Written by Andrew Seale

Fresh out of high school, Jasmine Swimmer took a job as an apprentice to an aging tailor, cleaning the shop and studying his work as he ripped seams and re-shaped suit jackets. It was a tough time in her life, fraught with mental illness and grappling with her new life being out on her own.

“At first, I hated it,” says Swimmer. But over time she developed a fascination with the way he breathed life into shapeless pants and jackets. She started creating her own life from the trimmings, turning leftover silk into hair bows and later, at the advice of her mentor, bowties – a fashion accessory she’d always identified with.

“Very bad ones, I might add,” says Swimmer with a laugh. “My very first one was made out of an elastic, it choked (the client) – we had to cut it and then tie it do it would fit over his head.”

Her mentor showed her how to convert the techniques used for tailoring suits to the art of making bowties, taking into account facial features.

“That’s where BHF Empire started,” says Swimmer. “It was a lot of hits and misses at the start.”

With no business experience, she turned to the Toronto startup ecosystem.

“I immersed myself in every business program they had for youth – Startup Canada (now Futurepreneur), Enterprise Toronto, the Toronto Fashion Incubator, all the workshops at city hall, programs in my community through YES and Yonge Street Mission,” she says. Swimmer went to every single workshop she could find. “I networked for a whole year just to learn the business.”

Through speaker series with other entrepreneurs like Second Cup’s Frank O’Dea and Sarah Segal, founder of Squish Candies, she drew inspiration from other entrepreneurs’ journeys, inspiration that would keep her driven even as she battled her mental illness and homelessness, living off any bit of funding she could get to keep BHF Empire afloat.

“A lot of entrepreneurs don’t really talk about the personal side,” she says. Or they get branded an overnight success as if it was just handed to them. “I lived those struggling artiste type days where you don't know where your next pay is going to come from.”

It forced her into a brief hiatus. But she’s back and building her business now.

Swimmer says young designers have taken a hit as a result of changing consumer habits like buying online and the cancellation of higher profile Toronto fashion shows. And although the fashion scene looks different than the heydays of the 1970s to 1990s, she says she honestly believes Toronto is on the cusp of a renaissance.

“There just needs to be businesses and fashion providers that tell the world Toronto is still a place where you can find cutting-edge innovative things in fashion,” she says. “In my heart, I feel (like) part of that movement.”

Photos: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)