Old Glenridge's Designing woman

In Shannon Cooney’s world, it’s already spring 2012.

That’s because the 37-year-old co-founder and head designer of Pure and Co. is already immersed in creating next year’s collections for Pure Handknit and Neon Buddha, worn by women around the world.

These days, much of the brainstorming and sketching takes place at her home in Old Glenridge, which, since a recent move, also serves as the company’s St. Catharines office. As she works, her latest collection surrounds her — samples of colourful, artisan-inspired wraps, soft sweaters, ruched skirts and versatile jackets that are on their way to tempt shoppers at stores like Bloomingdales, Neiman Marcus and Athropologie.

While she often designs clothing with herself in mind, Cooney finds inspiration everywhere, especially when she travels, from a scarf worn by a fellow plane passenger to a pop of colour on a snapshot.

Luckily for Cooney, globetrotting is part of the job description. She frequently visits the company’s showroom in New York, meets with retailers throughout the U.S., Europe and Hong Kong, and spends a great deal of time in Thailand where the clothing is produced.

It’s an industry as demanding as it is glamourous, but her dual role within it is a perfect fit for Cooney. It stitches together her flair for fashion, retail sensibilities and a sense of global citizenship — three qualities woven into the fabric of the company she helped create.

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Cooney as had a lifelong love of fashion. Growing up in Welland, she held part-time and summer positions at several boutiques in St. Catharines and Fonthill during her late teens and early 20s.

After completing her degree in fine arts and marketing at the University of Guelph, she remained in that area to work as a road-based sales representative. It was in this job that she crossed paths with import distributor Sebastien Sirois. The two formed a business partnership that led to the birth of Pure Handknit in 1998.

“The partnership was a given from the beginning as Sebastien’s logistical and production prowess was a perfect complement to my fashion, artistic and marketing background,” she says.

“There was a lot of self-education in melding all of my passions.”

At the time, Cooney was 25 years old and had no previous design experience, but she rolled up her sleeves to design her first collection, relying on her sense of what the customer wanted.

Despite its humble beginnings, something unexpected happened when the company took its small collection to a New York trade show that year.

It was a smashing success.

Since then, it has grown every year, complete with the addition of its sister label Neon Buddha in 2006. Cooney’s vision for this lifestyle-oriented work-to-weekend clothing line not only complements Pure Handknit’s hand-crafted garments, but has catapulted the company to new heights, even in a difficult retail climate.

“We never looked back,” she says.

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Today, Pure and Co.’s collections are sold in about 2,500 stores throughout Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. Locally, they can be found at boutiques such as Lousje & Bean Design Studio on James St. in downtown St. Catharines.

Pure and Co. has become well known for its three-button wraps and the distinct hand-crafted buttons adorning its knitwear.

While the company continues to expand, Cooney is proud of the ethical and sustainable practices that have remained at its forefront since day one.

About 3,800 women in Thailand knit sweaters and wraps for Pure Handknit.

All employees are offered paid health-care, maternity leave, English lessons and are paid on a scale they helped create. Knitters, who work from home, have their supplies dropped off and picked up by the company so they don’t have to leave their families to work in cities hours away.

Working with the knitters has been one of the most rewarding aspects of Cooney’s job.

“The workers are like family to me. I’ve seen their kids grow up,” she says.

“They just want to provide a better life for their children and I’m proud of the fact that they were empowered by this little sweater company to do that.”

In addition to helping its own staff, the company donates 1% of its sales to those in need. It has supported numerous international charities over the years, such as the Mae Tao clinic in Burma, and local initiatives, such as a print show at the downtown gallery CRAM today.

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Settling into her new home hasn’t been the only recent turning point for Cooney. Last year, she married local resident Michael Passero, vice-president of Silvergate Homes Ltd. and Silverline Group Inc.

Being a newlywed, she says, has helped her inject more balance into her typical work-dominated routine.

“Mike’s been absolutely instrumental in teaching me about how to balance a career and life in general because, before him, there wasn’t a whole lot of balance,” she says.

“It’s funny because I think it’s allowed me to do what are probably my best collections ever.”

When reflecting on her successes, Cooney is quick to pass the accolades on to the team that surrounds her.

“You can be a great designer but if the group that you’re a part of can’t produce it well, it’s not a success,” she says.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to be around really smart and hardworking people. It amazes me every day.”


On the web

For more information about Pure Handknit and Neon Buddha, visit www.pureandco.com.