Please would you tell us a bit about yourself and your business?

My name is Astri Prugger and I’m from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. My mother is from Norway and my father from Austria. Having that background has always been important to me. The cultures of these two countries have influenced much of my life. I always liked to draw and used to draw pictures of girls with different kinds of clothes for my friends. I suppose that I have been doing custom drawing since I was ten. I hadn’t intended to be a fashion designer. I had wanted to be a ballet dancer and my teachers wanted me to audition for the National Ballet, but my parents didn’t want me to move so far away.

As it happened, my parents moved away to Spain, so I went to live in Kingston, Ontario, with my brother Arnfinn and his wife, Lindsay Embree, who is a printmaker. I’ve always admired her work and recently she has been creating wearable art pieces. My brother suggested that I do a degree or a diploma, so I looked at the catalogue for St. Lawrence College and thought that fashion design would be an easy option. I applied for the 3-year program, was accepted and started all on the same day. Suffice it to say, fashion design is not easy. It was a challenging and rigorous program.

Once I graduated from the program, I married John, who was a master’s student at the time, so I couldn’t leave Kingston to work in either the fashion centre of Toronto or Montreal, so I started my first custom fashion business at the age of 22 with a partner. Customers would come to us. We would do drawings of what they wanted and then we’d create the garments.

A few years later, I moved with my husband to Montreal and had my first baby (Anna). When she was born, I had commissions for a couple of wedding dresses and some gowns for other members of a bridal party, which had to be made pretty quickly. I thought I’d wait a month and then the baby could sit in a car seat, while I made all those dresses. What could possibly go wrong, I thought. Turns out that having a baby is more work than I had realized, so I made the dresses between midnight and 4 am while the baby slept. I quickly realized that I could not continue to do this, so I was a stay-at-home mom for 12 years as two more daughters (Clara and Katrina) were added to our family. I did many things and didn’t stop being a creative person, but I was not a fashion designer: I made tutus and purses, painted flowerpots and champagne flutes, and ran an annual craft sale with friends. In 2002, I decided that it was time to go back to work, so I started my current custom fashion design business – Astri Prugger Design.

How does a custom fashion design business work?

A customer comes to see me and tells me what kind of event she is going to, her likes, her dislikes and ideas. I draw pictures of dresses and we discuss possible fabrics, colours and the design the customer prefers. I then take her measurements. Based on the sketch that the customer has approved and her measurements, I make a flat paper pattern. The pattern is then cut out of cotton muslin, sewn up, and fitted onto the customer. Once the necessary changes have been made to ensure the best fit, the seamstress applies the pattern to the fabric and sews the garment together for the first of several fittings. It’s an old-fashioned, labour-intensive process and it’s the heart of my business.

In addition, we create sample dresses and more casual clothing, accessories and jewellery for the boutique.The business is now by appointment only, and I have a number of regular clients. A big part of the business is alterations. I don’t care how big or how small a job is. We’ll hem someone’s jeans and make them a ballgown too!

Have you always been interested in fashion?

I have always loved fashion. I used to make dresses for my Barbie doll. The first piece I ever made was a dress made from a cut-up sock! When I was growing up, my mother was interested in fashion and had impeccable taste, though not always the budget to indulge that taste. She was a talented knitter, who didn’t use a pattern but made incredible things. She was very creative and artistic, a wonderful artist, writer and chef, and has been a great influence on my life and work. In fact, both my parents’ love of music and art has been an influence on my work.

The boutique(night)

What kind of clothes do you design? Generally dresses? Or a wide range of items?

The bulk of the clothes I design could be called “event dresses,” largely wedding dresses, ballgowns and cocktail dresses. When Jennifer Gasoi was nominated and won a Grammy as best children’s artist in 2014, she wore an Astri Prugger dress on the red carpet. That was really exciting.

I also make jackets, skirts and pants. If a customer has trouble finding a good fit for certain clothes, then they’ll come to me for a custom fit. One client has bought 27 jackets and 30 pairs of pants, because they are a perfect fit.

How would you describe the style of the clothes you design?

I used to make exactly what the customer wanted, which sounds like a good idea, but it didn’t always work out, because the customer didn’t always know what suited her body. Now I am more secure in my design identity. After years of doing this, I know what works and what doesn’t. The clothes I design are simple, elegant and beautiful, with nice focal points and detail. They are always made from a high-quality fabric. I keep up with what is happening in fashion, but I don’t latch onto trends for the sake of it. I try to stay current, while maintaining a certain timelessness, so that customers can wear their dresses year after year, if they wish. My clothes could never be described as avant-garde or edgy. I stay true to myself and I make sure that every piece I make suits the body of my customer.

What kind of fabrics do you particularly like working with?

I like to use fabrics made of natural fibres. Most of the dresses I design are made of silk. People tend not to realize that silk is a fibre rather than a fabric. It can be woven in different ways, leading to very varied weights of material. For instance, silk can be woven to look like denim, but when you touch it, it feels very different from cotton denim. I also use wool, cashmere and cotton for less formal pieces. The design determines the choice of fabric.

Which is your favourite decade or period of fashion and why?

It’s hard to choose. The early eighteen hundreds when Napoleon was emperor of France was a lovely period with simple, empire dresses with the fitted bodice and high waist. I also like the late-Edwardian period, which is the period of Titanic and the dresses we see in Downton Abbey. The clothes of the twenties, thirties and fifties influence the clothes I design now. I’m not a huge fan of clothes from the seventies and eighties. I was there and I know we didn’t look great: it was a dark age of fashion!

I’m grateful that women now have so many choices in what we wear. We are not obliged to wear corsets or skirts of a prescribed length. Technological advances mean that we have more comfortable fabrics. It’s a good time to be a woman. We can create our own look, but it would be great if people in general dressed with more style and flair.

What would you like to tell us about what you do?

Making dresses can seem frivolous, but dresses are the armour women wear to present themselves. I help them present their best self, whether it’s at a big social event or in a professional setting. I provide people with a way to express themselves and there’s an importance to that. I feel lucky to be able to do work that I really love.