Julia Grieve: Canada’s Vintage Fashion Guru

Julia Grieve, founder of Preloved, talks to Best Health about fashion, fitness and what’s next for her famous vintage clothing company.


“The biggest joke going is that I don’t know how to sew – and never have,” says Julia Grieve, who was a young full-time model looking to make a career switch when she started her business in 1995. “I couldn’t thread a needle if my life depended on it, but I had a vision. I loved vintage clothing, but I’d always take it to a seamstress to shorten a dress or change the buttons. Then people would ask me where I got something and I’d say I kind of made it – that was how it all started.”

Grieve admits that a lot of strategy didn’t go into the idea to set up shop. “Opening a store was just very natural,” she says. “In those days, if you made something, you needed to sell it, so you opened a store. I didn’t really think about failure; I just saw success.”

Today, that “let’s see” approach has been replaced with intense preparation, which is essential for a label that’s sold in more than 400 boutiques around the world. “It was a blessing starting the business so young – ignorance is bliss,” she says. “Now, everything is planned, like a collection a full year in advance.”

Behind the seams at Preloved

Nothing changes faster than fashion. Surviving for 20 years in the business is no easy feat, but you have to be one step ahead and be able to recognize what’s not working to thrive. That’s why Preloved closed its doors on its bricks-and-mortar operations a couple of years ago to focus on e-commerce.

“I love retail – it’s in my blood – but the writing was on the wall,” says Grieve. “Customers were shopping differently: Our stores were becoming dressing rooms for people to try things on and then purchase online, and our wholesale business was really growing.” After meeting with various mentors, Grieve made the tough decision to sell online exclusively. “What I learned years ago, after reading a book called The Entrepreneurial Myth is that the biggest problem for entrepreneurs is ego,” says Grieve. “The ego gets you started in business, but it also gets in the way if you let it take over, and I was holding on to retail because I loved it.”

Shutting down the root of the business and branching out in new ways adheres to Grieve’s life philosophy that change is important. “‘If you’re not busy growing, you’re busy dying’ is the quote I live by,” she says. “It’s either in a Bob Dylan song or I read it on a bathroom wall, but I use it all the time.” Switching gears strategically also led the business to a big physical change: creating a headquarters.

Located in Scarborough, ON, Preloved headquarters contains a showroom and photo studio, as well as Preloved’s office space. Grieve clearly recalls walking into the space on day one: “There was years of retail store stuff, with a big gorgeous chandelier hanging up – it looked like mayhem,” she says. “I remember thinking, I don’t have a store and that’s so scary, but I’m so excited. I was starting a whole new business.”

Thinking green

Grieve was ahead of the “green” fashion trend by at least a decade, but she is adamant that she didn’t set out to corner that niche. “I always have to preface things by saying ‘I’m the accidental environmentalist,'” she explains. Her brand’s heritage of reusing clothing is something Grieve is extremely proud of, but staying on top of the ever-evolving eco-fashion topic is an ongoing effort.

While sitting on an expert panel a few years ago, she was both shocked and enlightened when an audience member asked about the company’s yearly water consumption. “I never even considered that washing old sweaters could be a bad thing!” she says. “I’m learning as fast as consumers are, and we have to look at – and be aware of – everything we’re doing.” Today, the company uses a mix of washing techniques, including eco-friendly dry cleaning.

Grieve was also a champion of the locally made movement before it was a thing. “Almost every client now asks, ‘Where are you manufactured?'” she says. “Local is really at the forefront. People understand what that means. It’s tangible that your money is going somewhere.” Staying competitive means that the topic of moving operations abroad has come up, but it’s not something that works for Grieve. “I went the complete opposite way and moved my business into my manufacturing facility for a tighter relationship,” she says. “To make a local product and keep its price competitive is what we strive for every day. I knew that would make my brand better and stronger.”

As for future plans, Grieve is quick to joke about world domination, but World Wide Web domination would be more accurate. “I really want to grow the online part of the business as much as possible,” she says of getpreloved.com. “There’s so much room for growth because everyone is still trying to figure out how it’s going to work out there. I’m excited to see the future – to go through uncharted waters. I’d like to be the leader.”

Making New Threads

Joining forces with other fashion brands has been one of Preloved’s most recent – and wildly successful – projects. Debuting the Roots by Preloved line in 2013 was a bucket-list moment for Grieve. “Don Green and Michael Budman [the founders of Roots] have been mentors to me for years, and it was an incredible experience to work closely with them and their insanely talented team to develop Roots by Preloved,” she says. “We learned so much from that collaboration.”

Grieve’s fitness faves

Grieve’s high-energy personality is apparent within seconds of meeting her, and the working mom of three credits it to a daily commitment to play hard and rest hard. “Fitness is a big part of my life,” she says. “I work out every day, but my workout isn’t always intense: It could be going for a walk on Saturday with the kids or playing tennis.”

But Grieve does traditional hard-core workouts five days a week. She loves the stress-busting, head-clearing power of her go-to activity: running. “Even my children now look at me and say ‘Mom, did you run today?’ They can tell by my attitude.” While she is happy to run for hours, she is cautious not to overdo it. “As my husband would say, running is a true gift, so don’t abuse it,” she says. “I am careful now and don’t ever run more than 10K at a time.”

Spinning is another favourite of hers, and Grieve recently added weight training to her routine. “In my head, I’m in my late 20s,” she says, “but as a woman who is getting older, I know it’s important to develop and keep muscle.“A preference for early-morning workouts (she is up by 5 a.m., if not earlier) coexists with her practice of lights out by 9 p.m. “I’m kind of crazy about my sleep, and I’ve always been like that. Even when I was a model, I could only party until 11 at night – that’s how I keep up my energy.”

Her best advice:

“Own your mistakes, learn from them and move on. I’ll always remember when I reached out to Joseph Mimran [of Joe Fresh] about my struggling West Coast store. We went over all this stuff and he told me it wasn’t going to work after literally asking me three questions. I met him on a Tuesday and, by the following Monday, I was out of Vancouver. I had to buy us out of a 10-year lease – it was so painful. It’s hard to say I did something wrong, but he helped me realize that mistakes like that will make you a better entrepreneur, but they’ll also kill you if you don’t deal with them properly.”