Blatantly mocking Chiquita Banana for their neocolonial tendencies is certainly not the first thing on your average fashion designer’s mind. This clothing brand makes expressive garments as easy as they call out brands like Harley Davidson for their moral ambiguity. Whether it is mushroom cola, serotonin sunflowers or “clam dunk” crustaceans, these quirky designs truly have something for everybody.
Enter the realm of Hayley Elsaesser: a forward-thinking fashion designer focused on creating a place where everyone, including her models and team, can express themselves and feel comfortable in their own skin. With over 11 collections released, this brand unapologetically breaks the status quo by using clothing as a vessel to open a meaningful dialogue around topics like body image, gender identity, political activism and mental health.
Seventy percent of average weighted women want to be thinner and 34% of men are dissatisfied with their body according to the Park Nicollet Melrose Center. With only a handful of brands carrying plus sizes, Hayley Elsasser’s work underscores the importance of inclusivity in the fashion industry. One study conducted during the 2017 New York Fashion Week revealed that, “54% of models were told that they would be unable to book jobs unless they lost weight.” While fictional expectations pressure models and everyday Americans alike to feel ashamed of their bodies, Elsaesser’s portrayal of beauty is as real as it gets.
What we learn from her actions is that designers can treat their models with dignity, not degradation. Designers like Elsaesser are reimagining the way we live our lives by challenging us to think about where our clothes come from, how our shopping patterns affect the world around us and how clothing has the power to amplify the voices of so many people. Brands like this reveal that the fashion industry doesn’t have to revolve around the bottom line or indifferent business practices. Designers do have the ability to branch out and represent individuals from all backgrounds – even if it raises some eyebrows. Her clothing is more of an ideology than anything else; a bold philosophy of life where topics like gender identity, body image, mental health and politics aren’t just acknowledged – they are fundamental pillars of her work.
“My mom was into fashion and shopping, so it became a part of my life from a very young age,” Elsaesser said. “As I got older, I realized I had a deeper interest in fashion than most … while I wasn’t able to use my voice to speak up, I could let my appearance do that for me.”
By her teenage years, she learned to sew, began upcycling and started to create her own clothes. In high school, she started a business on eBay and later went on to finish her degree in Fashion Design in Australia at Queensland University of Technology. After this, Elsaesser’s brand was born.
“I think she is one of the pioneering people for body positivity and inclusivity,” said model Akira Joseph. “Back in 2018, I didn’t think I could model because I didn’t fit the skinny to straight size. So, when I got casted, I realized that there are people out there, especially Hayley, who are looking for ‘normal bodies.’”
“At the show [Toronto Fashion Week] there were disabled people, people of all colors and sizes: so many people that you would just see downtown somewhere.”
Joseph was astonished to be a part of such an inclusive environment backstage: “Seeing everyone rip off their clothes in a hurry without really caring about what other people look like made the backstage experience a place where you could be yourself, talk, network and just be people.”
Joseph worked with Elsaesser on her Fall 2018 collection and then the following year, she signed with an agency. “She definitely changed my life … thank you for accepting me and giving me the opportunity to find my path,” she said. Unlike most designer brands, Elsaesser offers her clothing in a myriad of sizes so everyone can take part in her playful patterns.
As someone who never fit into the typical sample size, Elsaesser always thought that “I was the problem,” until the casting for her grad fashion show.
As young models who were new to the modelling industry walked for the students, Hayley noticed some chatter from her peers. They harshly observed that the models didn’t fit well into the clothes students made. This was a moment of revelation: she was never the problem; it was an industry norm that everyone is conditioned to accept. “I realized that this behavior and depersonalization of the models wasn’t OK, and I made it my mission to change this in whatever small way I could.”
One look through Elsaesser’s online shop will show you that her designs are anything but subtle. Phrases like “are you afraid of the patriarchy?” and “call cats not cat calls” cover graphic tees while hats with the words “gender roles” appear in the slimy green Goosebumps font. The product description for the hat reads:
“Remember when you used to read scary stories as a kid? Like the one about the man whose father told him that if he showed any sort of emotion or sensitivity he was never going to be able to grow up to be big and strong and he should never let anyone see him cry ever, so he beat up his classmates and developed an addiction to alcohol. Scary stuff.”
With this brand, gender norms are shattered: Male models wear nail polish, makeup and crop tops, while others sprinkle glitter in their beards.
“I learned a lot about not feeling like I have to fit in all the time, and that there are lots of people doing really cool stuff outside of those boxes that society always tries to put us in,” said Lauryn Guest, a black, gender non-binary model for the brand. Elsaesser’s approach to fashion is atypical, with a major focus on allowing her customers to be bold with designs you won’t find anywhere else. She is not just a clothing designer; she is a norm entrepreneur, creatively critiquing the world around her with a colorful lens.
This lens is brought into the ever-changing political discourse, too. Guest mentioned working with Elsaesser made them think about the world on a deeper level: “People just have the clothes they have, but don’t really think about how it all connects – who made it, where did the product come from and who had to be exploited in order to get it,” they said, reminiscing about conversations they had with Elsaesser that “made the vision of what the fashion industry could be so much clearer.” Guest explained they felt safe in the studio, and the conversations they had were natural and comfortable, like they would with a family member.
Recently, Elsaesser partnered with the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression to launch her “Champion the Truth” collection. All proceeds from the shirts, tote bags and masks will be donated to the CJFE in honor of national newspaper week. In addition to this, she includes helpful activism links such as bail funds, protest locations, non-BIPOC links and much more on her website under the “Black Lives Matter Resources” tab. If she hasn’t been clear enough, Elsaesser even made a line of shirts, hoodies, crewnecks, baby clothes, totes and hats that say “F*ck Trump.”
“I think brands are very conscious of playing it safe and not rocking the boat, which is ultimately probably better for their bottom line,” Elsaesser said. “But, as I see it, not everyone has that privilege in their life, and I have a platform to speak out, so I’m going to use it. So many people I work with and I’m friends with are from marginalized communities, so it’s important for me to not ignore that reality.”
Authenticity is a major theme of Elsaesser’s collections. This is apparent with her mental health-themed clothing. One of her collections features shirts and hoodies displaying words like anxiety, depression, dopamine and serotonin. Each word is accompanied by a quirky illustration: a depression strawberry, dopamine dolphins, serotonin sunflowers and anxiety aubretias.
“I’ve always struggled with mental health and especially anxiety,” Elsaesser said. “About a year and a half ago, after ending a very toxic and abusive relationship, I got into a very dark place and actually developed PTSD. I almost ended my own life, as it felt too overwhelming going through this, along with having to run a business with all that comes along with that.”
“Luckily, I didn’t and I’m still here today, and that’s just because I asked someone for help. From the outside, someone may think I have it all together and my life is amazing, and it is, but I also have mental health issues. And if me, one of the most positive, colorful people you’d meet can have this issue, anyone can. I felt that it is so important to share this with others, so they realize there are so many people struggling, and we aren’t alone.”
Through unique approaches to clothing and self-expression, Elsaesser’s designs contextualize her life experiences and help to destigmatize conversations around mental health. Those struggling can feel confident and empowered wearing a design that is as direct as it is colorful.
Instead of using her platform purely for personal gain, Elsaesser finds a way to amplify the voices of the unheard and lift up strangers through every article of clothing. Her attitude toward a more human-focused brand with an emphasis on compassion is evident.
Most brands are too scared to talk about personal topics like mental health, but Elsaesser offers helpful links to free mental health services on her website. Popular clothing brands don’t care to entangle themselves with anything political; Elsaesser decides not to ignore these political realities and opts to promote advocacy, transparency and a free press. There’s a reason why Hayley’s logo is a cartoon drawing of an open mouth. It is because she is not afraid to speak up.
The features desk can be reached at email@example.com
Jack Porcari is the assistant features editor at The Spectrum. He is a political science major with a minor in law and journalism. Aside from writing and editing, he enjoys playing piano, flow arts, reptiles and activism.