective.
And we can’t grow so fast. I mean, there’s only so much growth we can handle at a time. So far we’ve been able to do it in a pretty measured way.We have a really fun pop up coming up with Holt Renfrew in Calgary. Which is going to be a really interesting test for us at West.
We have a great customer base there already, and we’re really looking forward to getting out there and seeing people in person and hopefully continuing that relationship, but we are really trying to be specific about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.
With DTC, you can be so flexible, and you can be so nimble and decide that there’s these couple of products you want to put in and develop them and have them on the site relatively quickly, but with wholesale, it’s a completely different calendar.
And trying to get on that calendar was a really heavy lift for us to do, but I think it’s been good in the sense it’s forced us to think through process and think through our collections and everything quite a bit in advance, which helps us to plan.
Britt: It was definitely a learning curve just trying to get on that wholesale calendar. It’s really important for us to have a nice blend of wholesale and direct to consumer business. So we’re just trying to figure out what that balance is and testing different markets.
You’ve referred to staying in touch with your customer base and really understanding what your clients are wanting from a product standpoint. How do you do that? And how are you making sure you’re keeping that contact and that close exchange?
Alia: What is working well for you in those areas? I would say there are a few things. One is, we are a small team. So we actually, we do all of our customer service. So anyway, anytime somebody emails us, it is us that’s responding. And I think it’s actually a really great way to get in touch with customers. I mean, as a customer, I love that having the founder email right back to you.
And we’re always asking for feedback. It’s an easy way to connect. And I think it really does give us a lot of valuable insights. And I think it’s one of those things that I think we will hang on to as long as we can, because of the insights that we’re able to to glean from that.
In the same vein, we are very hands-on people. And as we have some of these wholesale accounts, we love to go up to the stores and we’ll talk to the sales people on the floor and understand what they’re hearing from their clients or what they’re seeing in the stores and kind of collecting feedback that way.
We really see ourselves as true partners with our retail accounts. We’re not just kind of sending them the product and walking away. We do events with them. We really just try to get as much exposure to both the sales team and their clients as possible.
I think it’s those two things that have enabled us along with, the data that we get through our sales because we’re DTC. It’s really easy to see what’s resonating and what’s not. Those three things kind of help us to get a pretty good picture of who our customers are and what they’re liking and things that maybe we could do differently and better.
Britt: One other thing that we started to do, and we’re hoping to do a little bit more of, is we’ve been doing a lot of smaller trunk shows. And it really allows us to do a lot of clienteling, and we’ve been doing them at private homes and having someone host and invite friends.
That way we can really get to know different customers and see women trying on our clothes in different ways and how are they wearing it and what’s their feedback. In addition to the events we’re doing in the store, we’ve been trying to do some smaller events.
To women who are starting a brand in a fashion category or thinking of it, would you say there’s still space? You’ve built something very unique, you’re very specific on the product and your vision for style with the brand. Is that the secret to making a fashion brand work in 2023? And, overall, what would be your advice to women thinking of starting a brand, or who are just starting a brand in fashion?
Britt: I definitely think there’s room in the market.
It is a really hard business, and it’s very saturated and you can feel overwhelmed, especially as you’re starting out. But I think what we’ve seen is that the more we stay really focused on our vision and what we’re trying to bring to the market… You can’t be everything to everyone.
So we have a customer base that we’re really trying to provide our product to, and I think what we’re seeing and especially what we’re being, the feedback we’re being given from some of our retail partners is that we are really filling this little gap, especially with our price point and our aesthetic and the fact that we are shirting first.
And so I think there is a hole that we’re trying to fill, and we’re just trying to stay super focused and not be everything to everyone.
Alia: We love the brand. We love what we’re doing. We’re also looking at it as a business, we really, really try to run it profitably. We’re really looking at making sure we’re making the right decisions. And I think in any industry, if you’re building the business, there’s always room for growth and additional brands to come in. If you can build it successfully, and you have your business fundamentals, then you can do it. It’s not necessarily always about “Can the market bear it?”. But if you’re starting out, ask lots of questions
We’ve asked a lot of questions and we’re really fortunate we’ve got a lot of great connections through our personal networks and from Holt Renfrew of people that we can go to that have been able to mentor us and give us advice as we’ve kind of gone on through this journey. That’s something that has been really crucial for us.
What’s unique is Brit and I really love working together, which is great. We really found somebody that is very complimentary to each other, but that we also really genuinely enjoy working with. That really helps us every day. We want to be working together. We want to be building this business together. And I think that’s something that gives us a lot of motivation.
What do you think this shirt represents for women specifically? And for such a long time, the shirt was a staple in the men’s closet, the tailored shirt comes from men’s closet. Why do you think it’s so powerful for women?
Britt: It’s such an iconic item. There’s nothing like the feeling when you put on a crisp white shirt, and you just feel polished and effortless. And the way you look helps you feel better, these crisp silhouettes that they’re empowering.
At the end of the day, you want to look good and feel good. And if we can help women to effortlessly put on one of our shirts and feel great and go into an interview or go to drop off their kids or go out for dinner and feel great, then we’ve done our job. That’s what we’re trying to do, and make it easy for women to get dressed and effortless.
Alia: There is just something we all feel when you put on that one piece of clothing that makes you feel fabulous, there is such a strong relationship between clothing and how you feel. And there is something about the shirt that really just makes you feel… I think like you can conquer anything! It sounds crazy, but I think it’s true. There is obviously that history of getting dressed for work, and you put on your shirt and you go.
But since the mid 1900s or so, a lot of these iconic women were reaching into their husbands closets and styling their shirts. And I think there was just something so empowering about that. I don’t know if it was because it was coming from a male’s closet, and we were females, we’re styling it and wearing it, but since then there’s something very powerful about the shirt. You can bring so much of your own personality into how you style it, it becomes such a cornerstone of somebody’s wardrobe.
Britt: It’s just the longevity of it. We’re always going back to the archives and researching, and when you look at photos of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy in the 90s wearing a white shirt and a slip skirt that looks like it could be our Isla slip skirt and a strappy Manolo sandal… That could be yesterday. It’s so iconic and relevant now, and that’s why these pieces just have such longevity and are just really timeless.
Listen to our full podcast interview with Britt Barkwell and Alia Bissett, Co-Founders of T.Line HERE.