How the Canvas by Querencia is Changing the Sustainable Fashion Retail Landscape

By Alexis McDonell and Anjuli Ramos Busot

Bowery. Williamsburg. Antwerp. Two New York City neighborhoods and a city all the way across the ocean with completely different energies and style. So, what do these three places have in common? Aside for being places of innovation, where change is always possible, they have The Canvas by Querencia, a marketplace for international brands working to address the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

The Canvas started as a fashion brand itself, called Querencia Studio. After its founders, Tegan Maxey and Devin Gilmartin, introduced through The Island School, realized that together there was potential for an impactful project, Querencia Studio was born in 2016. Its mission: to introduce an alternative option for clothing that did not sacrifice sustainability for aesthetics, or vice versa.

Soon after, they realized that there was an opportunity for more. “As we took on various opportunities for exposure and sales via pop-ups and installations, in New York City and around the world, we took note of the challenges we faced and considered how we might be able to address them as a small business with a rapidly growing network of like-minded individuals and partners”, Gilmartin explains.

One of their main observations was the shocking amount of vacant retail spaces. “These were stunning places, sitting empty and doing little to contribute to the vibrancy and cultures by which they were surrounded,” he notes. Gilmartin and Maxey considered ways to activate these spaces in collaboration with landlords, so they began to pitch revenue share agreements. They started in the Upper East Side of Manhattan in collaboration with Hunter College, and now in their long-term locations in Williamsburg and Antwerp, Belgium. 

And this was how The Canvas, the store, started.

In June 2018, The Canvas occupied space in the former Hunter College bookstore. The school has a thriving arts program and hundreds of creative students, but no official fashion program. Gilmartin and Maxey saw this as an opportunity to do something unique by bringing a hub of fashion and collaboration to the college through a space that was formerly a textbook store.

Since then, the Canvas’ mission has evolved but its core driver has remained: to reimagine what retail can be in a time where in-store experiences do not provide an adequate connection between the brand and the guest. The founders want to address the retail vacancy problem while supporting the rising sustainable brands of the world. Gilmartin explains, “This will allow us to lower the financial barriers associated with bringing products to a market like New York City, while simultaneously raising the sustainability standards”. They feel this is a way forward to also move the needle on ethical standards in fashion and design.

At the end of 2018, they launched their first separate retail location in one of Brooklyn’s hottest neighborhoods, Williamsburg. Since its opening, the duo has built a community of over 100 fashion, jewelry and cosmetic brands from around the world focused on sustainable and ethical processes and design. The criteria for entry to The Canvas are the UN 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which serve as its framework for brand selection. “We encourage a focus on these goals by individual people, the media and governments around the world. Fashion is a medium for doing so, and we look to empower the efforts of our brands to be facilitators of change in this field,” Gilmartin adds.

With the success of their first location, a second location followed suit in Antwerp, which opened this past fall. Gilmartin and Maxey saw there a similar opportunity as they did in New York. They connected with Kunstgezind, an art professional organization supporting a diverse community of artist, and MADE, an urban trend consultant and real estate company, to make The Canvas Antwerp a reality. With now partners, Kunstgezind and MADE, and Steff Vermeesch leading the way as manager, The Canvas Antwerp is a hub for sustainable brands and art highlighting the UN Sustainability Goals.  

And their success has led to travels all over the globe. Their journey has brought Gilmartin and Maxey to places from Bonn, Germany for a talk at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to Havana, Cuba for a runway show with Clandestina, a Cuba’s first independent sustainable fashion design studio. “We’ve had the chance to meet people and create fruitful partnerships that continue to fuel our growth and optimism about fashion’s future,” Gilmartin explains. “To us, this is one of the most exciting fields in the world. Fashion sits at the crossroads of so many industries that require rapid change. As a result, we find ourselves involved with projects beyond the realm of fashion, so there is never a dull moment for us.”

In the coming months, they will be launching their third location on Bowery in Manhattan. It will take up the former space of the International Center for Photography. The Canvas Bowery will be very unique and different than their other spaces. It will have an emphasis on process and storytelling, and its layout will be tailored to education and experiences.

So, where to next? That part may still be undecided, but the future of The Canvas is clear: it strives to compete directly with the largest companies in the world by providing a sustainable and ethical alternative to the fast fashion business model, without sacrificing the convenience and style that comes with their approach. Gilmartin and Maxey believe the best way to take on the conglomerates of fast fashion is to bring in the brands making a real difference, whether through their design or supply chain process, and foster their growth in key areas. They do this by providing a full-service marketplace to bring their products to the world in cities like New York and Antwerp, and then surrounding them with activations including everything from SoFar Sounds concerts to pop ups with Google Cuba and The Economist. Their mission is to be a hub for the emerging brands of the world.

Gilmartin and Maxey are confident that with the growing demand for more information pertaining to a brand’s supply chain, and an increasing awareness of fashion’s impact on the environment, this effort will be one that will push the industry to a reinvention. “We see the future of The Canvas as one that provides a blank slate for people and businesses determined to change the world.”

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