Hailing from the beautiful Vancouver Islands on Canada’s west coast, die-hard surfer-cum-menswear designer John Hillifer takes dark, raw tailoring and fuses it with his innate technical sensibility.
This humble, free-spirited soul started out flexing his creative muscles in architecture but decided it wasn’t for him and instead took off travelling the world to do what he does best and loves most (after designing, of course) – catching waves on the gnarliest coasts in the world. John then relocated to Toronto to study fashion at Ryerson University where his talent attracted attention, even winning him a stint designing a (now sold out) jacket for pioneer Canadian leather brand Danier. Freshly graduated with an impeccable first collection under his belt, John is going where the wind will blow him, with thoughts of taking his brand along a more technical route. Catching him on the tail-end of a road trip to New York, Massachusetts, Maine, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Quebec and back to Toronto (phew!), i-D Online caught up with the designer before his last stop, his home on the west coast.
Who is John Hillifer? Someone who focuses completely on a very refined set of priorities.
Tell me about your upbringing on Vancouver Island… Well my dad was a fisherman and I grew up in and out of the ocean a lot. So being out on the coast is really important for me. In the off season my dad built hot rods, so I think through osmosis I kind of picked up that lifestyle from him. It’s kind of nomadic. I’m very appreciative to have grown up on the island. It really shaped my values. Being environmentally conservative is a way of life out there.
How do you implement eco friendly values into your design? I look at sustainability in clothing but not just from conventional aspects of low impact materials of course, but more in the direction of how to develop products that people want to preserve and use as opposed to buy and just have. It’s a less is more approach. And also, when I worked for Danier leather, it’s not an extensively sustainable business but I tried even within the office to get them to recycle more paper and use less stuff and just make those little changes that you can make no matter where or who you work for.
I heard you lived out of your car to surf for a while…? Well when in between quitting architecture and moving to fashion, there was a winter gap so I got my driver’s license and bought a 1986 Toyota, gutted it, put a bed inside and drove down to California. I kind of winged it in my car in and out of Mexico for like 4 or 5 months and it was great. I had the time of my life.
Who or what inspires your work? My friends, subcultures and other designers. Also some fine artists like… what’s his name, I just saw his work at MOMA in New York and I wrote his name down, hang on [pulls out scraps of paper from his pocket]… Alberto Burri.
Who are your personal style icons? Maybe Paolo Roldan. He’s good. I’ve got to drop his name in there! I really look up to Paolo. That guy’s like a magician when it comes to putting stuff together. And someone famous… maybe Steve McQueen.
Do you think you’ve found your design aesthetic yet? I definitely have some tendencies and like structural features but I wouldn’t limit myself to my own style. My aesthetic is not complete, but I’m getting somewhere.
What are you working on at the moment? I’m developing another season; taking what I did and moving it to a sportswear market. The fantasy right now is to go to Indonesia for a few months, which is what I promised myself when I graduated. It’s cheap and it’s the best surfing in the world.
Text and Styling: Hazel Ong
Photography: Paolo Azarraga
Hair and Make-up: Carmelle Da Roza using Tresemme
Styling Assistance: Emma Muncaster and Drew Ferguson
Model: John Cherkas at Push Management