The clothes make the man: Winnipeg high-schooler building fashion empire

When 17-year-old Adam Smallwood started painting designs on blank hats in school, little did he know that three years later, he'd have a successful clothing line and lifestyle brand. And he hasn't even graduated high school yet.

Adam Smallwood's making custom clothes for Toronto rappers and Paris fashionistas

Smallwood wearing a piece from his series #CreationsbyAdam, a handmade velvet turtleneck. (Submitted)

When 17-year-old Adam Smallwood started painting designs on blank hats in school, little did he know that three years later, he'd have a successful clothing line and lifestyle brand. And he hasn't even graduated high school yet.

"I just designed the hats for fun and posted them on Instagram, and people seemed to like them," Smallwood says. "I would do a couple here and there, and all of a sudden, I have this clothing brand."

The Glenlawn Collegiate student created Atomik Studios — a unisex-streetwear clothing line and lifestyle brand — when he was 14.

Smallwood shopping for fabric for the For the Kids fashion show. (Submitted)
"I was a creative kid," Smallwood says. "When I was 11 or 12, I would duct tape wallets and sell them at school. And my dad is a graphic designer and artist; I get a lot of my creativity from him."

He began sharing his designs on social media and garnered an enthusiastic and loyal following.

"Social media is very important; I've studied a lot of methods on how to promote and brand yourself in a way that is authentic," he says. "I try to be very real. This is what I do every day: I sew and make pieces."

Eventually, Smallwood transitioned into doing full releases. His first collection was called The Koldest Season; he then released Spring 2016, and his last two collections were Fall-Winter 2016 and Spring-Summer 2017.

For his first official line, Smallwood screen-printed designs on blank T-shirts. He continued that for about a year, and then decided to try his hand at "cut and sew," which is basically hand-sewing customized garments. Smallwood learned to sew on his own, but admits it was a challenge.
Smallwood wearing a hand-sewn and hand-painted jacket. This piece is number 11 in his series #CreationsbyAdam. (Submitted)

"Back when I first started, I wasn't very good at sewing so it was hard for me to get bulk product out to the public," he says.

Some guy from Paris bought a custom piece that I wasn't even considering selling, for a pretty considerable amount. It's things like that that may be small but really make a difference when you look back at where you started.- Smallwood

He began by selling his own clothing to close friends and family, but it didn't take long for word to spread. He's now seeing people wear his designs on social media, in cities like Vancouver and Toronto.

"I see people I've never met wearing [my clothing]," he says. "Now we're making pieces for artists that I admire and look up to."

Recently, Smallwood and his team made custom pieces for Toronto rapper Big Lean, who opened for Drake on his stadium tour in Europe. Smallwood has even sold his work overseas.

"Some guy from Paris bought a custom piece that I wasn't even considering selling, for a pretty considerable amount," he says. "It's things like that that may be small but really make a difference when you look back at where you started."

Product from Atomik's most recent summer collection. A mauve cap and orange 3/4 sleeve crew neck. (Submitted)
Smallwood describes his style as streetwear meets high-fashion designer. "I'm really into designer-type pieces right now; they might not be something you wear everyday, but it's so far ahead that it opens up your mind," he says.

His favourite place to shop: thrift stores. "I love shopping for anything vintage and customizing old pieces," he says. "I only create things I would want to wear."

While most kids go to their after-school jobs around 4:30 p.m., Smallwood doesn't begin working on his clothing line until late into the evening.

"My hours are not the same as most kids; I usually work from 8 p.m.-2:30 in the morning," he says. "On average, each piece takes about two to three hours to create, not including the time it takes to design and draw it out."

Smallwood considers Toronto designer Bryan Espiritu as one of his inspirations; Espiritu created a line called The Legends League and has worked with Drake. Local entrepreneur Peter Takis has also had a big influence on Smallwood.
Adam and Galata Gurmu at the Léo Prestte office. (Submitted)

"[Peter] used to have a line called Local Advancers and he's now one of my mentors," Smallwood says.

Most fashion shows consist of just models walking in the outfits. But with this show, people will get an actual show.- Smallwood

In just over a month, Smallwood will be tackling a new feat: a 60-piece runway fashion show called "For the Kids." He's putting on the event with his friend and fellow designer, Galata Fira, on Aug. 29 at the Park Theatre in Winnipeg.

"'For the Kids' is definitely not your typical runway show," Smallwood explains. "Most fashion shows consist of just models walking in the outfits. But with this show, people will get an actual show."
Smallwood preparing for the video shoot for No Boundaries, a recent fashion project in collaboration with Galata Gurmu. (Submitted)

Smallwood says the goal of the event is to inspire creativity within Canadian youth and newcomers to Canada.

"We're incorporating elements of dance, poetry, and live art. We're also going to have themes that will touch on certain political movements and interesting ideas," Smallwood said. "And we've been experimenting with fabrics, silhouettes, and even painting on garments."

As for as which celebrities he'd love to design for, he has a few in mind.

"I would love to make a custom piece for Kanye West, Jayden Smith or Drake; those are my dream clients."

For now, he's excited to finish high school and keep experimenting with his designs.

"When people look at my brand, I want them to feel creatively inspired," he says. "I want to keep pushing boundaries and hopefully expand our reach to more cities and countries internationally."

About the Author

Sabrina Carnevale

Community/Traffic Reporter

Sabrina Carnevale has been a familiar voice on local radio over the last decade and joined the CBC Manitoba team as the the community/traffic reporter in 2016. Born and raised in Winnipeg, Sabrina is an avid supporter of the local arts, culinary and music scenes.