Alison Garwood Jones

Why hire an artist?

June 5, 2017

Window Art by Alison Garwood-Jones

Any business can order vinyl lettering, but having a chalk artist on site shows more care and commitment to the customer (who wants to be delighted), your business and the artistic community. It creates work!

People love to stop and talk to artists in action. The biggest feedback I get is: you spelled that wrong. Guys especially love ribbing me with that. I’ve met some fun people.  I’ve also learned to keep business cards in my back pocket. Doing is the best advertising.

This collage is some of my work, so far, for the The Merchant Tavern in Toronto (@themerchantto).

#hireanartist #Windowart #surfacedesign #gratituden #chalkart


Student Success Stories

January 12, 2021

Students from Alison Garwood-Jones's digital strategy class.
Just a few of the students who came to class with very sharp pencils.

If you are on this page because you’re thinking of enrolling in my University of Toronto Digital Strategy course, I can see you! But seriously, Hi, I’m glad you stopped by.

Whenever I take a course — I took Creating Comics and Graphic Novels (2489) last fall — I always Google the instructor. I want to know who they are, what they do in their day job, and if they have an original spark before I commit to spending several months with them.

Do what you love - Illustration by Alison Garwood-Jones

Illustration by Alison Garwood-Jones

I’ve been teaching Digital Communications Strategy and Social Media since the fall of 2014.

In that time, Vine has died, TikTok has burst out of the gates, and Facebook’s true colours have been revealed — as an espionage tool, an enabler of ads that target conflict and lies, and an all-round toxic waste dump.

Whatever happens next — Facebook and Twitter toss the uncivil ad model and become subscription-only, perhaps? — my course has adapted with every twist and turn, providing up-to-the-minute strategies and tactics on how to build and market your blog, vlog or podcast.

As a journalist, illustrator, host of the web series Willful (now on hiatus), and a Shopify vendor selling my hand-drawn illustrations on household wares (also on hiatus as I search for more eco/ethical suppliers), I know a thing or two about combining creativity with an entrepreneurial spirit. Digital tools have been central to my work and skills being discoverable.

U of T Learn More Illustration by Alison Garwood-Jones

Illustration by Alison Garwood-Jones

Let me share a couple of success stories so you can see how some of my former students have leveraged the course learnings to start new projects, or to land some really cool gigs in content creation, digital marketing, journalism, PR and politics:

Marcus: Marcus chose to blog about graffitti in Toronto for his class project in Foundations. His amazing story after he finished the Digital Strategy and Communications Managmemt Certificate was featured on U of T’s SCS blog in May 2019:


The most important thing this certificate taught me was how to tell and market your story.

Marcus Tignanelli isn’t your typical 24-year-old. As a City Councillor for North Bay, he is dedicated to revitalizing the city he loves. But his path to political leadership was not what you would expect.

Marcus began his career working as a hair stylist. After a few years, he grew interested in business strategy, and noticed a gap in his company’s social media presence. “I went to my boss and told him that I wanted to improve our social media, but I needed more education” says Marcus, who earned his Digital Strategy and Communications Management Certificate at SCS in 2018. “The company liked my enthusiasm, and supported my learning at SCS. I took on managing their social media strategy, and I would apply the skills I learned in class the next morning at work.”

Although Marcus was living in Toronto at the time, he was still very connected to his North Bay roots, and wanted to find ways to help his hometown thrive. “There is a large Indigenous population in North Bay, and I wanted to help youth learn new skills and foster self-confidence” he reflects. “So I started a training program, teaching high school students on the Indigenous Reserve hair dressing skills.” Marcus secured government funding, and launched a one-week fundamentals course, going into schools and teaching his trade pro-bono. The program was a huge success, igniting a training partnership with Mushkegowuk First Nation. It will soon run eight weeks out of the year, helping youth learn hands-on skills.

Meanwhile, Marcus wanted to go a step further in supporting North Bay. “I decided to run for City Councillor. It seemed like a natural step forward for me, because I have always been interested in politics. But everyone laughed. They said I was too young” he recalls. “All the other candidates were producing tons of print marketing materials. That wasn’t feasible for me cost-wise, so I leaned on the skills I learned at SCS.”

Marcus leveraged his new abilities in online campaign strategy and social media marketing. “The most important thing this certificate taught me was how to tell and market your story. My story was about fresh leadership and creating a vibrant and open North Bay. Instead of making promises, I focused my campaign on providing valuable information to voters who felt confused or ostracized by the political process” reflect Marcus. “I started a website and a blog- a skill I learned in class- and began educating voters. I blogged on topics like ‘why politics matter’, and ‘how to make your vote count’. I encouraged a younger demographic to care about the politics of their city, and get out and vote.”

Vote they did. Marcus won the election on October 22, 2018, and was sworn in as City Councillor on December 1.  Although he is busy serving his city, Marcus, who also won a Marilynn Booth Award for demonstrating academic success, personal commitment, and exemplary leadership, now aspires to take French courses at SCS to help him succeed in Canadian politics. “The skills I learned in this certificate helped me win the election” he says. “My advice to others would be that if you want to get ahead, but you don’t know the first step, SCS is that step.”


Student testimonial for class, Foundations in Digital Communications Strategy and Social Media

Justin’s story originally appeared in Ready Magazine in January 2021.


Eric Taucer

Eric came to class to execute an idea he had for a site dedicated to wilderness adventure.

He created, Under the Yoke. It’s not just a podcast and blog, but a brand offering a mix of interviews and tips, and a whole lot of good storytelling around the virtual campfire. website and podcast

Within two weeks of launching, Under the Yoke peaked at #3 in Apple Podcast Wilderness categories, and #32 in Apple Podcasts Sports.

He averaged 800 – 1000 unique downloads a week since the start of 2020 and has tracked downloads in 29 different countries, with about 8 countries making up the bulk of his viewership (Canada, USA, Denmark, UK, Norway, Germany, Belgium, Australia).

I even brought Eric back to class to talk about the nitty gritty of building a brand from the ground up, including creating his different customer profiles, setting his business objective (SMART goal), determining his KPI’s and measuring what worked.

• Andy: Andreanne was already an established beauty blogger at  A Certain Romance  when she signed up for my class three summers ago. Her goal was clear: she wanted to increase her visibility and get her first paid gig as a blogger/influencer. By week 2 of the course, she had crafted a focused SMART goal (take the course and I’ll explain what that means). By week 12, she had organically increased her subscribers by 54% and her pageviews by 140%. Shortly after the course was over, Andy was offered an unpaid community management internship with a natural beauty company (which she declined). She also interviewed for a paid position as a community manager/content creator for a beauty distributor. She decided it wasn’t a right fit, so she kept looking. In the meantime, an offer to do her first sponsored post came in. Not long after, she hit the jackpot when she was picked to be the new Web and Social Media Editor at Canadian House and Home‘s French Edition, Maison & Demeure. And as of this Spring she  became an Associate Editor at Chatelaine Magazine. Way to go, Andy!

Photo of Andreanne Dion, beauty blogger

Photo: Andreanne by Nick Reynolds

Kamini: Kamini signed up for my class hoping to gain some new digital skills during her job search.

Kamini blogged about her cat

She created a WordPress blog about her cat Hewitt. OK, do we really need another cat or cupcake blog? Yes we do, if it’s funny and well-produced. Last spring, when Kamini was preparing for a job interview with Portable Intelligence, she used her blog as her portfolio, and reviewed all 12 class decks so she felt prepared. Things went well and she ended up showing her blog and some of her cat videos during her interview.  Last June Kamini said yes to Portable Intelligence and became their Digital Marketing Specialist. It was her very first job in Canada since moving to Toronto from India. Go Kamini! PS: She has since retired her blog URL. Hewitt has moved on.

hewitt the cat

Hewitt by Kamini

Julian: Julian was the first student I had who chose to use the course to set up a podcast. The idea of creating a series of  fun and plain-speaking interviews for young gays who were new to big city living had been percolating in his mind for some time. In the fall of 2016, Julian debuted The Sassy Gay. Since then, he has kept a regular posting schedule and the show has become a recognized source of support in the LGBT community. Posts include: The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness and Coming out to your mom. He has also branched out and created a web series called Process where he interviews artists. Julian told me he was inspired by the class to challenge himself in the audio and video storytelling spaces. I’m proud of this guy.

• Shiva: Shiva Kumar Shunmugam took my online class in the Winter of 2016. He was one of the most active and engaged students in this class of 35. So much of what Shiva did and said was rooted in kindness and his strong desire to help other students who were adjusting to the demands of digital communications in their workplaces. When Hurricane Harvey hit metropolitan Houston a few years ago, Shiva, who manages the social media accounts for Beaumont, a town in northern Alberta, stepped in to help a family in Beaumont, Texas who emailed him accidentally. This Digital Strategy grad donned his superhero cape to help this family. Here is a teaser from CTV:

BEAUMONT, Alta. — Shiva Kumar Shunmugam was wrapping up a lazy summer afternoon tending to social media feeds for the Alberta town of Beaumont when a strange request came into the fire hall’s Facebook page.

“Terrell houses are flooding need help,” it said.

Beaumont, Alta., a town of about 18,000 just south of Edmonton, doesn’t have a Terrell neighbourhood and the area hadn’t seen a drop of rain in almost a week.

Shunmugam quickly realized he was dealing with someone in Beaumont, Texas, a community not far from Houston, that has a Terrell Avenue and was hit by Hurricane Harvey.

A woman near Dallas was seeking a rescue for her daughter’s family of four who had floodwater rushing into their Beaumont home.

In her frantic search for help, the mother mistakenly happened upon the page for the fire department in Beaumont, Alta., 3,800 kilometres away.

Shunmugam swung into action.

Shiva Kumar Shunmugam

You can read the full story of Shiva’s life saving community management tactics here. Suffice it to say, we’re proud to know this guy.

Jumol came to class as a PR & communications strategist and writer with bylines in IN Magazine, Notable Life, Xtra and  Local Love. But he had yet to write for a publication that allowed him to have deeper conversations that would encourage readers, especially in the LGBTQ community, to shift their perceptions from fear to love.


So Jumol created, Deeper Conversations, a “dose of soul-stirring conversations that cut straight to the heart of the matter featuring thought leaders, spiritual teachers and inspirational influencers who are passionate about healing, wellness and wholehearted living.” I’m proud to update here that Jumol was hired by Xtra as a contributing writer.  He was also the script for a recent Nike video campaign in Toronto featuring members of Canada’s Black #LGBTQ2 community.

Anais came to my course while on mat leave.

Anais, a digital strategy student

A marketing pro who loves analyzing human behaviour and understanding why we buy things we regret, why we don’t save money, and why we love a brand we’ve never even tried, she created a blog that digs into our purchase decisions, using a snackable blog format packed with illustrations.

• Wendy created Acorn & Thimble, a gorgeous sage and blush site to showcase her sewing skills and pattern reviews.

This is her Sorrento Bucket Hat.

Sorrento Bucket Hat

Could she be any more charming?

Wendy in her bucket hat

• Elsa: Wendy’s classmate, Elsa, is also a genius at the sewing machine. She came to class as a fashion entrepreneur hoping to create brand awareness for her designs, unisex African streetcar pieces called NanaBenz. Elsa explains the name for her company: “I wanted to pay homage to my matriarchs who were #BossLady of their times. ‘Les Nana Benz’ was a term used to describe wealthy West African female merchants who built their fortune from trading textiles.”

• Sarah: When Covid-19 hit, Sarah decided to go with a topic that felt really personal. Sarah’s Silver Linings is a lifestyle blog/vlog with tips and commentary about how to make the most of this life, all while growing out your silver hair.

Sarah McCarthy

About nine weeks into posting to her blog and Instagram. Sarah and her blog appeared on Global Morning Atlantic in a Top 10 roundup of people making the most of the lockdown .

Since I started teaching, I have witnessed many success stories. One more pops to mind. A lot of people who come to my class are fleeing dying industries.  David was a copy editor at The Hamilton Spectator who felt confident enough with the new digital smarts he acquired in class to seek a job as a Communications Associate at the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing. “It was only a matter of time before the paper let me go,” he said. Like so many, David abandoned print media in favour of a communications job with more growth potential and stability.

Join me this term if you want to learn how to adapt to the new digital economy, or apply a strategic mindset to an idea you have for a written blog, web series or podcast. To learn more, check out this webpage from the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies.

I hope to see you soon,







7 things my customers taught me in 2018

December 31, 2018

Last summer, the initial delight I felt in seeing my sketchbook drawings on a digital pillow template inspired a new design business in 2018 called Pen Jar Productions.

Now my quirky line drawings are on totes, tees, scarves, and, coming next month, enamel pins! (In these politically-charged times, more of us are wearing our values on our lapels).

Here’s a tour of my studio, where it all happens.

Print-on-demand technology that offers freelancers, like me, automatic fulfilment and shipping has been around for several years, but I only woke up to it in 2018.

ICYMI: here’s an Instagram Stories video I made explaining how my pillows go from a sketchbook drawing to a finished pillow:

As we move into 2019, the things that used to be background noise in my life — benchmarks, brand recognition and break-even points — have taken on a new urgency.

In search of answers to my marketing and accounting conundrums, my podcast lineup has expanded to include:

Shopify Masters
Good Company with Grace Bonney
Pivot Podcast with Jenny Blake
The Agency Leadership Podcast

In the end, though, customer feedback is the best way to learn. Here are the seven things my customers taught me in 2018:

Offer smaller tote bags

I’m tall. Six-foot-one tall. So when I decided to add totes to my mix, I sourced a bag that fit the length of my frame.

Toronto Island Tote Bag by

I forgot to think about how the bag length would work for a petite woman. Isn’t everyone 6’1″?

Then I met Amanda. She lived and worked on the Toronto Islands last summer.

I was wearing my merch one evening when she stopped me and asked if she could slip my ferry tote over her shoulder.

“I love it!” she said. “But it’s too big for me.” I hesitated. No matter. She pressed fifty bucks into my hand and the next time I saw her she modelled the workmanship of her city-side tailor, who lopped off two inches from the top of the bag and the handle. Et voilà!

Toronto Island Ferry Tote Bag by

Amanda modelling her new “Off To The Islands” tote bag by
Toronto Island Ferry tote bag by PenJarProductions.comAmanda’s “Off To The Islands” tote bag hanging out in her sailboat. By

Sign your work

I made some swift sales last month at the Algonquin Island Association Christmas Boutique. at the Algonquin Island Christmas Bazaar At the 2018 Algonquin Island Association Christmas Boutique. It’s blurry, but you get the point.

A woman named Rochelle came up to my table and gravitated to my chiffon scarf featuring scarlet chrysanthemums. “Can I try this on?” she asked.  And off she ran to the ladies room to play with knots and flourishes.

Crimson Mums Chiffon Scarf by

Last week, Rochelle emailed me with some positive feedback and advice:

Hi Alison, Just wanted to let you know that I am enjoying your (my) scarf. You know, your name, signature, initials should be somewhere on your beautiful work. Everyone and anyone should know that it’s a Garwood- Jones artwork. (not that there is anything lacking in your business approach, I just think you’re being modest)

Lovin’ it. Thx.
Rochelle from the island sale. 

How can you not appreciate honesty like that?

On my 2019 To Do list — Fire up PhotoShop and start adding to the corner of every design file on my Shopify site. That’s how you scale, baby!

When you’re a one-woman show handling design, marketing, and sales, it’s easy to overlook the obvious.

Put a face to your business

“People like to meet the maker,” Kyla Walker told me not long after I became an artist partner with Notion, the folks who print and ship my merch (see Kyla in the Instagram Stories video above).

Building an online presence for your business is key. And while Facebook and Instagram ads are still effective, they’re not enough.

You need to put a face to your business and talk to folks, one-on-one, about what do and why you do it.

I researched the craft fairs I could afford to take part in this year and became a craft lady retailer at two: The Ward’s Island Gala Weekend and the aforementioned Algonquin Island Craft Fair. We’ll see what 2019 holds.

Charge what you’re worth

As my business grew, the leads started trickling in. That’s good! Several people inquired about custom pillow designs — “Will you draw me and my boyfriend?” asked one. “I’d love a portrait of my grand piano!” said another — all the while expecting me to charge the same price as the pillow designs I can scale, like my Toronto Island Ferry Pillow.
"Off to the Islands" throw pillow in aqua by

When I earnestly explained that a custom portrait for $20 (my average artist markup) is not a sustainable business model, they all walked away, except for one.

These customers taught me that when you inquire about a custom anything (scarf, pillow, tee), you’re buying the original pen and watercolour art, not just the swatch of cotton that it comes on. Some get it, some don’t. You keep pushing forward.

Note to self: no freelancer can afford to operate like Fiverr.

Getty Images of monkeysSometimes the requests you get as an illustrator can make you feel like a dancing monkey with a tip cup. Source: Getty Images.
Hire a business coach

Technically, this wasn’t a customer tip. But I gasped in surprise when I found out that entrepreneurs I know have had, or still have, a business coach to guide their decision-making. You can do that? I’m so used to being DIY.

As your business grows, I’m finding that it’s really important to understand the ins and outs of accounting, especially when it comes to tax time. If you don’t understand it while you’re small, you’ll be in big trouble as you get bigger, if you get bigger.

Head coach Pat Summitt talks to Shanna Zolman #1 of the Tennessee Lady Vols during a break in the action against the Michigan State Spartans in the Semifinal game of the Women’s NCAA Basketball Championship on April 3, 2005 at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

It’s personal

“My father was a ferry boat captain on the Sam McBride in the 1940s.”

That’s what one woman told me when she saw my Toronto Island Ferry Pillow at a craft fair.

Although she wasn’t a sale, she gave me something more valuable. My pillow, she said, brought back a fond memory. I miss my dad too.

I’m starting to gather a lot of these kinds of stories. Yesterday, Teresa, a customer who has one of my “Joe The Reporter” throw pillows perched against a wingback in her home, emailed me to explain why this illustration resonated with her,

Joe The Reporter Throw Pillow by

Ask for context shots

In the age of social media, customers are only too happy to share how your product looks in their home.

Again, trying to juggle all aspects of my business, I initially forgot to ask for the photographs.

Many customers sent pictures to me pretty much as soon as my packages landed. And, if they didn’t, I now knew to ask them for home decor shots.

To everyone who supported and cheered me on in 2018, my sincerest thanks for making this new adventure so worthwhile.

Happy New Year!

Best Nine 2018, for
From my sketchbook to your home. Best Nine, 2018 at

Communicating your value as a visual storyteller

September 24, 2018

I first published this post back in August when Gini Dietrich and her team asked me to be a guest contributor at Spin Sucks (the website and the book) is a fantastic resource for up-to-date information and advice on current issues and trends surrounding marketing, communication, social media, entrepreneurship, search engine optimization, and advertising.

Not long ago, I took the first sip of an end-of-day glass of wine and thought to myself, “Sister, you are the Queen of Pivoting.”

In the last five years, I’ve gone from being a full-time magazine feature writer—one of those “tree media” enthusiasts with a blog—to a blogger, content marketer, and occasional magazine writer.

More recently, I’ve become an illustrator who writes and syndicates her stuff everywhere her target audience hangs out.

As more jobs and industries topple with the advance of artificial intelligence, we must diversify our income streams and establish multiple revenue sources.

Skills? What Skills?

You say you can’t draw?

Okay, but we all have skills we are not using to the fullest.

And I’m guessing that most of us in the Spin Sucks Community know artists, designers, or creative directors toying with the idea of going off on their own.

But most are successful in convincing themselves it’s too risky or not the right time to make such big changes.

Let’s face it, it’s never the right time to be creative (or pregnant, for that matter).

How to Explain Visual Storytelling?

Much of that fear comes from not knowing how to communicate our particular value as a visual storyteller, especially when it comes to explaining how we work and what our worth is to clients.

I found it took time and experimentation with a few preliminary clients to hammer out the logistics of working solo before I could effectively communicate my terms and conditions with progressively bigger clients.

So I’ve pulled together some tips to help alleviate your fears.

And it starts with setting clear goals. But first, a bit of context.

Value of Artists to Brands

We know the internet is progressively leaning toward visual storytelling, favoring video and pictures over long-form, and even short-form, written content.

But storytelling through hand-drawn illustrations or handwritten sayings has also been seeing way more than its 15-minutes of fame online.

Sharpie artboards at conferences, chalkboard art on restaurant Instagram feeds, and time-lapse videos of a brush painting a quote. These have all been “a thing” for a while now, and show few signs of slowing down.

In other words, the demand for this kind of brand storytelling is there. And that means no shortage of potential work for you and for me.

Fast Company even took note of the increasing importance of illustration to brands in a recent issue.

Artists and designers provide a fresh perspective and competitive advantage to businesses looking to clarify their marketing message and direction, wrote the author, Leah Lamb.

After all, “who better to lead [brands] through cultural shifts in real time than someone who is actually engaged in the production of culture?”​

Alison Garwood-Jones, Graphic Recorder at TEDx Toronto

Alison Garwood-Jones, Graphic Recorder at TEDx Toronto

Alison Garwoood-Jones working as a graphic recorder at a TEDx conference in Toronto in 2016. It was her first professional foray into illustration. No pressure!  Photos: Shaghaygh Tajvidi

When I Took the Leap

Last June, I made the leap towards visual storytelling official when I set up a second Ikea desk in my apartment and founded the design studio, Pen Jar Productions. a print on demand design store

I decided it was time to tap into convenient advances in print-on-demand technology (no inventory and no shipping) and start selling my pen and watercolor illustrations on home décor items and tech accessories.

I am even in the process of trademarking the tagline, “From my sketchbook to your home.™”

There were many on my social feeds who’d enthusiastically insist, “If you put that flower pattern on a pillow, I’d buy it.”

I knew drawing more would be something I’d enjoy and be good at professionally, so I listened.

During the past few months, as this pivot goes from a dare to reality, I’ve had to tell the side of me that keeps insisting, “BUT, YOU’RE A WRITER,” to hush up and listen.

The Ikea "art desk" belonging to Alison Garwood-Jones

Where it all happens. Just go to Ikea, buy yourself a desk, and start experimenting. You never know where it will take you.

Here is what I have learned through trial and error so far.

Online Groups are Good for Digital Marketing Therapy

Like many of you, I come to the Spin Sucks blog and community for professional guidance on a range of topics in social media, communications, entrepreneurship, content marketing, distribution, and SEO.

But unlike most of you, I’m not a PR practitioner (never have been), nor did I go to business or PR school to learn about measurable objectives, strategies, and tactics (there’s a difference?).

But I doubt I’m the only artsy one among us.

I realized how important understanding digital strategy was in getting my artistic talent and skills in front of the people who would want to pay for them.

So I signed up for the Modern Blogging Masterclass, followed by the Spin Sucks 30-Day Communications Challenge this past January.

I continue to post questions to the Spin Sucks 30-Day Challenge Slack Group, which remains open because of its enormous value to our professional development.

And no, Gini is not paying me to say any of this!

We all need a place to admit our cluelessness and share our marketing missteps.

That Slack group is mine.

A true colleague will gently course correct you and share what works for them.

These days crowd-sourcing solutions within professional groups serves to help us all adjust to the mind-boggling pace of change. And members can also help you spot opportunities.

Set Goals: Be Accountable to Yourself First

It doesn’t matter if you are an accountant, a podcaster, an AI expert, or an illustrator. We’re all seeking more leads and conversions.

Achieving that means taking time to experience and move through the existential doubt that comes with defining, adjusting, and achieving a stated, measurable objective.

Learning how to execute a proper digital strategy starts with writing a SMART objective (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound).

Follow this with a distribution plan integrating Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned tactics. This helps ensure your content gets in front of the right audience via multiple streams and options.

Learning all of this stuff from this community has added structure, direction, and accountability to my pivot towards visual storytelling.

Be Realistic

True story: I didn’t start with a SMART objective, even though I knew better.

And I even teach my students in Digital Communications Strategy at University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies to never practice “Pasta PR” (throw it at the wall and see what sticks—h/t Martin Waxman).

But businesses rarely evolve in a linear fashion.

So this is what really happened. I made about $500 in custom pillow sales before I even knew whether I would set up with Shopify or join the Etsy marketplace.

I was playing around late last spring, dropping my drawings on the pillow template, then showing my friends the results on Facebook to gauge interest.

That’s when the orders began coming in via the comments!

The internet was telling me something.

At that point, I decided to order the product with my designs and resell it to friends.

Later, once my Shopify store was up and running and integrated with Notion (my manufacturer), more sales came in.

But two months after this initial love fest over my career pivot, the crickets moved in.

That’s when I knew I needed to come up with a proper SMART objective.

What am I trying to achieve here? Where can I realistically take this business? How can my hand-drawn products serve niche communities?

Re-evaluate Your Measurable Objective

My first measurable objective matched my initial sales out of the gate: five pillow sales a month.

When I ran out of friends who needed pillows (and I knew I would), I re-evaluated my SMART objective. I revised it to two sales per month, or enough to cover my monthly Shopify storefront charge.

Look at how miniscule my objective is, and how it keeps getting smaller and more realistic.

I am sharing this with you because we’re too conditioned to seeing stories on LinkedIn about creative entrepreneurs who are scaling this, killing at that, and hiring staff in record time (thanks, Gary V!).

These stories are as breathless and hyperbolic as 1990s blockbuster movie reviews.

Then there’s the rest of us, feeling our way in the dark.

By adjusting my measurable objective, I am turning my attention away from sales to attracting leads and building brand awareness.

Now, I’ve committed to spending $200 per month for the next three months for paid social in exchange for five leads a month and one sale—if I’m lucky.

I’m applying everything I’ve learned from Marcus Sheridan’s “They Ask, You Answer” philosophy of search content marketing. (He continues to do this so well.)

For example, “How do you get your drawings on pillows?” a question asked on Facebook.

I answered this via an Instagram TV video tour of my manufacturing process on site at Notion.

Another question I saw on Instagram, “Are your pillows safe for the outdoors?”

I answered this by using an illustration of a squirrel eating a pillow (the answer would be a “no”).

Squirrel drawing by Alison Garwood-JonesYou get the gist.

When I went to LinkedIn and told Marcus Sheridan how I was applying his Q&A philosophy to my new biz, I got a, “You go, girl! I love this.” from the master himself.

For a newbie retailer like me, that sort of public high five goes a lo-o-o-ong way. It fuels my energy to grow this thing.

Go Niche

As I build my print-on-demand illustration business, simultaneously I’ve been getting work as a graphic recorder at conferences.

(Translation: someone who does Sharpie art of speakers’ talks.)

I was able to get this work through effective Q&A content marketing, not by casting my net as wide as possible, but by going niche.

Using and Google Ads Keyword Planner, I was able to find out the kind of questions people were asking about working with a graphic recorder.

(I also used the terms “graphic facilitator” and “graphic visualizer.”)

There, I found the question “Why hire a graphic visualizer?” and saw it had a very low search volume.

As I learned from the Modern Blogging Masterclass and the PESO model in general,  this is a good thing!

I capitalized on the opportunity by applying Sheridan’s Q&A-style of search content marketing, making a video slideshow with my drawings that answer the question of why brands should hire graphic recorders.

And it worked!

I got three more gigs soon after.

When I asked each of those clients how they found me, they answered, “Through keyword searches on Google.”

For a while, this video was ranked number six on page one of Google. Not bad for someone with a domain authority of 25.

Using BuzzSumo also taught me the highest search volume for “graphic recorders” was on LinkedIn, and almost no one was searching this niche term on Twitter.

In other words, I knew where my target audience was hanging out.

I could meet them there with stories, pictures, and videos showing how I’d work with them to solve their challenges.

As an example, a TEDx conference opportunity came through LinkedIn.

BuzzSumo is a useful tool

A keyword search for the term “graphic recorder.” BuzzSumo showed the most searches for this term happened on LinkedIn-574 vs. 93 on Facebook and six on Twitter.  I focused my content marketing for that skill on LinkedIn Publisher, and got jobs as a result!

As for my new design company, through my targeting efforts in paid social, I’m learning not to go after huge communities of people.

Rather than going mass and trying to reach the huge community of #homedecor lovers, I’ve seen better results meeting the needs of super niche communities.

For example, this summer I created totes and pillows for 700 Toronto Islands residents who ride vintage 1930s ferries back and forth between the mainland and the islands.

These folks need bags to carry their groceries.

And tourists who ride the ferries want mementos of this beautiful provincial park six minutes from downtown.

Alison Garwood-Jones with her Off To The Islands tote bag

AGJ with her “Off to the islands” tote bag. The design was aimed at Toronto Island residents and tourists taking the vintage ferries. prints her art on totes, pillows, and tech accessories (phone covers and laptop skins).

So far, my plan is working.

My Shopify sales funnel is filling up again. (I made eight sales in four hours at a recent craft fair on Ward’s Island.)

These aren’t Ikea sales numbers because I’m offering one-of-a-kind items at a higher price point.

I’m also counting on the fact that not everyone wants a pillow design that 936 million shoppers have seen, manhandled or bought (actual IKEA stats on customers served in 2017).

Because there are so many niche groups and weirdos out there, I can cater to their obsessions through individual illustration campaigns: cats, writers, pug enthusiasts, etc.

Set Your Terms

This past winter, a design firm got in touch with me to do portrait illustrations for the lobby of a new boutique hotel opening in Toronto.

I asked my more experienced illustrator friends, and a magazine art director, for advice on writing my terms and conditions for the job.

It was time to craft my own set of standards.

They sent me examples of the standard rights artists must insist on, as well as, the working conditions they should accept and reject.

This video also helped.

Doing more than two revisions per illustration without being paid, for example, can be hard on you financially.

And nitpicky clients will take advantage of you if you don’t state your boundaries. “Sure I can draw that celebrity a third time with looser lines, but it’ll cost ya.”

By the way, said design firm found me through a Google image search.

They were looking for a drawing of Jane Jacobs, the urban activist, and came upon my Pinterest page.

Which leads me to my final piece of advice.

As you experiment and discover your style, set yourself up to be found.

As Austin Kleon would say, “Show your stuff!”

Use Instagram as your art gallery and sandbox, and use your blog as your archive.

Then tag and categorize each drawing so it reaches those potential niche audiences who would love your pug drawing (#PugsOfInstagram), or your sketch of Robert Downey Jr. (ahem, Gini).

Above all, don’t ignore your creative impulses. Start playing!

Afterword: Since I first wrote this post, I have gained even more valuable tips and insights on how to build a “portfolio career” (i.e. creating multiple revenue streams) from Dorie Clark’s book, Entrepreneurial You (2017: Harvard Business Review Press). I can’t recommend it enough.











January 16, 2018

Alison Garwood-Jones in her home office.


Content Marketing: I help brands tell stories that address customer questions, needs, and concerns in a fresh and compelling way. Since content marketing is a “relationship-building, awareness-making, loyalty-boosting tool,” and not a direct sales tool, we will not be telling stories about why folks should buy your product. Old fashioned push marketing is (a) not engaging, (b) not useful to your target audience, and (c) annoying. Some of my past clients have included The Merchant Tavern and  The Art Canada Institute, and a growing number of former print journalists.

Your Custom Profile Illustration: Does your bitmoji express the real you (even with 1.9 septillion options)? Not in my books. Hand-drawn portrait illustrations catch the flutter of your spirit and reveal your hidden strengths way better than the frozen stare of digitized art. Email me if you’re looking for a custom illustrated portrait for an About Page, social media profile, or just for your wall. This form explains how to order your one-of-a-kind likeness. Note that the starting price goes up for complicated portraits. 

Order Your Portrait - by Alison Garwood-Jones
Graphic Recording: As an artist consultant and graphic recorder to brands and non-profit organizations, I provide a fresh perspective for those looking to clarify their marketing message or solve a problem, be it organizational, financial, social or cultural. I have worked with TEDx (female momentum in society), Lean In Canada (tackling gender bias and diversity in the workplace) The City of Toronto, (crafting a gender neutral budget), The Merchant Tavern (new menu items) and Montecito (window art).

Alison Garwood-Jones, graphic recorder at TEDx Toronto.
Alison Garwood-Jones working as a graphic recorder for LeanIn Canada.
Alison Garwood-Jones Alison Garwood-Jones, graphic recorder at The City of Toronto. With Kristyn Wong-TamThat’s me with Kristyn Wong-Tam after the Gender Equal Budget meeting, January 2017.

Still not convinced? I made this short video to explain the difference an artist consultant can make for organizations looking to forge new strategies and business outcomes:

Speaker/Workshop Leader: I am a workshop leader and conference speaker on content marketing and social media strategy and tactics for brands and freelancers. Clients have included the Ontario Colleges Higher Education Summit, the University of  Toronto’s School of Continuing StudiesIABC Toronto’s PIC (Professional Independent Communicators), PodCamp Toronto, OpenText, the Professional Writers Association of Canada, the Canadian Media Guild, and Bishop’s University (Morris House Reading Series, SWEET).

Instructor: I’m an instructor (online and in-class) at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. I teach Foundations of Digital Communications Strategy and Social Media and Writing Digital Content. In 2021 I was awarded an Excellence in Teaching Award – Business and Professional Studies from the University of Toronto (SCS). 

I am also a member of the Program Advisory Committee for Social Media Week Toronto and The School of Media Studies and Information at Humber College. As a member of the Quadrangle Society, I mentor Junior Fellows at Massey College at the University of Toronto.


Spotlight: Growing Pains

April 16, 2012

Alice grows too tall for the room, from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," 1891 by Lewis Carroll. Illustration by Sir John Tenniel.

SPOTLIGHT is Society Pages’ newest column focusing on questionable occurrences. Read other columns here.

A dozen years ago, when the thought of becoming an academic art historian had lost its luster, I found myself throwing all of my investigative energy into a more personal story. This was back when I was trying to break into journalism, with no degrees or contacts, and pitching stories like, “I grew an inch in a week and, God Almighty, it hurt.” (Aside: it took me another 4 years of pitching and flailing to call myself a journo).

Still, it’s true. I grew an inch in a week and I’ve always insisted that the pain I felt in my spidery arms and legs coincided down to the minute with the moment my limbs were taking off in all four directions. For about a century, though, the idea that kids could feel themselves growing made the white coats smile and shake their heads. As a result, growing pains took pride of place next to the dreaded ice cream headache as these perplexing, slightly silly tales worthy of Newbery Medals, but serious scientific attention? No.

Yeah, whatever. All I know is that after a few years of crazy growth spurts, I crested at 6’1″ by grade 10 and the rush to recruit me to play on the basketball and volleyball teams was on. That happened before it was determined if I had any talent. And I remember thinking, for the first time, how invested everyone seemed to be in the idea that height=power. It’s in our DNA. It’s why tall people are hired faster than shorter ones, and paid more too — except if you’re a writer. Then you sit for most of your life (making you as tall as a child), and take peanuts for pay because you’re powerless to do otherwise. It’s like juvenile detention … the bastards.

I should probably cool it and just tell my story.

As it turned out, volleyball was a natural fit for me since I was good at racquet sports and I loved finishing points off at the net. But basketball was a disaster. For whatever reason, my head and body never came together on the court. Instead, I inspired a wave a snickers in the bleachers for my signature technique. “Windmill arms,” someone shorter and sportier called it. “What …” I stared back with a glare so stern it could have turned our school mascot (a Trojan warrior) to stone. But not the peanut gallery. They just grinned back.

Twenty five years later, I still find myself reading Wikipedia entries trying to understand what centre forwards are supposed to do. Apparently high school trauma never fades.

Here’s how it went down: back in the summer of ’82, when Whitney Houston was a junior model for Seventeen magazine and Princess Di was a walkabout rockstar, I was not so patiently waiting for the transistor radio pressed to my ear to play Men at Work or the J. Geils Band again. I was also completely dreading bed time because it meant another possible invasion of the body stretcher. Friends suggested I was achy a lot because I was playing too much tennis, and my muscles were overworked …


… but, no, that wasn’t it.

For four nights running the ache in my limbs came in waves around 3 am. I remember folding my legs up under my chin and trying to rock away the pain, then stretching them out and rubbing the length of my shins and thighs until I imagined I saw sparks. My mewing woke the entire house, turning my brothers over in their beds and sending my parents from room to room gathering up the necessary rescue gear: two heating pads plus an extra heavy blanket to weigh them down, and a Dixie Cup filled with cool water for taking the aspirin nestled in my mother’s extended palm. Mum and dad always tag-teamed on these nights, taking one leg each. “I’m growing,” I said with the kind of fury women, mid-delivery, save for their husbands (OK, so I exaggerate, but it was intense). Mum and Dad kneaded my muscles and didn’t question the cause. Neither did I.

Every time this happened — I grew over two feet between my tenth and fifteenth birthdays — my dad and I would meet before breakfast the next day for a “height-in,” similar to a jockey’s weigh-in. I’m sure it appealed to the side of him that was into sports stats and breaking records. We used to watch ABC’s Wide World of Sports together, a show that threw in words like “agony” and “human drama” into its classic opening montage, the one with the thunderous kettle drums and Jim McKay’s frantic voiceover accompanying clips of Indy crashes, World Cup wipeouts and Russian weight lifters shaking under barbells bigger than truck tires. At the height-in, Dad would slide a Bic pen over the crest of my skull and carve a blue notch on the wood inside of the cupboard door housing my mum’s winter coats. “Up an inch,” he’d say before carefully writing the month and year beside the notch. Now as my brothers and I start the sad task of cleaning out our childhood home, I wouldn’t mind claiming that door.

Whitney running through the pages of Seventeen.

If we can feel the push of a new tooth, the pinch of ovulation, and the itch and stab of multiplying cancer cells, why not the accumulation of healthy bone cells as they barrel forth ahead of attached muscles and tendons? This is what I was thinking as I looked for clues in the medical journals stacked up around me.  Surfing online pulled up nothing of consequence on growing pains back in 2000, so I relied on actual visits to the University of Toronto’s Gerstein Science Library to find answers.

And here’s what I confirmed: children really do grow at night. The pituitary gland shoots human growth hormone (HGH) into the bloodstream in rhythmic pulses during the deepest stages of sleep, between about midnight and 4:00 am, which is when kids wake up with complaints of sharp intermittent cramps in their legs and occasionally arms, groin, back and shoulders. I learned that it takes the body between twenty minutes to half an hour to metabolize human growth hormone, the same amount of time that a “growing pains” episode lasts.

That’s when I began studying this twenty minute time period even closer. I wanted to find out what our bodies are doing while they’re using and absorbing human growth hormone, and if anything about this process might register with our senses — making some of us go, “Ouch!” The oft-repeated line by paediatricians that growing was “a silent and imperceptible process” felt wrong, quite frankly. Body wisdom told me otherwise. I abandoned the idea that growing pains stemmed from realtime stretching muscles and overtaxed tendons — too cartoonish, too Incredible Hulk. My research seemed to point to another, less obvious, culprit. When a diabetic friend of mine told me one day that her legs ached when her blood sugar was high — “like when I had growing pains” — DING, DING, DING,  I wondered if high blood sugar levels might be to blame for my nighttime pulsating ache?

My focus turned to the side effects of high blood sugar. I learned that when HGH is released into the bloodstream it temporarily raises blood sugar levels, first by instructing the liver to make more sugar, then by convincing the muscles to get their energy from free fatty acids instead of sugar. With nothing to do and nowhere to go this rejected sugar makes it was back into the bloodstream at which point the pancreas senses an imbalance and tries to correct the high sugar levels by throwing insulin at the problem. But the muscle tissues couldn’t care less; for this short period of time — twenty minutes or so — while they are feasting on free fatty acids, they stubbornly ignore the incoming insulin which only makes the pancreas release more of the stuff. Again, I wanted to know how the body reacts to this struggle, producing an uncomfortable side effect? Does high blood sugar feel the same in all of us, whether we’re diabetic or not? I even started wondering is growing pains was like a case of temporary diabetes?

With the help of my Complete Home Medical Encyclopedia I ran my finger down the list of possible symptoms for hyperglycaemia (high blood sugar), past extreme thirst, frequent urination, weight loss and impaired vision until I landed on “leg cramps.” Bingo! Then I got my diabetic friends involved in a completely unscientific survey (I surveyed three people). “Have you ever had leg cramps?” I asked without telling them why I wanted to know. “When do you get them and how feel?” I learned from my friends that achy legs is one of their first symptoms when their blood sugar begins to climb. One subject, a friend at work who had Type 1 insulin-dependent diabetes, began reporting to me every time she had achy legs. “Test your levels! What are you at?” I asked. She consistently read between 10 and 12 mmol/L on her hand-held glucometer. Normal blood sugar readings are between 3 and 6 mmol/L. Being a doctor, I had no idea if her accompanying leg aches were related to her high blood sugar levels or poor circulation, another side effect of diabetes. This friend was new to diabetes — having been diagnosed three years earlier — but she hadn’t been told yet by her doctor that her circulation was suffering, so I stuck to the high blood sugar diagnosis.

Now I was thinking, I need more proof. All I had to do is convince doctors to equip parents with glucometers. That way, when their non-diabetic children woke up in the middle of the night because their legs hurt they could take on on-the-spot blood sugar reading. If enough kids consistently registered above normal blood sugar readings (i.e. above 6), I may have just solved the mystery of growing pains.

Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child

But parents aren’t just curious to know what causes the pain, they want to know how to relieve it, or, better yet, prevent it. In 1988 Drs. Maureen Baxter and Corinne Dulberg, in co-operation with the University of Ottawa and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, published what is now a frequently cited study in the Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics. It claimed that kids with “growing pains” who performed regular muscle stretches at bedtime “showed more rapid resolution of their symptoms over an 18 month period” than kids who did nothing. But the doctors had no explanation as to why, at least at the time. That finding brought me full circle: maybe, I thought, that’s because exercise is one of the most effective ways of lowering high blood sugar. Just ask a diabetic. Apart from dietary changes, exercise is one of the first things their doctors tell them to add to their routine.

Afterword: I sat on my findings for over a decade, became a journalist, travelled the world, moved from one apartment to the next, then dusted off the banker’s box labelled “growing pains” a few weeks ago during a visit to my storage locker. When I went back to Google, now an infinitely bigger search engine than it was in 2000, I discovered that my hunch and my “leg work” were spot on. Since that time, growing pains has been taken up by researchers some of whom, like me, pinpointed complications from high blood sugar as a probable cause. Others, still aren’t sure. I was slightly ticked I didn’t beat them to the punch, but also amazed what focused research and a personal stake in the outcome can lead to. This was no Lorenzo’s Oil, but a fascinating journey for me nonetheless.


The Originals

September 10, 2010

*FT25 was a magazine published to celebrate Fashion Television’s 25th anniversary

RIPPLE EFFECT: Douglas Cardinal

Architects become “starchitects” when they elevate a building to the realm of art and make our spirits soar. Alberta’s own Douglas Cardinal is a member of this elite priesthood. While fellow Canuck, the schlumpy-sweatered Frank Gehry, was slogging it out in the design trenches of LA, Cardinal — as elegant as Oscar de la Renta and as uncompromising as Maria Callas — had already found his voice stringing together bricks with gravity defying twists and turns. His debut design, 1968’s St. Mary’s Church in Red Deer, AB, busts out of the prairie soil like a ship full sail, but somehow it still manages to sway in unison with the land, a quality Cardinal attributed to his Métis and Blackfoot heritage. More hits followed, including the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Q.C. and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., two of many designs Cardinal puzzled out on the computer. One of the first architects in the world to use Computer Assisted Drafting and Design (CADD), Cardinal inspired Gehry and the entire industry to go digital.

CUTTING EDGE: Vidal Sassoon

The great modernist Vidal Sassoon understood the link between high design and hair. Before him, women went to the beauty parlor once a week and had their locks washed, teased and sprayed into giant nests (think Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray). Split ends and styling errors conveniently got lost in the volume or covered over with bows and wide headbands. But Sassoon did away with the rollers and choking clouds of spray — a cultural shift as big as losing the corset — and was the first to insist that hairdressers think like architects. His arresting angled bob, made famous by actress Nancy Kwan, was minimalist, low-maintenance and as sleek and shiny as a plate-glass window in a Mies van der Rohe skyscraper. Swinging London took note. They flooded Sassoon’s avant-garde Mayfair salon for the chance to sit in the master’s chair. But Sassoon also went home with his clients; a clever marketer, he made sure they left with enough products to maintain their look. Shampoos and conditioners, with the iconic VS stamped on the bottle, began appearing in showers as women took over washing their own hair. On the grooming front, nothing so revolutionary exists today.


The ideal woman of the 1930s was an outdoorsy, up-for-anything gal who could fly planes, ski down mountains and swan dive into Olympic-sized pools. A far more ruthless and terrifying creature, however, slithered onto the scene in the early thirties in a variety of erotically-charged guises created by Horst, the German-born black and white photographer with the one-word byline. Working for French and British Vogue from the thirties until the early 1990s, Horst was a master of light and shadow who shot a parade of socialites, movie stars and artists (mostly female) against boiling skies, peering down on us through hooded lids. In between drags on their cigarettes, Horst’s women kicked off their shoes and cracked open their corsets, exposing lacquered toes and breasts, before reclining like Odalisques high on opium. They also performed in gender-bending top hats and capes, donned more lace than a Goya Duchess and emerged under shafts of raking light in skintight sheaths, hipbones leading the charge. Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth and Marlene Dietrich all live on as glamorous untouchables from Planet Horst.


There isn’t a woman on earth who can compete with RuPaul Andre Charles in the leg department. Over 7 feet tall in stilettos, with the loping grace of a giraffe and more attitude than Miss Black America, this drag queen, actor, singer and author shimmied her way onto the club scene in the early 1990s belting out anthems like “It’s Raining Men” and her original MTV chart-topping hit, “Supermodel (You Better Work).” Her “love everyone” message was the first to take drag from the gay dance club scene to the supermarket newsstand and daytime TV. “You can call me he. You can call me she. You can call me Regis and Kathy Lee,” she announced, hand planted squarely on hip, “I don’t care. Just call me!” Her sass and winning ways led to duets with Elton John, a popular Christmas album called Ho, Ho, Ho, a modeling contract with M.A.C Cosmetics, a talk show on VH1 and, most recently, a reality show, RuPaul’s Drag Race.

SIGN OF THE TIMES: Bob Richardson

Three decades before “heroin chic” hit the runways, Brooklyn-born photographer Bob Richardson led the fashion industry away from catalogue-style shots of corn-fed models leaping in the breeze and dropped them into the decadent and tortured world of addiction and strained human relations. Marlo Thomas look-alikes lost bookings to poseurs sporting dirty underwear and floppy felt hats that could easily have been castoffs from Mick Jagger’s closet. While Vietnam and the drug culture raged on, Richardson was out there documenting what fashion editor Joan Juliet Buck called “the generation of young people left crying in their room, feeling lonely, hoping for sex.” Typically, models are shown straddling one another, feeding each other drugs or looking away in a post-fight silence. Sadly, for Richardson, life and art were interchangeable. Well into his fifties, he had to be rescued from his demons by his son, photographer Terry Richardson.

REAL WOMEN: Lillian Bassman

Women act differently around a female photographer: they stop competing with each other, fretting about their bodies and relax into their natural selves. Lillian Bassman, one of the few female photographers in the 20th century to rise to the top of the fashion heap, knew this and capitalized on it. The “go-to-girl” for Chanel ad campaigns and Harper’s Bazaar editorials from 1950-65, her classic duotones show women with balletic arms, swan necks and arresting hats laughing and leaning into conversations. The character of Betty Draper in Mad Men is portrayed as an avid magazine reader during the Bassman era and someone who understood all too well the pressure men apply to women’s body language. (“As long as men look at me that way, I’m earning my keep,” she told her friend Francine in Season One.) Bassman’s models thought about this a lot — a key component of the timelessness of her work.

FACE TIME: Kevyn Aucoin

Sharon Stone was said to have lost her breath when the news reached her: Kevyn Aucoin, makeup artist to the stars, was dead at 40. The man credited with finally fixing Julia Roberts’ eyebrows died in 2002 from painkillers he took daily by the fistful to dull the effects of a pituitary tumour. Tall, but never intimidating, Aucoin had a chair-side manner so genuine that celebs such as Céline, Cher Audrey Hepburn and Gywneth Paltrow all called on him when they were feeling wobbly and unpretty. Sure, he was a master of the smoky eye and the nude lip, but his “life energy” was second to none. “You always have the answer within in, just do the work to find it.”

JUMP UP! Peter Minshall

The world is about change, and nothing will ever change if we stand still, so jump up! That, in a nutshell, is the philosophy of Peter Minshall, the Trinidadian Carnival artist who turned what was once a rum-soaked street party in his native Port of Spain into an internationally renowned outdoor opera. Minshall’s giant puppets have swayed to the music in the opening ceremonies at three Olympic Games, one Miss Universe pageant and are the inspiration for Toronto’s Caribana, North America’s largest Caribbean festival. But there’s substance under “Masman” Minshall’s feathers and fluttering silks. His dancers throw their energy into symbolic battles of good and evil, acting out grand narratives on hate, selfishness and prejudice. It’s immense, intense and very baroque — and the vision of a man who calls himself “a mulatto spiritual freak,” no, wait, “an African, Indian European, Chinese, Syrian mix-up.”


In 1972, when fashionable young women in Montréal were raiding the racks at Le Château for flared jeans, Biba-inspired billowing crepe dresses and giant-collared leisure suits, they flocked to the Aldo concession stand in the store’s shoe corner to complete the look, trying on the latest “glam” rock boots, cork wedges and wooden platforms made by Aldo Bensadoun, a Moroccan-born son of a French shoe merchant. Armed with a business degree from McGill, Aldo saw Montréal’s (and Canada’s) funky potential long before we did, creating knock-offs of the latest streets styles from London, Paris, Milan, New York and Tokyo at prices every student and secretary could afford. He opened his first store on Sainte-Catherine Street in Montréal in 1978, but waited for Toronto to drop its uptight attitude before setting up shop in the country’s financial capital. Three decades later Aldo stores are all over Toronto and in 45 countries around the world, or, as the CEO and founder likes to say, “We’re on every continent, except Antarctica.”


Morocco has been good to Canada. Not only did it send us “sole man” Aldo Bensadoun, but, in 1957 Esther Mimram, a well known couturier who designed eveningwear for Casablanca’s elite, stepped off a train with her husband, Eli, and their two sons, Saul and Joe, to start life afresh in Toronto. Growing up to the sound of Esther’s whirring sewing machine, the Mimram boys were arguably the only preteens in Hogtown who ran around in scaled-down replicas of Sean Connery’s James Bond suits. But destiny would have to wait. While Saul went off and became a concert promoter, Joe worked as an accountant until his sartorial gene kicked in. In the late seventies, the brothers teamed up to open their first boutique and hired a 31-year-old named Alfred Sung to design a collection of elegant business suits for the era’s new class of working women. The Sung suits, then stores, were an instant hit, but Joe went solo in the mid-1980s to create Club Monaco, a chain for mid-priced togs that spun off into the lifestyle and house wares cult favorite, Caban. The Mimrams sold the whole shebang to Ralph Lauren in 1999 for a cool $52.5 million (USD). By 2006, Mimran was back with Joe Fresh, a “cheap chic” line of clothing, makeup and bath products available at Loblaws nationwide.

BLUE NOTE: Levi Strauss

Hipsters, boot-cut, wide-cut, patched, flared, distressed, skinny — is there any fashion staple more versatile than jeans? Like a trusted friend, they respect our mood swings, have us covered on our “fat days” and “skinny days,” accompany us on our adventures as sex kittens and sit with us on the coach when we’re feeling like “shut-ins.” We pay a premium to have them expertly ripped and re-stitched and pair them up with diamonds and stilettos as if to say, “What the whoo” to their proletarian past. Jeans, after all, debuted on the firm backsides of sailors working the docks in Geneo, Italy (bleu de Gênes to the admiring French). Levi Strauss, a Bavarian-born dry goods salesman, patented the trousers in 1873 as the work wear for California gold miners and probably would have balked to see women tinkering with his pants. Today, the standard of unfashion is right up there with the Little Black Dress on the list of wardrobe must-haves.

‘SUP, DUDE! Renzo Rosso

Today’s cool kids are a sick, stupid, scruffy bunch of alpha geeks. No, it’s a compliment. For an old dude, Renzo Rosso, the 55-year old founder and chairman of Diesel apparel and accessories, is just as sick (insanely cool) and stupid (risk-taking) ‘cause he’s put them all on the payroll. Twenty-something singers, dancers and webmasters mope and flirt in his campaign ads and online videos and make up the majority of his advisors at Diesel HQ in Movena, Italy. By listening to the demographic he serves, Rosso’s 32-year-old company now outsells Levis in the “couture jeans” sector. As Rosso puts it, Diesel’s irreverent attitude is about “lifestyle first, and if you like that, you can buy the clothes —or not.” Buy we are, to the tune of $ 1.7 billion (USD) in 2009. Still, growth for growth’s sake isn’t enough. Consumers aren’t sheep, they’re individuals, says Rosso. That’s why he insists on mixing up the décor and merchandise in every Diesel store and scaling back the quantity of each item. “Less global, more individual,” he shouts through the halls. In this day and age, individuality means “hyper local” and that’s as sick as it gets.

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