Montreal jewelry designer talks cats, art school, and becoming an independent fashion entrepreneur
Montreal is home to lots of hidden fashion gems; the plentiful thrift shops of Mile End, Fashion Pop, and our latest crush, jewelry designer Elaine Ho. Her design sense is both broad and bold, ranging from architectural geometric designs that look like they appeared out of an M.C. Escher drawing to morbid-cute miniature skulls. Plus, she is funny, candid, and loves cats almost as much as our editor-in-chief, Serah-Marie McMahon.
What was it like taking metal design in art school?
My first piece was in my high school art class; we got to make a silver ring with a bezel-set stone. I still can’t believe that our art teacher trusted a bunch of teenagers with gas torches and acid and dangerous stuff like that. Considering some of the kids in my class would sneak up to the loft above the art classroom to smoke pot during class, it’s kind of a miracle that there were no injuries or fires. After that I was hooked (to making jewelry, not smoking pot). I took metals classes at the Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD) while I was a teenager and about six years later I started taking jewelry courses again at the Visual Arts Centre in Montreal. The ability to make stuff out of metal, especially precious metal, is the best. Making something that could maybe last forever? Crazy.
How was going to school in the Prairies different from taking fashion design at Parsons in New York City?
I grew up in the suburbs of Calgary, Alberta across the street from a national park and had deer in my front yard. I could see the Rocky Mountains from my house; it was fun. But I never pictured myself staying in Calgary, and a move to NYC was perfect.
Parsons was amazing; they have campuses all over Manhattan. You go to class right in the Garment District and can buy fabric and supplies at the same places that “real designers” do. I got the kind of jobs and internships that would never have been available to me if I had stayed in Calgary. Oh, and not to name drop or anything, but one of my classmates was Prabal Gurung, and there was also this other guy who used to be a District Attorney who prosecuted murderers and rapists, and he decided to make the career change into fashion design. Awesome guy. I loved living in NYC and would have stayed there much longer had my student/work visa not expired. I was politely refused at the border when I returned from a vacation to Montreal in 2003. That’s how I ended up in Montreal.
Is every piece of jewelry handmade, or do you contract out the production elsewhere?
I am able to create almost every piece of jewelry myself, including all the wax and silver models. However, I am unable to do casting from my home studio and have been working with an amazing local foundry (SR2 Technologies) for the past seven years, who excel at what they do.
After the casting I do probably about 90% of the finishing myself, but sometimes I get a huge order and do need to have help with production. I’m a bit of a perfectionist control freak when it comes to my work. People are spending their hard earned money on my jewelry and that’s kind of a big deal to me.
A lot of your pieces have a dark edge, like cat skulls, dead rabbits, and two-headed snakes. How does the macabre influence the jewelry you design?
My favourite outfit in Grade 3 was a long black jumper over black leggings with a black long sleeve hoodie and black slouchy socks and black high tops—I guess it’s just the way I’ve always been. I’ve always been drawn to really cute and adorable things (Hello Kitty, kittens, baby animals, miniature versions of things) as well as dead stuff and violence (guns, knives, watching Full Metal Jacket when I was seven) so I suppose I’m just bringing together my favourite things.
What are some of your more geometric designs based on?
I used to doodle cubes, cylinders and other geometric shapes in my notebooks, and always looked forward to going to the gem and mineral show every year as a kid. I still do, not because they’re kind of a freak show, but because I absolutely love crystals and minerals and fossils and rocks (just not in the weird spiritual energy way). I just think they’re beautiful. Most of my geometric designs are based on existing and imaginary shapes, and inspired by natural crystal structures.
Our editor-in-chief, Serah-Marie, is obsessed with your pet cats you post about on Instagram—tell us more about them.
I am obsessed with cats! Especially Persian cats. They’re possibly the most domesticated animal you can get your hands on. They are so easy to take care of, extremely friendly, and not much more work than a houseplant—save for the excessive shedding.
Pepito Mimumo(Black Persian): I picked him up nine years ago at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), and he was already a senior when I got him. By now he could be 200 years old. He is old and crotchety, dirty and cranky, gets cat food stuck in his nose, and the end of his tail is always wet because he sleeps curled up like a fox and drools on his tail. He never cleans himself, so I have to give him baths. He was recently diagnosed with kidney failure, but he’s doing okay, all things considered.
Poof (White Flame Point Himalayan): I got Poof from a pet store in 2003. She lived in a cage for about six months and I used to visit her every time I bought cat food from the shop. I’m sure she’s probably from a puppy mill or something awful like that. I don’t buy pet food from shops that sell kittens and puppies anymore. She looked gross because she had a bad cold and was sort of wall-eyed. No one wanted her and they kept marking her price down because it’s harder to sell older kittens. Poof turned out to be a great cat.
Fräulein Ponyo von Mitten (Black long-hair alley cat): She was a very small abandoned kitten living under my front porch and I took her in a few years ago. She has extra front toes so it looks like she’s wearing mittens.
Sofia (Grey Persian): I just picked up a fourth cat this month. Her owner was really sick and not able to take care of her anymore. She is a five year old, tiny cat with giant eyeballs, and looks like a cartoon character. She has settled in quite well, and pretty much runs the place.
WORN Fashion Journal is obsessed with cats: our associate web editor Alyssa owns a cat sweater, our publishing intern Jill owns a kitty iPhone case and our publisher Haley owns a ‘Cat Flag’ parody t-shirt. How does owning cats affect your design process?
I love and want both those cat shirts, and the iPhone case. I have a few cat items in my collection, but they’re subtle—well, I think they are. There is a fine line between liking cats and looking like a crazy cat lady. When I make cat designs, I make sure it’s something I would wear myself before putting it into production. But perhaps that’s not saying much because I have a rather large tattoo of a cat face hidden in floral lace on my arm.
Do you have any plans to continue producing your clothing line?
Yes, I would like to eventually. I took year off of designing clothing so I could focus more on jewelry. Jewelry keeps me really busy, so I think all I can handle at this point is a super mini collection or season. By super mini, I’m thinking one top, one bag, and some mittens.
What sort of consideration do you give to environmental sustainability in your jewelry design and business model?
I never throw anything out. That’s also known as hoarding. But does it count as sustainable? I keep all my silver scraps, even the tiniest ones, as well as any failed projects, which get melted down and re-used. I try to use the “greenest” and least poisonous options for my pickling, cleaning, and oxidizing solutions. My jewelry teacher once told me about this lady who had the most beautiful patinas and finishes on her jewelry made from crazy chemicals and she’s dead now because of it.
I try to get all my supplies locally. I recycle everything I can, and I use biodegradable poly bags for the accounts that insist on having their items individually poly-bagged. I use recycled cardboard mailing envelopes, and paper jewelry boxes that can be easily reused and recycled. (I hate bubble envelopes; they are the devil’s invention.) Overall, there is very little waste from making jewelry.
Are their any jewelry designers you admire, or design colleagues you think our readers should check out?
I’ve really been into silversmith Hans Hansen and his son Karl Gustav, who made stunning minimalist jewelry in the early 20th Century. I’m also obsessed with Victorian mourning jewelry, especially the stuff with human hair, which is so intricate and pretty and creepy.
Any tips for young people interested in starting their own fashion businesses from the ground up?
Just go for it. Intern or work for businesses similar to the one you want to create, because it’s the best way to learn all the behind-the-scenes stuff they don’t teach you in school. Don’t quit your day job right away either. See if your work takes first, then quit, and make sure to steal a lot of stationery on your way out. You can never have enough pens or printer paper.
photography // Allison Staton