Leather can be a real pain in the ass. It’s unforgiving. One misplaced stitch creates a puncture hole that could ruin an entire piece. A lot of designers stay away from it for that very reason. But not Rosa Halpern. It’s one of the things she likes best about working with the material. “You only get one shot,” says Halpern, who runs Namesake, a Toronto-based label best known for its custom-made leather jackets. The 27-year-old’s vision for the brand is impressive, combining her feminist values and talent with a fierce commitment to doing what so many successful homegrown designers have not: staying in Canada.
While Halpern studied fashion at the Art Institute of Chicago, falling into the leather business was a bit of an accident. She was working as a store manager and assistant buyer at a Toronto boutique in 2015 when a friend asked if she’d make her a jacket — she was an athlete, broad-shouldered, and couldn’t find one that fit. “I had never actually made a leather jacket before,” says Halpern. “Before I knew it, I had 20 girls waiting on custom leather jackets.”
In leather, Halpern found her creative match. A self-described perfectionist, Halpern says her precision held her back as a student — she was constantly redoing assignments — but leather demanded perfection. It appealed to her rebellious streak, both aesthetically and in spirit. “The attitude I would receive from people when they found out I was studying fashion in school was, ‘You must make prom dresses — that's cute,’” she says. Leather is not cute. And she saw a hole in the bespoke market. She officially launched Namesake in 2016.
The jackets come in five base styles, each named after an iconic woman, including Yoko Ono, Grace Jones, and Bonnie Parker. “The idea is that you put on your jacket and become that woman you need to be,” says Halpern, who herself is named after two Rosas: Parks and Luxemburg. This fall, Halpern introduced a lineup of customizable leather pants for women and men’s jackets, which are named after men who’ve made supporting women part of their life’s work.
Halpern carries black canvas sample versions of each jacket style in sizes 00 to 24, so clients get an idea of the fit, but she can make them custom in any size. Then, she will make adjustments for your exact specifications. There are 30 leathers to choose from in an array of weights, colours, and finishes — all the skins are byproducts of the food industry and waste is minimal because there’s no overstock. “We are trying to produce clothing as consciously as possible,” says Halpern. Namesake is also fully digital — the entire customization process can be done via its website.
The options for making your jacket you are almost endless. You pick what fabric you want for the lining (from lightweight silk to a super-warm wool blend) and what colour you want it in. You can pick your hardware, whether you want studs, and where you want them. You can add fringe, fur collars or sleeves, pockets, belts, and hand-painted embellishments. Hell, you can have the entire back of the jacket covered in a painting or have studs arranged in the shape of your zodiac sign. This kind of hand-work doesn’t come cheap of course: Jackets start at $925, with most around $1,300.
Designing and creating in Toronto is important to Halpern, who has worked in New York and was born in the UK. Her family moved to Canada in 2001, and she’s adamant about staying here. “I have made a conscious choice to run my business from here, to support the Canadian economy,” says Halpern, who believes Toronto has the potential to be one the world’s leading design hubs, but that means talent has to stay in Canada. “Look at the great musicians that have come out of Toronto — Drake has pretty much put Toronto on the map, but he doesn't live here,” says Halpern. “Yes, he does honour Toronto, and comes back, and supports the Raptors, but this isn't his home base. There’s an idea of 'Lets go somewhere else’ once you reach a degree of success.”
Running a fashion label in Canada comes with challenges: There are just a few leather companies in Toronto, meaning that there isn’t a pool of talent to draw from when hiring (leather-working isn’t typically taught in fashion school), so Halpern has trained her staff to operate the special machinery (and taught herself how to repair the machines). Suppliers are an issue too. She has to source hardware overseas, and her leather from Europe and the U.S.
But Halpern likes a challenge and the upsides of being Toronto-based outweigh the hassles. “Toronto is a really embracing city, there is a sense of camaraderie between designers rather than a sense of competition,” she says, adding that her fellow leather workers share tips on resources and employees. In a city like New York, there are endless smaller brands trying to set themselves apart. In Toronto, you get to be a big fish in a small pond.
Regardless of the pond size, Namesake’s work is impeccable. The jacket Halpern and her team generously made for me is in heavy-duty silver leather. I liked the tough look of the cropped Maud style, and I had Halpern cut it even shorter so that it hit me at the narrowest part of my waist. I chose a chartreuse lining, silver hardware, and had my last name painted underneath the collar on the back. From there, Halpern made a pattern for her team to work off. The end result is the best-fitting, sexiest piece of clothing I’ve ever worn. It’s impossible not to feel like the most badass version of myself when I wear it. The proportions are perfect for my short-waisted frame, which is much smaller on top than on the bottom — something that can make finding a well-fitting jacket tricky.
“The whole premise of the company is that women are not all off-the-rack sizes and that extends to women who are larger than on the rack sizes and women who are smaller sizes,” says Halpern. “We've had customers who are plus-size women who've told us, ‘I've been to Paris, I've been to New York, I've been all over the world searching for a leather jacket, and who knew it was right here in Toronto?’”