Is This The End Of Canadian Fashion?
It’s always taken perseverance, creativity, and a whole lot of grit to make it as a designer. In 2020, that may not be enough.
Andrew Coimbra was about to have a huge spring. The Toronto-based designer had planned to meet with buyers in Paris in February. He was in talks with department stores Selfridges and Simons to carry his crisply minimalist ready-to-wear label. He had even met with the team at Vogue recently. COVID “washed it away,” he says. He wasn’t sure he could keep his line going.
There are ceaseless accounts of such loss and frustration from Canadian fashion designers and retailers in the wake of the pandemic. Addition Elle closed all stores and Mendocino shuttered many of its locations, Aldo filed for credit protection and was unable to pay rent on its stores in April and May, Frank and Oak is facing bankruptcy, and there is “significant doubt” Le Château will remain open. Independent designers made fewer headlines but were hit just as hard. Sid Neigum cancelled his resort collection — no new clothes means no new income this fall. Bay Street outfitters Judith & Charles appealed to its Instagram followers to shop online to help them from going under.
Left with postponed wholesale contracts, delayed supply shipments, impossible-to-cover rents, and a complete lack of customers, for many labels, every purchase counted. “A lot of brands were wondering, How are we going to survive this?” says Vicky Milner, president of the Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards. Many Canadian designers had been struggling for years to eke out a living while homegrown brands have fought for recognition in an oversaturated market. For those who have stuck it out, it's taken perseverance, creativity, and a lot of grit. But as COVID-19 shut down storefronts, spending, and social lives, there’s one big question: Is Canadian fashion dead?
The situation wasn't always so bleak. Canada had a small but bustling fashion scene in the ’80s and ’90s with designers such as Alfred Sung, Comrags, and Linda Lundström all household names. “We were building a very strong community,” says fashion journalist Jeanne Beker. “We had some brilliant talents and some wonderful brands that seemed to be blossoming.” But then the recession and trade agreements of the early 2000s allowed for cheaper clothing and textile imports, and local manufacturing slowly disappeared. In order to protect Canadian fashion, the government would have to step in. It didn’t.
Designers have never had the opportunity for support from the highest level of our country, starting from the top with the government never giving grants, funding, or bursaries.
Philanthropist Suzanne Rogers
“Designers have never had the opportunity for support from the highest level of our country, starting from the top with the government never giving grants, funding, or bursaries,” says philanthropist Suzanne Rogers, who has personally invested over $3 million in Canadian fashion, much of it to her eponymous fashion institute at Ryerson University, which provides funding and mentorship to promising talent. Unlike in the U.K. (via the British Fashion Council), France and Italy, for example, Canada’s fashion industry receives no direct funding from the federal or, outside of Quebec, provincial governments, and therefore relies on sponsors, investors, and benefactors. Without ongoing corporate support, Toronto Fashion Week has struggled to stay in the black, and in January, organizers announced TFW would shut down indefinitely.
It’s been whispered that Canada is too tiny a market to sustain a fashion week, but smaller demographics have done so — and thrived. Copenhagen Fashion Week, which has helped to put labels like Ganni and Stand in closets worldwide, has become a must-stop on the fashion calendar, thanks in part to a focus on sustainability (it plans to be zero waste by 2022). Cophenhagen is small, the population of Denmark is 15% of Canada’s, but “they have institutional and government-supported infrastructure that believes in design and marketing of their own talent,” says Robert Ott, director of The Suzanne Rogers Fashion Institute. Talent has never been an issue for Canada. Our problem is recognizing our genius and giving them the tools (money, materials, seamstresses, marketing, etc.) to succeed here. Otherwise, like the Erdems, the Vejas, and the Tanya Taylors, they will leave for bigger, more-receptive ponds.
Encouraging customers to shop Canadian is part of the story — and no easy feat when even the one percent haven’t been pulling out their designer wallets lately. “Why the eff would anyone buy Andrew Coimbra when they can buy Louis Vuitton at a similar price point?” asks Coimbra. “People become so enveloped in the idea of what [a brand] represents, superficially speaking, that they lose sight of the roots of… [what] myself and a lot of other, smaller labels represent: This idea of craftsmanship, social awareness, and a genuine and meaningful approach to sustainability.” Which brings us to another part of the problem: Our inability to champion our own until they’ve been anointed cool elsewhere (see: the Markle effect). “It’s all about reeducating a customer to value Canadian fashion,” says Tanya Taylor, who is based in New York but moved back to Ontario during COVID-19. And there is so much to value. Our sprawling geography and multiculturalism offer infinite perspectives; our designers are political and engaged; plus, they understand the inherent needs of Canadians’ wardrobes (hence our exemplary roster of outerwear brands).
Why the eff would anyone buy Andrew Coimbra when they can buy Louis Vuitton at a similar price point?
fashion designer Andrew Coimbra
BIPOC-Canadian designers face even bigger hurdles getting recognition. “The industry has been set up to support mostly white designers,” says Sage Paul, artist, designer, and artistic director of Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto. Department store and retailer boardrooms are white, buyers are white, models are white — you get the picture. Pushes for inclusivity, like the 15 Percent Pledge, the initiative from Brooklyn-based Canadian Aurora James (you may recognize her as Vogue’s September cover star), which challenges retailers to dedicate, at a minimum, 15% of shelf space to BIPOC-owned brands, have been slow to catch on. (So far, no major Canadian retailers have signed up since the pledge dropped in early July. In the United States, Sephora, Vogue, Rent the Runway, Yelp, and West Elm have all joined.)
Fed up and faced with zero support, BIPOC designers are taking matters into their own hands. This spring, shoe designer George Sully launched Black Designers Of Canada, a directory of the over 130 Black designers across the country. Hopefully, it will help ensure that Black designers won’t fall off people’s radars the same way the Black Lives Matter movement fell off timelines. “The BLM movement really jump-started the attention my brand was getting,” says Toronto’s Myla Davey of Cherry Gardens, her line of pandemic-perfect loungewear, which sold out this spring. “But while it’s great to have this extra attention, we’ve been here all along. Where was this before?”
And where do we go from here?
Canadian fashion is at a tipping point, and while it doesn’t look like the government will be stepping up anytime soon, it’s not all doom and gloom. COVID hasn’t been a party for anyone, but it has forced designers and retailers to become more innovative in an industry that could use some shaking up. Many switched to making personal protective equipment for frontline workers as well as cloth masks. Faced with the cancellation of its annual gala, in June CAFA (alongside Fashion Magazine) launched “Wear Canada Proud,” an online pop-up featuring 160 Canadian brands. It was so successful, CAFA’s hoping to build a permanent e-commerce site. Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto is also going digital this November, hosting its first virtual event, which includes a series of fashion films available for anyone to watch.
Plus, Canadians are finally shopping again. Clothing sales were up 142% in June, reaching pre-pandemic levels. Time will tell if we’re filling our carts with Canadian labels and retailers. In the meantime, our designers — like Coimbra, who is working full-time designing for an outerwear brand while also wrapping up his next collection — will keep creating because it’s what they do and it’s what they love. “Even though fall was a bust, I’ve used that energy to make my spring 2021 collection really strong,” he says. “I wasn’t sure if my label would be around after that, so if I was going to do something, it was something I really enjoy.”