Fashion

Can Canadian Fashion Withstand COVID-19? 11 Designers Weigh In

When Toronto Fashion Week was unceremoniously cancelled (again) in January, it was already clear that Canadian fashion was in a state of flux. Designers scrambled to find somewhere to show their upcoming collections and industry insiders whispered about the unstable future of fashion in this country.

Then the global pandemic hit.
 
Like most small business owners, Canadian designers are now facing terrifying financial uncertainty as people shop less and the country’s biggest gala events have been postponed or cancelled. With bricks-and-mortar retail only now slowly opening up again, others have had to move their entire businesses online. Some labels are at risk of not surviving the pandemic and others are at a standstill.

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On the other hand, the rally cry to buy local has never been louder. Designers and manufacturers with access to fabrics have pivoted to making cloth masks and protective gear for frontline workers proving that the ability to make clothing and face accessories right here at home is essential. Creativity has always been part of the job, but designers are finding unique ways to keep their brands going. Hamilton-based Hayley Elsaesser has had to organize photo shoots from home, while Jordan Stewart of RVNG is doing dress fittings over Zoom from her studio in small-town Ontario. 
 
Here, complete with their own self-portraits from home, 11 Canadian designers share their biggest worries about the future of their brands, how they are staying creative, and what they’re wearing in quarantine.

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Photo: Courtesy of Nina Kharey.

Nonie

 
Designer: Nina Kharey
Calgary 

How the pandemic has affected my business: Pretty majorly. The price point of my clothing is between $500 and $1,500. Right now, people are not really into buying luxury clothing. So, it's definitely scary. I had a bunch of material that I was sitting on, so I decided to make masks for hospitals and for frontline workers. Eventually we started doing it for the public. Thankfully, people have been loving this idea of buying a mask and donating a mask. The margins are not huge, but they're enough to keep our factory doors open. I'm taking it one week at a time. I think that's the only thing you can do to survive.
 
The biggest worry for the future of my brand: It’s just so much uncertainty. The whole industry is in chaos. Everything's been thrown up in the air, and we have no idea how things are going to look post-COVID-19. It definitely looks like it's going to be more of a low-touch economy, which is great for people who are doing e-commerce, but even that's going to be different. Are people going to be buying clothes again? How much are they going to be spending?
 
Where I’m finding inspiration during quarantine: I have been watching a lot of old movies, like the old Star Trek. I feel like humanity can learn a lot from them. I'm a big Trekkie. I'm reading a lot and I’m enjoying nature. Thankfully, I live close to a lake. 
 
My go-to lockdown outfit: Pyjamas for most of the day. Lots of oversized T-shirts and sweatpants
 
How people can support Canadian fashion: The best thing you can do is shop online if you can afford it. It will be such a sad world if this all ends and it's only the big guys standing. When we get an order, we literally do a dance for joy.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kirk Pickersgill.

Greta Constantine 


Designer: Kirk Pickersgill
Toronto
 
How the pandemic has affected my business: In March, [my co-designer] Stephen Wong and I were in Paris and a few of our retailers started cancelling appointments. We got back to Toronto and were shipping out our spring/summer collection. Then, the trickle effect happened. Our retailers closed, so we closed. Because all of our staff are production-related (their core responsibilities are in the studio, making garments, cutting, sewing, etc.), the team was laid off. We don't do e-commerce, so we’re still in standby mode. 
 
The biggest worry for the future of my brand: We started our business in 2006 during a recession, so this reminds me of that. The worry is the unknown. Canadian fashion is such a small industry as it is. Before the pandemic, it was struggling. People keep calling this time a “reset,” but I think it’s an opportunity to change how the whole industry is run. Why do we have the same production calendar as Europe? This is the perfect opportunity for Canadian fashion to actually set our own rules.
 
What I’ve been creating during quarantine: We’re working on a few masks that we're going to launch shortly with retailers, because we know that masks are probably going to be something that will be needed for years to come in our everyday life — like an umbrella when it rains.
 
How the lockdown has changed my relationship to style: Personally, I've been wearing turtlenecks a lot. I use the neck as a mask sometimes. I used to always wear black or dark colours. Now, I can't wait to wear colour. I don't want to be in loungewear anymore. I can't wait to expose more skin. I can't wait to try new things. I'm going to be dressing happier. For Greta Constantine, I just read her as being a joyous woman. It's a brand that's going to conquer whatever's there. I can't design for every woman in the world, but I'd like to hope that I can design for the majority of the women in the world.
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Photo: Courtesy of Tanya Taylor.

Tanya Taylor


Designer: Tanya Taylor
NYC, currently in Grand Bend, ON
 
How the pandemic has affected my business: 85% of our business right now is based on wholesale. We are projecting that the rest of the year will be down about 40% in revenue. We've pivoted our communication strategy. We've recognized that it's not the time to be pushing a $500 dress, but maybe to encourage customers to do digital painting with us or to buy products that are at a lower price point.
 
On the importance of giving back: Having access to manufacturing and fabric in the United States, we felt a responsibility [to make masks], so we started fundraising through Instagram at the beginning of April. We raised about $30,000 in four days. We've made 10,000 masks in the U.S. that are distributed to healthcare workers in mainly the New York area. Then we worked with two factories in Toronto, and we've made 17,000 masks. Also, we are making about 20,000 masks for consumers out of liability fabrics that are in our factories overseas because of cancelled orders. 
 
What people are buying right now: We launched swimwear and it did really well. We sold 30% of our units on day one. What that taught me is that our customer is absolutely realistic about what's going on in the world, but there's also an element of her looking for escapism. Even if she knows she's not going on a vacation where she needs a swimsuit, there's optimism right now. 
 
My lockdown style is: I'm eight months pregnant so I would say that my style is pretty pitiful right now. I have one pair of really great maternity jeans that I love. They’re ’90s cream-coloured heavy denim. They make me feel stylish. It helps to keep a pair of earrings nearby my computer so that if I have a Zoom call that requires me to look a little more polished. Something about putting earrings on makes people think that you got dressed up.
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Photo: Courtesy of Nikki Wirthensohn Yassemi.

NARCES


Designer: Nikki Wirthensohn Yassemi 
Toronto
 
How the pandemic has affected my business: It’s basically put all of our projects on hold. Some have been cancelled. Evening wear and bridal are a big part of our business and all of these events are on hold. Weddings are probably going to come back in a smaller way, but galas and things like that — who knows? Like so many others, we’ve pivoted to making masks. We’re in the middle of completing our spring/summer 2021 collection. We’re just trying to stay relevant. 
 
The biggest worry for the future of my brand: Whether events are coming back. I think there is going to be room for people to dress nice. It might not be super glitzy or evening wear, but I think people are going to want to express themselves and feel special. But no one knows what’s going to happen and that’s scary. 
 
Where I’m finding inspiration: I’ve got two kids. Our worlds are so much more intertwined now so that changes your lens quite a bit. They’ve been my inspiration. I also dream a lot. I just keep dreaming about what I would wear to certain events. Dreaming hasn’t been cancelled. 
 
My lockdown style is: All over the place. I can’t do sweats all day long. I dress for my mood. I wear jeans, skirts, dresses, everything you could think of. Right now, I’m wearing a Wonder Woman giant T-shirt that I cropped myself, floral pants, and leopard socks. They clash a lot but that’s how I was feeling. 
 
How people can support Canadian fashion: Top-down support from the government would be amazing but obviously, we know that’s not a priority for them. They need to nurture their talent. We should not have a fashion week that keeps going away. I love Canada, but there should be a solid support for fashion week. There are other countries where there are all these funds and all these avenues designers can take to grow.
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Photo: Courtesy of Hayley Elsaesser.

Hayley Elsaesser


Designer: Hayley Elsaesser
Hamilton, ON
 
How the pandemic has affected my business: Luckily, I decided to go strictly online right before this happened, so I kind of set myself up for a much-smoother transition. Originally, I thought I wasn't going to be selling masks. I didn't want to capitalize off of a terrible thing. But eventually the demand became so high that I started offering them — they have been selling like crazy. That kind of allows us to breathe a bit easier as a small business right now.
 
What it’s like to launch a collection in the middle of a pandemic: My collection with Coors just came out. It was a little bit weird doing socially distanced photo shoots. I didn't want to put any models' lives in danger, so I put a call out on social media on my personal Instagram for photographers who lived with someone who was comfortable being a model or vice versa. Then I had to facilitate a photo shoot with three different locations — one in Hamilton, two in Toronto. I was driving around delivering clothing. Models literally did photo shoots with their roommates. Luckily, the final outcome was really cool.
 
My go-to lockdown outfit: I'm typically wearing onesies. I have this weird Nike jumpsuit that's just like a one piece because I'm really lazy and I like just putting on one thing. I’m also very into my overalls. Now because it's warm, I actually put on some short-overalls today.
 
One thing people should know about Canadian fashion right now: Be kind and be patient because there are delays with Canada Post that are out of our control. It's an unprecedented time. If you need something urgently, that might not happen. I was picking something up at Canada Post the other day and the guy working there said it was like “Christmas on crack.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Naomie Caron.

Selfish Swimwear


Designer: Naomie Caron
Montreal
 
How the pandemic has affected my business: It’s interrupted everything. I’ve had to downsize. I only started this brand three years ago and I was really freaking out in the beginning of the pandemic. I thought, I put all this energy in and made all those sacrifices for nothing? For two weeks, I thought the industry was falling down and I would have no ways to cover all the costs I put in, especially having a seasonal product. It was really slow in March and April because usually the people I get [shopping] in those months are going on vacation. My plan this year was to focus on direct-to-customer and being more online. The pandemic pushed me to go into that direction faster. It’s been bad but also good, I guess. 
 
The Instagram post that kept me going: It took me a few weeks to start posting on social media again because I didn’t know how to react to the pandemic and how to talk to my audience. In my first post after it hit, I said, “It’s hard for me to post something as superficial as fashion.” And one commenter said, “Well, it helps us to be in another world during this crisis and to be inspired by beauty and look forward to another time when I can wear this artwork you’re creating.” That really touched me. I knew I could not stop and that I had to stay positive and give that energy back. 
 
The future of my brand: The fashion industry has been in crisis for a long time — fast fashion, exploitation of workers, pollution creation. I think we’re all rethinking how we do things. I’m more engaged now than ever. And people are more online now than ever and that’s been pushing visibility to smaller brands. Our e-commerce is doing better than it’s ever been. 
 
My go-to lockdown outfit: I do still go to my studio, so I have to push myself to not wear joggers. I typically go to high-waisted skinny jeans and a basic T-shirt with sneakers. 
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Photo: Courtesy of Lesley Hampton.

Lesley Hampton


Designer: Lesley Hampton 
Toronto 
 
How the pandemic has affected my business: Our business runs out of the Toronto Fashion Incubator. Because it’s a city-owned building as well as a co-op space that is very strict with the five-person limit and because fashion isn't considered an essential service, we're not allowed to go to our studio. All my designs, my drafts, and all my equipment are there. My business is at a standstill. I’m doing what I can in my home studio, but a domestic [sewing] machine really doesn't add up to all the amazing amenities that TFI offers. We missed out on the Canadian Screen Awards, the JUNO Awards, the Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards, which all are major income events for us this time of year.
 
The biggest worry for the future of my brand: The majority of our sales do come from our higher-end evening wear, so I worry nobody's going to be buying or that they won’t have the events to go to anymore. I think about needing to shift into more casual everyday clothing as opposed to evening wear for the foreseeable future. It’s so scary but I have to work with the times. 
 
My go-to lockdown outfit: Usually just black leggings and black T-shirt. I'm very not fashionable during quarantine.
 
The best way to support Canadian designers right now:  There are a lot of Indigenous designers who do locally made athleisure or comfort wear, like Urban Native Era which does great basics that are super comfy. My go-to has been Mobilize, which is a Canadian Indigenous-owned brand. I think it’s about going to those designers first, and then if you can't find what you need, then go to a box store. 
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Photo: Courtesy of Catherine Regehr .

Catherine Regehr


Designer: Eva Regehr
Vancouver

How the pandemic has affected my business: It’s been challenging. We were in Paris back in March and several buyers decided to cancel their plans. So, we ended up showing our collection to vendors over Zoom and FaceTime. We got a little glimpse into how things are going to be going forward. Thankfully, with the social-distancing parameters in B.C., we were able to keep manufacturing. We have a small team and our studio is set up so we can spread out and keep working. We had a huge amount of our stores around the world close, so things have really slowed down, but we’ve been developing personal protective equipment (PPE) like hospital gowns and masks so that has kept our employees working. We planned to move to e-commerce and this has expedited the process. We’re in the works for getting all of our collection up on Shopify. We plan to have it up and running in a month. 

What the future of my brand looks like: We’re known for designing very classic, timeless pieces. We have very loyal customers that come to us because they know they’ll find something that’s going to last. I’ve had customers say that they’ve worn the same dress to two weddings 10 years apart. I think that’s a real strength for us, so we’re just going to keep designing the way that works for us and hope the industry turns around.

Where I’m finding inspiration: I actually find I’ve been able to be more creative because I have more time. Usually I’d be travelling all over the States for our trunk shows so with the travel bans I’ve been at home. My mom and I design together and we derive a lot of inspiration from nature. We’re very lucky that we live on the West Coast and we’ve been able to be outside and give ourselves time to create. 

My go-to lockdown outfit: I have a really comfortable pair of old Levi jeans and a Reigning Champ T-shirt. That’s pretty much what I live in these days. 
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Photo: Courtesy of Hilary Mcmillan.

Hilary MacMillan 


Designer: Hilary MacMillan
Toronto
 
How the pandemic has affected my business: We went from being predominantly wholesale, to a 60-40 split from wholesale and e-commerce. We’re going into the fall season heavily relying on e-commerce. 
 
The biggest worry for the future of my brand: We're still in the growing stages of the brand and we had a pretty aggressive business plan for this year for expected sales. What is scaring us is: Can we keep growing at the rate we need to? Are we going to be on track to where we want to be for the end of the year? And if not, how do we make smart decisions within our business to accommodate these losses? How do we capture new consumers? 
 
Putting comfort first: A lot of big stores are filing for bankruptcy, so looking towards the future, I think it’s going to be a return to boutiques and a return to smaller brands having their own retail locations. We're trying to get prepared to own our own stores. But I love department stores. So I hope that they can stick around, too. From a collection perspective, we’re adopting more loungewear pieces. We're not actually calling it loungewear, but we're adding a new elastic to a skirt, for example, to make it more livable at home. We're hoping to find a happy medium between loungewear casual and our contemporary vibe.
 
My lockdown style is: Pretty much the same as it was before quarantine. I feel like being comfy because I am still working and the job's a little bit physical in terms of pattern drafting and sewing. So I definitely wear oversized blouses, skirts, and pants. I'm still wearing jeans. I have a pair of dad jeans I love to wear. I always pair them with a custom knitted sweater and then usually a sneaker, a Ked, or a mule.
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Photo: Courtesy of Taran Hayer.

Mahari


Designer: Taran Hayer
Vancouver

How the pandemic has affected my business: We launched our spring/summer collection in February and that did exceptionally well. It was our biggest collection to date. We design contemporary Indian wear so we depend heavily on wedding season. Our sales have declined. It’s nerve-wracking to have all this inventory on hand since it was our biggest collection. We’re trying to strategize ways to move that inventory, so we’re doing discounts online. We have a lot of support from customers who still want to buy local. We would be holding pop-up shops but since we can’t because of the pandemic, we’ve been doing virtual consultations to show people our pieces that way. 

Wedding season in the time of COVID: Here in British Columbia, things have started to lift slightly so I have had interest from people who are looking to shop for their smaller weddings. There are people who are still doing elopement style or intimate weddings. It’s really cool to see that brides are still shopping for those events even if they only have 20 people there and they’re still picking up our designs. That really means a lot.

How I’ve been creating content in quarantine: Right now we can’t have photographers and models coming to the studio so I’ve become the model and my sister has become the photographer. We usually invest heavily in marketing— we’d have a videographer, a stylist, a hair and makeup artist and a full team before we’d do a shoot. Now it’s me at home on an iPhone. I’m not comfortable in front of the camera, so we’re trying to figure out how to keep creating content for our followers at the style and quality that they are used to. Fingers crossed it’s going okay so far. 

My lockdown style is: A lot comfier and casual now, but on days when I do dress up, I’ll wear one of our bralettes with a tailored blazer and a pair of jeans. I find that gets me in the work mode and I’ll have more productive days than the pyjama days.
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Photo: Courtesy of Jordan Stewart.

RVNG


Designer: Jordan Stewart
Port Dover, ON 

How the pandemic has affected my business: We are mostly made-to-measure. So that definitely has been a challenge. It's really hard to measure clients over Zoom. We were working on making a client a sustainable cotton wedding gown, but her wedding's been postponed by year. With fashion, we run on these timelines of when you’re going to production or your delivery dates, etc. All our dates for our larger events have been pushed. We’re learning to adapt to the new dates. 
 
The biggest worry for the future of my brand: I don't want to put it out there and be like, Oh, I'm afraid that there's not going to be runway shows forever. But I am worried about how they're going to reconfigure showing couture collections if we're not able to have gatherings. Is there still going to be brick and mortar? What's the future of retail? What's the future of boutiques? I'm hopeful that it all returns. But I think that online is probably going to be the forum and then probably more intimate fittings. And that’s good because I'm not a retail company. I'm one-on-one; I work very privately. I'm not looking to mass produce. I'm looking to have an experience with each person and put my garments into the world in a very personal way.
 
How I’m staying creative in quarantine: It's a long process to pull the whole collection together. So right now, I'm in design mode and I am creating. I get inspired by meeting and working with people. Even though I’m around a lot less people, they still inspire me. Whenever the world changes, fashion has to. I think we’re all going to come out of this with something fresh and new and innovative.
 
My go-to lockdown outfit: I'm missing my regular daywear, so I try to make an effort to dress up, but lately I end up leaning towards wearing my cute comfy two-piece sets
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