Like many teenagers Cheryl Straby liked to follow the latest fashions, but lacked the means to get the clothes she wanted and her mother was often reluctant to bail her out.
“She didn’t like to give me money for new clothes, especially jeans, but she didn’t mind taking me to the fabric store to buy material,” recalls Cheryl. “So I soon learned that the quickest and easiest way to expand my wardrobe was to make my own clothes.”
Taking things into her own hands began a journey for Cheryl Straby that would see her clothing in some of North America’s best-known boutiques.
Following high school Cheryl enrolled in the fashion design program at Ryerson University in Toronto. It was here she developed the technical skills needed for sewing, pattern drafting and design.
“Design is very technical” says Cheryl. “You need to work hard at learning and developing those skills, because if you don’t have them you’ll never be able to get out what’s in your head.”
When she graduated from Ryerson in the early 80’s, Cheryl immersed herself in Toronto’s vibrant fashion industry.
Her career would take on a life of its own when Cheryl discovered she needed a winter coat.
“At the time I was working as an assistant designer for a company in Toronto and decided I needed a full-length winter coat,” recalls Cheryl. “So I started to experiment with scraps of leather off the cutting room floor and slowly pieced together a design.”
When Cheryl was finished her coat, she began to wear it around Toronto. To her surprise, women stopped her on the street and asked her where she got it.
“When I made the coat, I really had no idea if it was something good or it was junk,” recalls Cheryl.
The story of the coat continued in 1987 when Cheryl left it on the rack by the studio door. That particular day, by chance or fate, a buyer from Vancouver was visiting and noticed the leather coat.
“She asked my boss if it was part of a new collection.”
When the buyer, who owned boutiques in Banff, Vancouver and Whistler, proceeded to place an order for the coat, Strévé Design was born.
Under the original Germanic spelling of her surname, Cheryl began to create her own line of leather coats and handbags.
“My first couple of years were great,” recalls Cheryl. Then the recession hit in 1990 and she realized people weren’t buying big ticket items. It was then that Cheryl introduced a line of accessories and scarves to her line, as well as jewellery. “I didn’t do t-shirts or sweatshirts. That’s really not my thing,” she concedes.
Along the way, Cheryl continued to take night courses, including one on entrepreneurship.
“You create to sell, but you also have to sell in order to create,” says Cheryl about the relationship of art to business.
The fashion industry is a tough business with most of the money needed upfront before anything is actually produced or sold.
As a means of saving money, after eight years in Toronto, Cheryl returned to Lanark County where she continued her design business from her parent’s home near Hopetown.
Looking for a larger space, in July 2009 Cheryl opened a small boutique in downtown Perth. Ten years later she relocated to a former feed mill where she added a second level art gallery representing established and emerging artists. In addition, Cheryl featured locally-made jewelry and hand weaving that compliments her designs.
During the pandemic she used her time to create new designs and to hone her business skills through webinars on a wide range of topics. “You do what you have to do to get by,” Cheryl reflected. “When you own your own business, failure isn’t an option.”
Throughout it all Cheryl has remained true to her vision. “When you create something you feel the reward of accomplishment,” she says. “The journey is the enjoyable part. It’s not all work.”
Recently that feeling was confirmed when Strévé Design was presented a runner-up award by the MERA Award of Excellence in Fine Arts and Fine Crafts for 2021.
It’s been a journey full of surprises and accomplishments for Cheryl. The truth is no one knows what will happen when they go looking for a winter coat.