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Chris Tyrell – Partner in Design and Diversity for 40 Years

The enduring partnership of Hoax Couture designers Chris Tyrell and Jim Searle and their impact on fashion diversity.

His enduring partnership with Jim Searle and their impact on fashion diversity

NameChristopher Anthony TyrellBirthOctober 31, 1956BirthplaceSt. Andrew, JamaicaEthnic OriginJamaican, Afro-CaribbeanOccupationFashion DesignerWebsitehoaxcouture.comShare

Chris Tyrell and Jim Searle of Hoax Couture, known as “the boys” in the fashion industry, have a unique chemistry. While sharing the story of Tyrell’s upbringing, career and the systemic racism he experiences, they frequently finish each other’s sentences and bounce their energy off each other. It’s soon clear how the interracial duo has successfully operated a business together for over 40 years.

Chris Tyrell and Jim Searle, Toronto Sun, Aug 1990 (Photo Courtesy of Chris Tyrell)

Early Life and Career

Born in St. Andrew, Jamaica in 1956,Tyrell was no stranger to fashion. His mother introduced him to sewing ‘from the get-go’ to keep him out of her hair.  He was still a young child when his parents died, but was quickly taken in by his maternal grandmother and an ‘army of aunts’. By age eight, Tyrell was sewing daily and his classmates would say, “what’s that crazy kid wearing today?”

When he was 11 his family moved to New York and Tyrell took a break from sewing to focus on adjusting to living in a different country. A few years later he moved to Canada and received  Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws degrees from University of Ottawa, then travelled across Central America to decide on his career.

Tyrell wound up stuck in a Mexican village for two weeks and noticed the women making their own clothes from dyed blankets, which reminded him of his childhood passion.  When he returned to Canada, Tyrell told his partner, Jim Searle, that he wanted to pursue fashion design as a career.

 

 

This special section creates a spread of 2 photos that will jut out into the side margin.

 

 

Hoax Couture runway show (Photo by Brian Summers)
Cashmere Fashion Show (Photo by Jim Serle)

For almost 40 years, we’ve worked together and  proven it can happen,” says Tyrell. “People from different backgrounds, different racial backgrounds, different economic backgrounds, can get together and do something fabulous and positive.

So Tyrell and Searle, with a few friends, began creating one-size-fits-all designs to sell at vendor booths across Toronto. In 1984, one booth caught the attention of Holt Renfrew buyers, who purchased their entire collection.

In 1986, after about a year of team designing, the duo moved on, creating their own womenswear and menswear brand Hoax Couture. Strictly wholesale at the start, they opened their first Toronto retail store in 1988.

Today, they create solely custom designs out of their Toronto studio. Their extensive clientele includes celebrities, brides, grooms, mothers of the bride, a hospitality corporation, sports teams and frequently, clothes for themselves. They’ve also done a lot of costume design for various ballet companies including The National Ballet of Canada, Joffrey Ballet and The San Francisco Ballet, to name a few.

Breaking Barriers

The duo’s career began in the ‘80s when Tyrell explains, “people weren’t that well educated about diversity. The fashion industry, like many others, has always had a problem with equal representation and inclusion,” he adds. As biracial partners and business owners, Tyrell and Searle have had different experiences within the industry and continue to experience differences today.

Tyrell explains a consistent issue he faced when going to a local fabric shop. “The guy asked me every time I went, ‘how’s your boss’?, or ‘tell your boss this’ and finally I said to him, ‘I told you this before, he’s not my boss. We’re partners. We work together. If you ask me this again, I’ll take our business elsewhere.” Tyrell pauses before concluding, “He’s never said that to me ever since.”

In 2022, people are becoming more educated, but society is still far from perfect when it comes to racism. “For almost 40 years, we’ve worked together and  proven it can happen,” says Tyrell.  “People from different backgrounds, different racial backgrounds, different economic backgrounds, can get together and do something fabulous and positive.”

Indeed, fabulous, positive and successful their work been. They’ve shown in Paris, New York, LA and Chicago and are the proud recipients of many fashion industry awards. Some include: City of Toronto Designer of the Year (1998, 1999), NOW Toronto Best Local Fashion Designer (1999, 2000 and Runner-up 2001, 2003), Matinée Fashion Foundation Award (1993, 1995, 1996, 1999, and each came with a cash award of $50,000), as well as Toronto Star Readers’ Choice Award 2019. In 2001 they even won the BMW Canada Auto Couture Award for a custom-designed, one-of-a-kind BMW 540i.

Photos by George Whiteside,1993

Influence and Legacy

Something Toronto’s fashionistas likely remember from when Hoax Couture was in it’s prime are the fashion shows. “We really went all out,” Tyrell reminisces. “Our shows were wild, crazy, loose and fun. We once had the models arrive in expensive cars to walk the runway along Toronto’s blocked off Bloor Street,” he explains. Their runway models were ethnically diverse long before it was ‘fashionable’ and Tyrell says, “not because we felt obligated, like much of the industry now.”  

Tyrell smiles when he remembers a crucial career moment, when they were organizing “Dare to Wear Love,” a multi-designer fashion show. The show came about in 2009 after the duo met the Executive Director of the Steven Lewis Foundation, an organization working in response to the African AIDS pandemic.

A large part of the organization helps grandmothers raising their grandchildren when their parents die from AIDS. When Tyrell heard about this, he thought about becoming an orphan himself and immediately told Searle, “we have to get involved because I feel really connected  to this.”                                              

Following the meeting, Tyrell and Searle decided the best way to raise money was to put on a small fashion show, with the help of other designers and “Dare to Wear Love” was born.

The show consisted of 25 designers, each creating African-sourced cloth outfits for a celebrity to walk in. This simple thought eventually turned into a major fundraising campaign, spanning multiple years. And as the closing show of Toronto Fashion Week, “Dare to Wear Love” has raised between half a million to a million dollars, marking the event as one of their proudest moments.

As their walk down memory lane ends, Tyrell and Searle start thinking about the rest of their day. Searle pulls up their to-do list, which consists of making numerous clothes for a client going on a cruise and also making clothes for themselves to wear over the Christmas season. No matter how busy the day, design is always prevalent in the duo’s lives and they wouldn’t trade it for anything.

While sharing the story of Tyrell’s upbringing, career and the systemic racism he experiences, they frequently finish each other’s sentences and bounce their energy off each other.

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