The Van Mag Q&A: Gary Lenett on the rise of athleisure wear

We sat down with the founder of Dish & DU/ER

May 25, 2016

By Amanda Ross / Photo: Dish & DU/ER

Whether the rise of athleisure wear is one of the greatest things since yoga-pants-in-public or the death knell of civilized society is entirely in the eye of the beholder. But according to Gary Lenett, founder of a new Gastown-based performance apparel company, Dish & DU/ER, the meteoric ascent of athletic fashion on streets is about making life easier and better for both the people who wear them and the people who make them.

The brand’s high-tech fabric aims to look and feel like denim or cotton dress pants but still allow you to hit the Cirque de Soleil circuit (the store actually has a jungle gym to try your hand at flips) without your duds losing their shape or smelling like the contents of a hockey bag. Bike shorts could double as dinner-wear while stylish outerwear is water-repellent yet breathable with environmentally friendly and biodegradable finishes. Dish & DU/ER’s ethos is all about performance and play in no particular order, but also, it could be said, about eschewing the mindless hamster wheel of consumption. Here’s what Lenett had to say.

On pre-Dish & DU/ER street cred:

I came to fashion the circular route: I was a corporate lawyer, a teacher, and then found my way into business with my brother. At the time he was doing jean jackets for Levi Strauss (in those days, most clothes were made here). My brother and I became the largest manufacturer of any clothes in Western Canada with 550 employees. The Levi’s people left and created another little company called The Gap, but we had developed relationships with them along the way and with so many others like Guess, Ralph Lauren, Nordstrom private label, Harley Davidson, Costco Kirkland jeans (we pioneered them), and an organic, high-end, $300-jean concept in collaboration with Chip Wilson in 2004. From Costco to high-end, I cut my fashion teeth for 27 years.

On almost giving up on fashion entirely:

Ten years ago, the manufacturing model had dried up and we closed our Canadian factory. Then five years ago, I’d finally had enough and told my wife I was done. I’d worked in fashion for such a long time—it’s so trend-driven and cyclical that you start to see everything come and go in three to five year cycles…. Rises become higher, lower, distressed denim, colours darker, lighter, and so on. Frankly, it had become disinteresting to me, and I’d lost my passion. At about the same time, I became an urban cyclist and started riding my bike everywhere. A longtime friend and supplier asked me what it would take to stay in the industry and, being an entrepreneur, I soon identified a need: there was nothing in the marketplace for me wear on my bike.

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On the Dish & DU/ER concept in a sea of competitors:

I ride in my street clothes and don’t wear techno fabric—you’d never catch me dead in spandex—so I wanted to come at it from a different perspective. I’m interested in technical [fabric], but I didn’t want to compete with Lululemon and Nike—they’re doing great already. I wanted to take cotton and natural-fibre-rich fabrics and add techno to them. For example, if you put too much nylon or polyester in a garment, it won’t look like a jean or a pant—it starts to become shiny. We use natural fibres and we infuse it with a certain percentage of technology so they still look like street clothes instead of the other way around.

On Vancouver as the birthplace of athleisure wear:

Did we invent it? Well, yes and no—I was talking to an editor at a magazine about psychographics and economic changes since this whole movement started. Fifteen years ago, if my wife was wearing her athletic gear in a grocery store, she would probably have ducked out if she saw a friend. What happens today is a completely different response…. Wearing athletic clothes is a badge of pride and expresses a lifestyle. It speaks to who we are and what’s important to us—our emphasis on health and fitness has shifted not just in Vancouver but everywhere. But considering Vancouver isn’t an apparel centre, you look at Sugoi, Arc’teryx, Lululemon here… certainly there has to be something in our water.

On the athleisure wear boom:

It’s made to take all transitions of our daily lives without necessarily needing to change your clothes. As for the performance elements… do all women buy yoga pants to do yoga in them? No. Because they’re made for yoga they’re just really comfortable. Or when guys wear Arc’teryx, does it mean they’re going to climb a mountain? No, but they could. If you wear Dish & DU/ER, am I saying you’re necessarily going to ride a bike in our jeans? You can if you want—but either way you’re still going to be way more comfortable with anti-bacterial stretch pants that you could wear to work or do ridiculously athletic things in them.

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On not manufacturing in Vancouver anymore:

I loved having facilities here. It’s definitely a loss on the emotional side, but not the practical side. The business question is: what do you want to offer, a status-driven price point or an economic one? The truth is there is no economic jeans model in Canada where product is made for less than $200. That’s not my thing: I’ve never been a status guy; I’m a value guy. I would rather pack as much value as I can at a price that is accessible. That friend who asked what it would take to stay in the fashion business? He became a partner, and he’s one of Under Armour’s biggest clients; we bought a little factory in Lahore, Pakistan, where some of the world’s best denim comes out of now. Supply chain support was really important to me.

On manufacturing in a third-world country:

I invite the question about how our product is made. The biggest issue is not about the organic cotton, not about the amount of fuel; the issue is fast fashion. Sixty-seven pounds of fashion per person goes into our landfills each year, and if you look in my closet, I have a few very nice things and that’s all. That sort of played into the decision to do it offshore: buy expensive fabrics and make a product that lasts forever—I suppose it’s a bit of a problem for multiple sales.

In terms of the ethical issue, there are shitty factories in L.A. and good ones in Bangladesh. Our factory is modular; there are only 24 people who work there and they get paid higher-than-average salaries—they’re not paid by the piece. To be honest, I actually think the buy-local thing can have a slight tinge of racism to it. I’m proud that I pay a living wage in a country that has some tendencies towards extremism caused by economic hardship. The best thing we can do is pay good wages: these people have just as much right to make a living wage as someone does locally.

On fast fashion:

If you educate your children with the idea that if it’s too good to be true, it’s too good to be true. If you see a beautiful Egyptian cotton shirt at Forever 21 and it’s $19.99, you have to ask yourself, how do they do that? The truth is you get what you pay for, and someone is losing along the way to give you that shirt for $19.99.

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