Arty apparel, hood pride & good causes

Two Montreal companies unite creativity, community and charity.

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Heart City Apparel founder and creative director Matt Dajer is beaming as he tells me about the time a stranger stopped him on the sidewalk to tell him she loved his sweatshirt, with its silkscreened graphic triptych of an elephant devolving into abstract cubism, asking him where she could get one like it. Being complimented on your top feels so much better when it’s one of your own, made by the company you started from scratch with your best bud.

The curb appeal of Heart City’s line of t-shirts and sweatshirts is easy to understand in a city that’s known for its love of street art. Dajer and his business partner D’Arcy Williams have partnered with street artists and muralists from Montreal, New Delhi, Stockholm, Chicago, Barcelona, Toronto and Vancouver — the best-selling elephant design described above is from Montreal artist Sarah Mehta.

Considering that anything related to street art is having a moment these days, it stands to reason that Dajer and Williams could develop a successful business simply by printing designs by street artists onto shirts and sweaters, but these entrepreneurs have something more in mind.

Matt Dajer and D'Arcy Williams
Matt Dajer and D’Arcy Williams

For each shirt the pair sells, five per cent of the revenue goes to an organization that supports individuals living in the streets in the city where the artist featured on the shirt lives. A further five per cent goes to the artist. For example, every sale of shirts featuring work by Montreal artists Waxhead and Sarah Mehta means a donation is made to Dans la Rue. Purchasing a shirt with Barcelona-based artist Zosen’s illustration supports Arrels Fundació. In Chicago, Heart City works with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

I recently sat down with the young entrepreneurs for a coffee and a chat to find out more about their startup. Matthew Dajer is a recent McGill grad with a history degree whose interest in street art led him to an internship at Station 16, and D’Arcy Williams is juggling the demands of running a new business with finishing up a degree in international development. To supplement their non-business majors, the two squeeze in some time each week to audit a course on social entrepreneurship and business.

“The idea came from walking around Montreal and just seeing the street art which is obviously everywhere around the time the Mural Festival was on last year, and seeing the juxtaposition of the street art and the homelessness right next to it,” Dajer tells me. “We wanted to bring street art to clothing and then give back to the people who live right next to it.”

“All of the shirts are connected to a community partner,” Williams adds. “We have a charity navigator and we use a lot of online sources to make sure the charity we’re about to work with is responsible and accountable for the money. We also ask our artists if they have a particular group that they want to work with.”

Dajer motions to the shirt he’s wearing, featuring an illustration of a polka-dotted cow in outlined profile, by Shweta Malhotra of New Delhi. “Our partner there is a group called Salaam Baalak Trust, which works a lot with street children in New Delhi,” he explains. “They have a program called City Tours, where they train children from the street to become tour guides. That’s one of the beauties of Heart City: we’ve been able to find amazing community groups to get involved in, and it’s been really cool to learn about the work that these different organizations do.”

The commitment to social responsibility extends beyond the street and into the factory. The team chose their T-shirt supplier carefully, finally settling on Anvil Knitwear, who produces the shirts in a sweat-free facility in Mexico. Williams tells me, “We immediately realized that the whole premise of our company is about giving back, and being socially responsible for everything is a massive part of that. It’s difficult as a small company, but I think we’ve done a good job so far moving towards our goals.”

“It sounds really corny, but we’re trying to go past the idea of just being an apparel company, and encourage a lifestyle of giving back and community self-awareness.” ■


Heart City Apparel T-shirts ($25) and sweatshirts ($35) are available here and in local shops L’Espace D, Jeans Jeans Jeans, Utopia, Psychonaut and Kilo Fripe.