The wonders of silk date back to 30th century BC in China. Stories tell of an empress who discovered its exceptional qualities and spun cocoons into luxurious fabric. Today, a Markham-based boutique is celebrating silk with a line that sells it exclusively.
The Canadian Business Journal interviewed Silk Whispers founder Janet Qi about the little-known benefits of the fabric, the company’s first year in business and plans for the future.
The store opened in 2012, but Qi’s adventure with silk began years ago in China before she immigrated to Canada.
Growing up in the Jiangsu Province, the hometown of silk, Qi’s childhood is replete with stories of silk. She recalls one occasion when she witnessed farmers raid silkworm nests and later extract the silk. The experience made a lasting impression on her.
Qi, who is professionally trained as a management accountant, began to notice how rare it was to find stores selling silk only. She decided that opening a store that sold it exclusively was a good idea. “You can do so much with silk. It’s very luxurious.”
“If you go to high end stores in the U.S. maybe Bloomingdale’s or Saks Fifth Avenue you see silk products, which are very expensive. And if you go to very average stores like Sears or the Bay they’re all made from polyester,” she says. “I don’t see anyone in the market who is really selling just silk. I want to be that person.”
The store carries hundreds of selections of silk scarves, bedding, fashion and silk sleepwear.
However, as the Silk Whispers website explains, the benefits of the fabric are generally unknown.
Silk is made of cellular albumen and has eighteen kinds of amino acids, which is beneficial to human health. Its “breathable, moisture absorbing and temperature-adjusting qualities make it one of the most luxurious material for fashionable wear, sleepwear, bedding and home-style.”
Silk duvets and bedding, for example, enhance the comfort and luxury of a bedroom, Qi says. It doesn’t conduct electricity and create static cling, which means it won’t collect dust or skin dander over the years. This characteristic makes it cleaner than down or polyester.
In addition, the sericin protein in silk kills and prevents the growth of microorganisms benefitting those with skin problems, allergies or asthma. It is temperature adjusting, which makes it feel warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
And there are practical applications for silk in clothing and accessories. It’s a better fabric than polyester, because it is soft and supple to the touch. Qi says its “drapery” quality makes it great clothing. Polyester clothing gets dirty faster than silk and doesn’t last as long.
Qi describes Silk Whispers’ first year in business as “very promising.” In the beginning, people were reluctant to buy the fabric, because they thought it was a finicky material. They knew “surprisingly little about silk,” she says. “A lot of people don’t know it is ninety-seven per cent protein – that’s why it’s called a ‘second skin.’”
In the first year, when Qi attended trade shows to promote her products, she discovered just how much people love it. “Wherever we go, we hear people say: Oh my god, silk! I love silk. I’m so glad I found this. It’s very hard to find silk.”
Eventually, casual store visitors warmed up to the fabric. She says most customers are now repeat customers. “People tell us that once they started to use silk, they don’t want to switch back to polyester,” she says. “We have customers come every week to see if we have new products.”
Qi describes her brand as “floral and glamorous” as well as “traditional and ancient.” The hallmark of the products is what she calls “colour splash.” “It’s very colourful and at the same time very glamorous,” she says.
All the products have elaborate designs. Buyers go to New York City and China to pick out patterns. But Qi eventually wants the store to have its own design group capacity.
“The products give you the elegance, but also the rich colours you will not find anywhere else,” she says.
There is a Silk Whispers store in First Markham Place in Markham, Ontario. Products are also sold at Herman-Sellers-Gough Furs in Hazelton Lanes, an upscale shopping mall in the Yorkville neighborhood of Toronto. Purchases can also be made online at the Silk Whispers website.
“We’re starting to build the brand in our neighbourhood, especially the Chinese neighbourhood,” she says and adds there are plans to open chain stores in downtown Toronto and eventually across Canada. Qi also wants to develop the online store to service North America.