"Every Single Day I Am Let Down." Hayley Elsaesser Writes Powerful Letter About Not Showing At Toronto Fashion Week
This time last year, Hayley Elsaesser was getting ready to show her latest collection at Toronto Fashion Week (TFW). Instead, this February, she’s fielding calls about the open letter she posted on her website yesterday titled, “Why I’m Not Doing Toronto Fashion Week.” The almost 2,000-word essay is an impassioned explanation of the designer’s absence during what is supposed to be the biggest week of the season for Canadian fashion.
“Why am I writing this letter instead of preparing for Toronto Fashion Week? Because every single day I strive to push our brand forward… I try to engage positively and professionally with my peers, and to be proactive in generating interest around Canadian fashion and Canadian industry. And every single day, I am let down,” Elsaesser writes.
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Why I’m not doing Toronto Fashion Week: It sucks to have to write this letter. I have an intense feeling that I am forgetting something every morning when I wake up and start my day - that thing being Toronto Fashion Week. I see casting emails from agencies, reaching out to share photos of models that will be in town. I get invitations to shows, from designers I admire and have presented alongside for multiple seasons. I have conversations with friends and past collaborators who casually inquire about my plans for this season’s runway show. Toronto Fashion Week is a week away as I type this. Normally by now, we would have opened our doors to scores of hopeful models, all smiling nervously as they talk about what a great opportunity it is to be able to be considered for a runway show. We would have put out the open call to any and all people who felt they wanted a place at the table, to be part of the conversation. We would have reached out to models that have become friends and are always down to help us out with a last-minute photoshoot or runway walk. We would have gotten our samples in at the last possible minute, and I would have hunkered down over my sewing machine anxiously making adjustments while Connor, my brother and business manager, goes over the run of show and makes suggestions regarding casting and styling, while not-so-subtly telling me I need to start my design process earlier so we don’t have to be so last minute. I would have swiped through hundreds of photos, a blur of different faces – all heights, shapes, sizes, races, and gender identities represented. Not to tick a box or make a point, but because we put out an open call, and this is who came. Everyone. Not diversity for the sake of it, but rather representation – a microcosm of our customer base and a visual metaphor for why I do what I do. (Read the rest of my open letter on our website. Link in stories.)
The lack of support for the Canadian fashion industry — from consumers, buyers, and the media— is why Elsaesser, 30, says she chose not to participate this week (fashion week runs until Thursday). The open letter isn’t lambasting the organizers of fashion week or lashing out at the event. It’s more of a rallying cry for an industry overhaul. The Toronto-based designer says she was tired of all the work and effort it takes to put on her runway shows — which are usually hailed as TFW highlights for their unique and colourful designs and for showcasing models of diverse ethnic backgrounds and body types — and not seeing that work pay off.
“I just wanted to put everything out in the open that I’ve been feeling for a long time,” Elsaesser tells me over the phone. “The main thing that gets so frustrating for me is that every season I always have some sort of deeper meaning behind my collection and a commentary on what’s happening with society. I use diverse models for a reason. Everything I do I do with care, and it’s always glossed over because I’m a woman with pink hair and tattoos.”
Elsaesser feels like her efforts to shake up the homogenous nature of the fashion industry (too white, too skinny, too exclusive) haven’t been taken seriously, and that Toronto Fashion Week as a whole isn’t respected enough to give Canadian designers the boost they need to make participating worth their efforts. For the designers who do take part, the week is about promotion and selling their collections. You can’t do that if no one is paying attention.
In her letter, Elsaesser writes about last season when she sent YouTube star and trans rights activist Stef Sanjati down her runway with a message scrawled across her stomach: “F-ck Doug Ford.” The words were in protest to the Ford government’s changes to sex-ed curriculum in Ontario. A model walked down a runway with an expletive painted on her bare skin — if that happened in New York, it’d be trending on Twitter. In Toronto, it barely made headlines.
“Unfortunately, there was zero attention surrounding this statement on the runway, positive or negative,” Elsaesser writes. She drives home her point with a very Canadian comparison: “Until we cover Toronto Fashion Week like we cover a mundane Wednesday night game 38 in an 82-game season of the Toronto Maple Leafs, our industry will suffer.”
Who suffers the most? The designers trying to keep their small businesses afloat.
“For me, it’s very expensive [to put on a show] and the payoff wasn’t there,” Elsaesser says. “As a small business, I only have a couple people that work with me, and we’re all working on the show so we’re not in the store focusing on that. It’s a huge undertaking without boosting sales, reaching out to new buyers, and new press coverage.
If buyers are looking for a big Canadian fashion purchase, they aren’t looking in Toronto.
“Buyers aren’t there. They go to New York or Paris,” Elsaesser explains. “I’ve seen and met with a couple buyers [at TFW], but it’s not a priority for them. It’s an afterthought.”
Well, that sounds bleak. So, why do designers participate in Toronto Fashion Week at all? Elsaesser says it’s a good thing for emerging designers to show their collections at TFW for the first time, but once the buzz for being new dies down, there’s little attention for more established designers.
Elsaesser's biggest hope is to see more attention on Canadian fashion and for consumers to make a statement with their wallets. Buy Canadian. But if designers are increasingly choosing not to participate in Toronto Fashion Week and the media continues to ignore it, what’s going to change? Bigger question: What needs to change? For Elsaesser, it’s time the Canadian fashion industry became a leader instead of a follower.
“I always say that the Canadian industry likes to follow suit on what other industries are doing. Let’s say New York Fashion Week did something huge or they changed the formula of what they do. A couple seasons later, Toronto would follow suit,” she says. “If you’re doing the same formula that everybody else is doing but a little bit later, you’re not going to be making waves.”
Making waves is what Hayley Elsaesser is known for. If it’s not through her words, it’s through her eclectically audacious designs and her relentless drive to make her runways representative of the world around her. By calling out the Canadian fashion industry, and the country’s lack of support for it, Elsaesser is just trying to make sure “[her] brand still exists a year from now.”
She ended her letter with a message of hope: “I’m not giving up on the industry, and if I can continue to support it in the eye of the hurricane, you can too.”
Hayley Elsaesser is dropping a new collaboration with fellow Toronto brand Get Fresh Company on February 21. You can read her full open letter at hayleyelsaesser.com.