the case for the fashion non-capital

So it’s obvious – despite pretensions, Toronto is not even close to being an international fashion capital. It’s not a tragedy, either.

In the new world order fashion can be created anywhere, and delivered anywhere. The idea of the fashion capital – a geographical convergence of fashion consumers and producers – is becoming less relevant all the time. These days it’s not uncommon to see successful labels operating from fashion-non-capitals and even from smaller communities.

In the comments, Irene cites Jeremy Laing as a designer taking on the international scene from a studio in Toronto. She wrote, “Toronto is more like a big, fecund incubator, a testing ground where ideas can grow and form.”

Non-capitals have their advantages for new designers. One is lower overhead – in these less internationally prominent cities, it’s still possible for young designers to access affordable, decently sized studio space. The lower cost of business also means that non-capitals have retained a level of local production capacity that more expensive, dense cities can no longer maintain.

Also a quality of life thing; for instance, if I lived in New York I simply wouldn’t have my own studio and cutting table at this early stage in the game. Sacrificing the hectic social networking pace of New York leaves me with no regrets – I’m not the kind of person who can sustain enthusiasm for that stuff for longer than several days anyway. It leaves me a lot more time to focus on my work, my life, and the things I do enjoy.

Even if the local market is not powerful enough to sustain new designers, it doesn’t matter. Smart designers can leverage their local advantages to compete in the international market. Toronto is also blessed to have the world’s premier fashion incubator, a great organization which says a lot about the kind of supportive infrastructure available here. While there are a lot fewer established players in Toronto these days, there is a thriving population of new labels worth watching.

Of course there’s a lot of communication yet to be built. My quest has on one hand revealed to me an aging, struggling local apparel industry trying to adapt to globalization. There is tremendous production capacity in Toronto but the established industry lacks the ability to promote itself and tends to rely on an ever shrinking circle of existing contacts to maintain business. Paradoxically, there is also this grassroots level of young, enthusiastic designers who have an innate talent for self-promotion but lack the ability to create the product to justify the hype. The shared characteristics between these disparate groups are a lack of knowledge and trust of eachother and also a shared sense of desperation and frustration.

There must be some way to reconcile these two islands. If talent and production capacity can meet halfway there might be a chance to promote some real innovation in Toronto. It could be an opportunity to prove that producing locally with a strong network between the factories and creatives can drive business for both ends of the industry. Milan did it. It might mean inventing new ways to do business. This would be truly remarkable – something incredible enough to make waves on the world stage. It’s very possible – it just requires enough desperation to make the next imaginative leap.

The first step is bridging the communication gap – something I’m trying to do in my own little way.

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14 thoughts on “the case for the fashion non-capital”

  1. Hey Danielle,

    This was a great post. I really believe Toronto has so much to offer, there are so many talented people struggling to find their place in this industry. I was just reading Carolyn’s blog and was thinking of her in her recent struggle with boast toastie. I see some great ideas with her business and a lot of potential for it to grow.
    With so many talented people in this city I definitely believe something great could happen, the question is what? If I had the money I would start a company here in a heartbeat, imagine the pool of talent you could hire.

    I know so many great designers who aren’t designing or doing anything related to the industry and it seems like such a waste because if there was the opportunity available I think with the right people there would be a chance for something amazing to happen.
    Keep me posted with your ideas on this I would love to hear more on how you would bring these two sides together.

    Having worked for a company that was not very open to creative thinking, I saw a lot of missed opportunities to make the company succeed if only the two sides could have connected I think it would have been thriving today. Communication is key to closing the gap in Toronto. I think it’s one of the major problems in this industry right now.

  2. You present a very realistic situation. Yes, there is some dissent. It all boils down to dollar and cents, Danielle.
    Many local designers expect low cost CMT to compete in the market. They place demands on contractors, that in many cases offer absolutely no incentives for them to accept the designers orders. When squeezed for a low price, the contractor has to offer a lower wage to his production team.
    We are seeing skilled workers leave the industry ,as their wages have been affected so much, it pays to look for less strenuous work elsewhere. This really concerns us. It has had a dramatic affect in Montreal, and now we are feeling it here in Toronto and other parts of Canada.

    Many have tried seeking out higher quality labels to produce for, and to a large extent, this has enabled us to remain profitable.
    Another common problem we encounter is attrition in our industry. Designers come and go for a variety of reasons, and we must replentish our client base on a seasonal basis. I know of very few contractors who lose clients over poor quality or service. The playing field is always changing, and keeping up is difficult for many, young or old.

  3. I totally agree with you big Irv. I’m in Toronto and I’m sourcing everything locally, trying to produce samples, searching for my perfect organic fabric, creating my own perfect t-shirt pattern… but in the end… it seems to only amount to dollars and cents. It all depends on how much you’re willing to pay for everything and how much your customers are willing to pay for the product. But I really believe that if there were more big names and brands that originated in Toronto, then the city would definitely move more towards the fashion capital definition.

  4. Dollars and cents, sure.

    I don’t think it’s about big names and brands though. The market for what-everyone-else-is-doing is pretty much saturated.

    It’s about being so cutting edge that people will pay more.

    I always think to myself that if I could have the machines that I was designing with at my full disposal, if I could work in close proximity to where my designs would be made, I could design cooler things, faster. There is so much waiting around as the task is passed from hand to hand, the logistics alone expend such a terrific amount of energy.

    I know it’s something that is just rarer and rarer, but that’s the sort of situation I’d ideally like to get some real world, full time work experience. In a place where design and development (possibly even production) can all happen in a very proximate environment.

    When I read about Japanese textiles, for instance, they produce the most cutting edge, expensive fabric in the world. Japan’s fashion schools also have internship programs where students do projects with manufacturers to create and foster innovation. It’s fab PR for both parties and raises profiles and prices.

    So, forget dollars and cents. Forget struggling. Stop squeezing.

    Switch the game around.

    If factories are having trouble keeping designers, why not invest or sponsor their labels? Own percentages of their companies. Give them preferential treatment – and ensure exclusivity – and get paid what they need to adequately pay their workers. Everyone has a stake in eachother’s success. It’s no longer dollars and cents.

    Plus proximity I think could be leveraged into a huge advantage for both parties. Not only could the design process be drastically shortened, production could be more flexible, and technical innovation would be easier. Working this way, smart labels would be able to get the jump on companies that are still waiting for their crates to clear customs.

    Just a half-formed thought, though.

  5. Hey Danielle,

    I think you are onto a great idea here. I have seen designers quit companies over not having enough creative control and being overloaded with non-design related work. I think if they could have the opportunity to concentrate on just designing a line for a company things would run much smoother and quicker than waiting for product to come in from overseas.
    The last company I worked for would send the measurements overseas to the manufacturer, most often without a sample of how they wanted the garment to look. The manufacturer would then send up to 3 to 4 samples back before it would be reasonably acceptable to put on the sales floor, the final product still with it’s faults.
    I believe that if you are manufacturing here you will save a lot of time, the designer will be able to oversee the design while in production and the product as a result would be higher quality and would fit the way it was originally designed to.
    I have witnessed huge communication problems with using a manufacturer overseas. Unless you can be there to oversee the entire production you most likely won’t get the product you asked for.
    Many companies will say they have to go overseas to save their “dollars and cents”, but in the long run how successful will they be if they aren’t creating quality product?
    If you have poor quality and or poor fit – which I have seen a lot of lately – you will lose customers. When I worked in retail there were more often than not, situations where I could not find a single thing to fit even the most average sized woman. These woman would be waving around their credit cards and cash fully ready to purchase something yet I could not find a single thing that would fit them properly and it killed me to see the customer walk out that door.

    There is no reason a company can’t start up in Canada where everything is made in Canada and be successful. There is a pool of creative talent here that is waiting for that opportunity to be employed in their industry, you would have some of the very best working for you. I gaurantee that even if your line is priced a little bit higher than average and your product fits well and is of high quality, you will have repeat customers. A good chunk of what’s out in the mainstream right now is not good quality and fits poorly and this trend is on the rise.

  6. A little bit higher? Why not a lot higher?

    If the quality and design functionality is top-notch then people will pay. Especially if it fits into a niche where you’re targeting people who are serious about their clothes in one specific way.

    Take Tilley, for instance. One of the few companies that still sources fabric in Canada – they produce a remarkable product – they’re not cheap, but they’re worth talking about. The inherent quality of the product itself generates wom buzz and publicity.

    Another one is the Organic Cotton Company, and their line of Clean Undies – using “the most expensive cotton in the world”. It attracts a niche consumer who is passionate enough to pay for a remarkable product.

    When you acheive that level of specialization and level of design (only possible with a high level of control and direction from passionate manufacturers), dollars and cents are no longer an object.

    That’s the level that Toronto’s manufacturers need to reach if they’re going to take it up a notch. If a fashion label decided to passionately address the issues of fit, and reached a core base of customers who can’t get that anywhere else – then money would be no object.

    This brings me to the idea I want to address next – what makes a label successful.

  7. I do like this idea very much. The local manufacturing industry is definitely moving in that direction of working exclusively with higher quality brands.
    As a designer, if you are defending your costing to any buyer, you most likely are speaking to the wrong customer.
    Attitude plays a large part, and I really admire those designers that blatantly tell prospective clients to “shove off” if they don’t like their prices. Its these same designers for the most part, that pay contractors a fair price for their products.
    A huge obstacle for many contractors is finding “these” designers to produce for. You hear bits and pieces that they are good business partners etc..but how do you hook up with them ?

  8. I like your idea too but of course, see some problems. I’d be interested in hearing more about the japanese system. As you know, we have a big disconnect in NA btwn what schools are teaching vs what manufacturers say they want, so that’d be the first barrier to overcome. We can’t get to the innovation part if we’re not covering the basics.

    About designers teaming up with contractors. This actually happens, more than you’d think altho not in an organized, orchestrated fashion. Usually, it happens serependipitously. A DE falls in with a decent contractor, is smart, the contractor sees the DE has got some promise, and they bend their terms to help them. They also spend more time tutoring and nurturing them. But, it rarely happens as a consequence of a designer looking for the deal at the outset. A contractor partnership isn’t going to be likely pre-launch. Rather, the contractor will observe the DE for awhile and even then, the contractor isn’t likely to bring up the idea or make an offer. That would be untoward (des are paranoid anyway). It’d be up to the designer to sound out the contractor.

    And I totally agree that the way to go is higher end, take it or leave it. Just make good stuff, don’t take shortcuts and people will pay for it if it’s any good. Period. That’s been true for thousands of years; why would it be any different now?

  9. This is perhaps too late, I see there’s a few other posts up but here goes:

    Rachel (the editor from http://www.torontostreetfashion.com) and I are really interested in what Danielle sees as the ‘divide’ in fashion, between manufacturing and design. Rachel’s website, and this one are places where the two sides can communicate. I know I, for one, really appreciate Big Irv’s and Kathleen’s insights and perspective ‘from the other side of things’ – something I don’t get, being constantly surrounded by other 20-something design students.

    The big reason we’re interested is because Rachel is starting to build a ‘designer directory’ on her site, where Canadian designers can promote themselves.
    And I think it would be great to have local manufacturers list there as well, so that the ‘two sides’ get to know a little more about each other, see what the other side has to offer. I’m worried that manufacturers won’t be interested in listing, though. Which is understandable – manufacturing doesn’t really worry too much about ‘image’ or advertising, and if they do, they do it in trade magazines that alot of designers don’t read (don’t lie – who here actually reads ‘bobbin’?)

  10. That sounds like fodder for discussion at the next fashion blogger brunch, Irene!

    That’s right, I’ll let you know soon what’s happening with that soon.

    Oh, and I don’t read Bobbin (isn’t it out of print now?) but I do read Apparel. If there’s going to be a meeting half-way what is really needed is a forum that both solitudes are comfortable consulting. Manufacturers wouldn’t be comfortable listing on tsf.com because the audience (being mostly design students) isn’t oriented to the way the industry does business – they see downtown upstarts like us (unless we get our act together, educate ourselves properly and do our research – yes that means reading industry papers!) as a nuisance factor.

    I agree with Kathleen that we’re not at the level yet where promotion will do a lot of good. First we need to develop the communication and education infrastructure, or collaboration will continue to be frustrating for everyone.

    Looks like I’m coming full circle back to the education system… sigh.

  11. I’m a big fan of the Brunch, let me know when and where!

    Quick question for Kathleen – What does DE stand for exactly?

    I know that manufacturers don’t want ‘small runs’, ie. 40 – 50 pieces because they won’t make alot of money. But that’s what most ‘upstart’ designers are looking for, because they don’t want to risk investing alot of money in fabric, manufacturing, etc. One way I think designers could deal with that is by working collectively – buying fabric in quantities together to save money, for example. Or hiring a contractor to work for a group of designers, so the contractor is assured of more business. Marketing and promo costs could be shared, as well. I know alot of illustrators work this way – funny that fashion students don’t (although Freedom Collective are a great example of designers working together).

    But you’re right – the disconnect in Toronto isn’t just between the designers and manufacturers – it’s between schools & manufacturers. They don’t talk. It sounds like a fashion cliche, but isn’t that what schmoozing (thank you yiddish, for giving us ‘schmooze’ as a word) is for??
    What if Linda Lewis came to our bloggers meeting? What would you tell her?
    What if industry people came? What would you tell them?
    Maybe it’s up to us to sit them both down at a table and buy them both a beer??

  12. DE stands for Designer Entrepreneur.

    Do you have Kathleen’s book yet Irene? If you’re at all interested in manufacturing her book will fascinate you… and if you ever do manufacture as a collective or as a DE – it will save you doing it the hard way the first time. Take it from a girl who’s read every fashion book in the library – it is the best.

    It’s a matter of selecting and matching the most appropriate companies with the most appropriate educators. So, no easy task. But the fact is I know cool industry people and I know cool university people, and sometimes I can even imagine some of them getting along over a beer.

    Also, if any industry or education representatives are cool enough to read this blog, I’d definitely extend the invite to brunch to them too. All readers are welcome as well.

  13. I just wanted to answer Irene on her point about manufacturers not wanting to do small runs of 40-50 pieces.
    True, some factories are not set up to do this type of production.It falls into the sample making category for many factories. Doable, but usually at a premium or surcharge.
    There are contractors that will gladly do small runs, as long as they are fairly compensated. Here in Toronto, these smaller contractors are a closely guarded secret. They don’t have signs outside advertising the shop. You have got to dig around and find them.
    While some shops have closed up, the skilled workers are still lingering, waiting for things to heat up. They will.

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