5 Reasons Why the Canadian Fashion Industry Isn’t Thriving

CAFA, canadian fashion, made in canada, buy local

The Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards in Toronto were one of the best fashion events I have attended in Canada.

Early in February I was very lucky to fly to Toronto and attend the CAFA awards. I was also honoured to be part of the nominating committee of this incredible event. I’m dedicating a week of blog posts to this, as I think that Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards are an an important, exciting event in Canadian fashion and something we really need to nurture. Let’s call it Canadian Fashion Week here at Searching for Style, and let’s start with a list about why we really, really need a body like CAFA sorting out the Canadian fashion industry. Here are 5 Reasons Why the Canadian Fashion Industry Isn’t Thriving. (P.S. Notice lack of talent isn’t on this list…because we have a ton of it.)

1. There’s no official governing body. All countries with successful fashion industries have a central governing body, that is non-profit, who manages the industry and its events with the goal of ensuring the brands are properly promoted. For example, there’s the CFDA and the BFC. Canada doesn’t have this, and as a result, there’s no one truly supporting the brands. I am hoping that CAFA will become this missing link.

CAFA, canadian fashion, made in canada, buy local, vancouver fashion week

Vancouver Fashion Week is a company that runs shows to make money – with hardly any buyers or press in attendance.

2. Most fashion weeks are about making profit. When I moved to Vancouver from London, I was confused about the number of people who pay to go to a fashion show. Why would someone do that? Fashion shows are overrated, and I suggest you consult this article to understand why. Anyway, the fact that a lot of these fashion weeks were about making money from ticket sales meant two really annoying things. Firstly, it means that people expect a SHOW. When you pay $25 for a glass of cheap bubbly and a fashion show, you don’t want it to be over in fifteen minutes. So, they do ridiculous things like hire dancers in between “sets” (yes, sometimes there are sets) and stretch out the show to last an hour. Guess what? For those of us who actually HAVE to be at the show, it is work. And I like my work to be done as quickly as possible.

Secondly, there’s the issue of timing. People who buy tickets to a fashion show are usually not free to attend them at 11am on a Tuesday. The “for profit” shows are usually on in the evening, sometimes at 8pm, and sometimes even at 8pm on a Saturday. There are a lot of places I would like to be at 8pm on a Saturday: in the pub with my friends, eating dinner in a nice restaurant, or lying on the sofa watching Family Guy. Note that “being at a fashion show that I am covering for work” is not on that list. Hence why I hardly ever attended a fashion week in Vancouver, because the last thing I want to do on a Saturday night is watch a ninety minute fashion show.

CAFA, canadian fashion, made in canada, buy local

A photo from a Malene Grotrian fashion show in Vancouver, which charges customers for entry. It makes for a fun night out, but not great for attracting industry. Photo by Rick Chung.

I’d also like to point out that this obsession with fashion shows isn’t doing much good for our industry, either. International buyers and media rarely attend Canadian fashion weeks because it is far and they are already sick of going to fashion month in the US and Europe. There’s simply no point for brands to spend masses of money on a fashion show if the right people aren’t going to be in attendance. If we had a governing body, and some financial support (see point 4) then maybe we could have showrooms and events showcasing Canadian fashion brands in the places where there is an audience. I’m suggesting a showroom in New York or Paris so that the world can see some of the best Canadian fashion, without having to schlep to Vancouver. The BFC does this for British designers in Paris, and I’ve seen Brazilian brands showcased like this in Paris, too. This would be an effective way to promote our brands to an influential audience.

CAFA, canadian fashion, made in canada, buy local

Nicole Bridger does a show at Vancouver Eco Fashion Week which involves “real women” models who dance. Sigh. Photo by Christina Luo.

3. Canadian brands don’t work together enough to get the word out. Again, this relates back to point 1, which is the lack of a body organizing them all. But I’ve also noticed that there doesn’t seem to be a “we’re all in this together” attitude in Canada. I noticed this when I arrived in Vancouver, and realized that people were a lot less open to networking than London (that really came as a surprise) and people are a lot more protective of their businesses. Remember that old saying, “there’s safety in numbers”? That doesn’t seem to apply here.

CAFA, canadian fashion, made in canada, buy local

One of the big names at Toronto Fashion Week is Joe Fresh, which really sucks as it is a supermarket fashion brand underserving of catwalk attention.

4. There aren’t enough grants or government funding for fashion brands. It costs a lot of money to start a fashion company and keep it going, and it would be nice for the government to lend a helping hand. The apparel industry is worth 2,560 trillion USD globally, so there’s the potential to make some money for Canada. (I must note that the Quebecois government DOES support the fashion industry, just not the other provinces. Go Quebec!) And if the government doesn’t want to spend the cash (they’d probably rather use it hiring more people to promote and sell oil, right?) then why not create some initiatives that will force people to buy Canadian? Canadian radio stations are forced, by law, to play 20% Canadian music, hence why our music industry does quite well. What if stores were forced to buy 10% products made or designed in Canada? I’m pretty sure putting something like that in place would not only do wonders for our fashion fashion brands, but would be a major boost to the Canadian economy in general.

CAFA, canadian fashion, made in canada, buy local

5. We don’t value our Canadian brands enough. Yes, we love buying our lettuce local, but I don’t feel we put in the same effort when it comes to buying Canadian fashion. The movement is growing, but I feel like people still place too much value on foreign brands, this has to change. And while we are on the subject, I thought I’d introduce you to the 100 Mile Outfit, which is a really cool site that aims to connect designers to consumers and rebuild a local retail culture. (And p.s. – they are based in Vancouver.)

Tune in on Wednesday for an interview with Vicky Milner, the founder of CAFA.

Image sources: CAFA, Vancouver Fashion Week, Joe Fresh show, Nicole Bridger show, Malene Grotrian show, and 100 Mile Outfit


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  • M R Wilson

    A little disturbed by all of this. The last 3 seasons of VFW have been clean and finished on time or early each day. In talking with others in attendance, the response has been positive. I write for magazines outside of Canada mostly and it is hugely important for me to have access to these international talents without flying to each country. The designers I cover appreciate the press. It’s not like being in NYC or Montreal (unfortunately not been to Europe) but there are differences here in the show format I actually really enjoy and I hope don’t change. One for instance is that we do not have to leave the venue between each show and can spend the time instead networking, making new connections and talking with designers. So while I do understand where this is coming from, especially because of history, not all of us want what you want. I think the whole fashion show industry is due for a big change in the next few years as consumers come to shows and watch more and more by live feed. It’s all going to be revamped.

  • M R Wilson

    Fashion weeks are needing to change to reflect the very digital see it/want it now consumer. They – and brands – need to move beyond just buyers in terms of their business goals and smaller fashion weeks outside of the big fashion capital are probably where this will happen first because of lack of sponsorship.

  • M R Wilson

    Not sure what is going on here, but there must be a back story between you to generate this exchange. I have interviewed and written on Patricia Fieldwalker several times and have nothing but the greatest respect for her both as an inspired designer and as a well-informed business woman. She’s been in the business over 35 years and offers some of the highest quality lingerie available. Everytime I try to get together with her she is swamped getting a shipment ready or heading off for NY.

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    Yes, I did witness that – and I don’t think you quite understand the purpose of a fashion week. It is supposed to be promote local brands, not make money by inviting international brands to show their stuff to a market who can’t even buy them. Don’t blame it on the designers, if VFW had been putting on great events, designers would have showed.

    And I am not the only one who feels this way, look at the comments here.

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    No backstory – I have never met the woman. But apparently she knows a lot about me.

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    Sorry, but this doesn’t make sense to me. You are suggesting you need access to international designer’s fashion shows – here in Vancouver? So should all designers put on fashion shows in hundreds of countries across the world?

    Maybe you don’t want what I want, but I do know that a lot of designers would appreciate a more professional and cohesive industry. And as media – yes, there is a benefit of not wanting to travel between venues, but VFW makes no sense. They are showing international designers’ collections to customers in Vancouver one season ahead of time and in a city where they can’t actually buy the clothes. This is a huge expense for the designers and they have to fly to Vancouver and shoulder the expenses of the show – without reaping any real benefit. This is not how the industry is supposed to work. If VFW was touting itself as entertainment, which one commenter has said it is, then they shouldn’t be charging the designers to show. Since when do actors pay to go on stage?

  • http://www.girlsofto.com/ Ally Lesniak

    Fantastic article! Valid points throughout but I think that designers need to take some responsibility also. Many young people entering the Canadian fashion industry have unrealistic business plans, if they even have them at all. Many are designing for a market that simply isn’t buying. If you’re fresh on the scene and throw a $500 dress down the runway, there are probably only a handful of people in the room who would consider buying it. Everyone wants to be on top without actually taking the time to build a solid brand with a devoted client base. It seems that many Canadian designers are targeting a small group of Canadian shoppers with deep pockets and forgetting that the money can be made elsewhere. Instead, they accumulate debt and eventually go out of business. What’s so bad about taking a potentially longer but more stable road? Until fashion week in Canada turns into a real business opportunity where brands can potentially meet buyers and generate profit for both sides, designers will have to either take a step back and re-evaluate their approach, or simply fall back on Plan B.

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    Great comment – especially about the price points. You are right that it is easier to put fancy dresses down the catwalk but it is so true that those are not going to be the big selling items.

  • LK

    No. Gaultier is the only one who still has fun with fashion! Enfant Terrible! The rest are all sell outs!

  • leah

    Thank you for writing this….I’m a Toronto-based designer and my peers and I find it insanely difficult to reach out to stores, with very little outcome. I find it insulting that my government offers me little to no support, actually making a point to state that fashion isn’t an art. It’s offensive. I attended school in the States, I chose to come home and start a label because I thought that Canadian designers deserve more….we do not receive the respect we deserve, making it super difficult to want to stick around and support this economy.

    There’s a lot of talent here….I wish we got the accolades and business support we deserved.

    Sad truths in this article.

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    Yes, it totally sucks that the government doesn’t provide any support for the fashion industry – especially since there is so much potential for it to be a major industry.

  • http://www.imtheitgirl.com/ anya

    Can we see some of this Brit Vogue coverage? Can someone post?

    When I was covering VFW for FLARE — which is the biggest Canadian fashion magazine — they sat me in 2nd row behind bunch of no name bloggers and socialites. I doubt Vogue would like that.

  • Patricia Fieldwalker

    Hi Marilyn:
    Thanks for your comment…I have replied to the nonsense of my not listing my stores but it’s been “deleted” …seems Alex prefers not to be contradicted on her blog site …perhaps you can ask her to post it for her readers to get both sides and the “backstory”
    xoxo P

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    I didn’t get any further comments from you. I don’t delete comments unless they are abusive – which I’m presuming yours wasn’t.

  • Patricia Fieldwalker

    OK ….I will reply again and hopefully you will manage to post it…you do need to take ownership of your comments and should really do some research before you post …what happened to my logo? seems you have deleted that? can you kindly keep it so your readers can follow this “backstory”…I am not in the habit of making abusive remarks but sometimes you may find the truth a bit hard to deal with.

  • Patricia Fieldwalker

    what happened to my reply to Marilyn? Posted just after you denied any “backstory”??? can you post it please

  • Patricia Fieldwalker

    silly me…here it is…did not see my logo so missed this..would be grateful if you would continue to use it so I don’t need to plug in my details each time

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    Ok Patricia – let me explain something. My comments are powered by Disqus. I don’t control your logo, and, like I said before, I don’t delete comments unless they are abusive (or spam). So if you are having problems – they are on your end. Not mine. The only reason why you might not see a comment right away is if it has a link in it – those need to be approved. And I can’t “keep” your logo on there – Disqus deals with that.

  • Patricia Fieldwalker

    Hi Marilyn: I did send a “yes, backstory” but Alex has some odd explanation for why she can’t post it…anyway, suffice it to say that my 30 years designing the Bergdorf Goodman silk /French lace lingerie collection pretty much takes care of any “branding” and I caution readers to beware of armchair designers who take shots at those of us who are actually working in the industry.

  • Patricia Fieldwalker

    If this is a reply from “the” Marilyn Wilson who so strongly supports Canadian fashion designers, I think a little more respect for her years of experience and positive attitude would be in order from someone who has not participated in the Canadian fashion scene… your opinions are based on suppositions that are not shared be everyone.

  • Patricia Fieldwalker

    not true! there is definitely a “backstory” that began with your very cheeky LOL comment to my post. I have now taken the time to read a number of negative responses to your uninformed opinions about Van Fashion Week. You are using this blog as a forum for your own very opinionated “take” on what the fashion industry should be. Given your own failure to price your luxury lingerie collection to allow you to survive, one would think you are not exactly the right person to instruct other designers. I know a lot about you due to the very grandiose web self description of your somewhat “amazing’ stints as DESIGNER at some of the major fashion houses in Europe. New grads normally spend a year or so as gofers and don’t get to design ANYTHING! Anyone who doesn’t speak to their partner for weeks over debates over design issues, need some help with anger management. Now your amazing new company is selling to THE BEST DEPARTMENT STORES IN THE WORLD FOR FALL, is this the 3 Van, I Bowen Island, 1 Kelowna , 1 Concord, 1 Evanston, and a UK store that doesn’t even list you? Maybe it’s time you give up this blog and spend your time trying to make your Sleepshirt company a success…you know: make it, brand it, sell it !!!!! Still waiting for a list of the best department stores in the world who will be carrying it.
    WHAT A TANGLED WEB WE WEAVE WHEN FIRST WE PRACTICE TO DECEIVE… can’t waste any more time on keeping this very egotistical blog going and I do need to get back to the business of design. LOL

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    Sigh. Patricia, I’m in London and it’s Saturday night and I’m not really in the mood to descend in a mudslinging match with you so I’ll leave you with a few points.

    1. I did an MA at St. Martins – when you do those, you get jobs after. Not internships. I did actually design things.

    2. I have no idea what your comment about anger management is – so I can’t respond.

    3. We aren’t announcing our Fall 2014 stockist list until July when the product is delivered, despite how much I am dying to rub them in your face.
    4. We made a lot of mistakes with my lingerie company – and I am not afraid to admit it. But I also know that you learn from mistakes, and most successful entrepreneurs have made mistakes before becoming successful.
    5. I suggest you do a technology 101 course or read How to Use the Internet for Dummies because I have not done anything to prevent your comments being published. They are all up here – and the ones that aren’t are the ones that you’ve not managed to figure out how to publish. So please stop accusing me of trying to hide your comments.

    Lastly, I had no idea that saying the word “lol” to one of your comments would result in this attack. To be frank, I couldn’t give a shit what you think of me, but I am surprised that a “lol” got this type of reaction. Your immature attitude is a prime example of the small-mindedness of some of the people in the Vancouver fashion industry. It’s quite sad.

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    I repeat – I DO NOT post your comments. You do. Please try and understand how comments work. They are actually quite simple – even you should be able to understand them.

  • fashiongirl1

    I don’t know who you are but I looked up your company and it looks like the same boring crap all the stores sell. I don’t know why you have gotten so worked up about Alex – her article makes total sense and she is exactly the type of person the Canadian fashion industry needs. We need more people like her – she is one of the few people with a voice in the industry in Vancouver and she was a great teacher to many of us. You sound like a bitter old woman who finds some sort of sick joy in making personal insults to someone on their blog. Get a life.

  • Fashiongirl1

    Haha and you don’t even know how to use a computer.

  • Josie

    Um – Alexandra HAS participated in the Canadian fashion industry, and she has contributed a hell of a lot more than you.

  • Josie

    Patricia, you sound like a bitter old witch. This blog is a fantastic resource and I value Alexandra’s opinions. Also, she is very humble, you are making her out to be a show off. That is the opposite of the truth.

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  • Rob

    As a transplant to Vancouver two years ago, I would have to agree in saying that Vancouver’s Fashion Week didn’t seem quite as polished then. From an outsider’s perspective, I sensed somewhat of an in-crowd vibe around it. Granted, I garnered these assumptions solely based on observation (shame on me!) but I resigned to the fact that it is a relatively young scene here. I thought that it just needed development and am happy to say that this year’s event showed remarkable advancements. If they keep striving to meet true industry standards, eventually they’ll get buyers. I’m sure New York Fashion Week didn’t start off smoothly. In fact, there are documentaries and biographies about it. Those designers just set out to deliver shows, impress a vision upon their audience, and get media attention. And maybe they were better schmoozers, too, because they did get buyers in the end…

    Anyway, I have been around fashion crowds, worked for a renowned fashion photographer and have been in the company of famous designers and stylists because of the latter, so I like to think that such experiences validate what I will say next. One thing that I know for sure about being inside a true fashion industry bubble is that everyone works insanely (INSANELY) hard and does so while being supportive (which includes being critical), generous, and considerate to all others who are worth the effort. People who are truly in the fashion industry don’t have time for the bitterness and self-important flailing of social climbing. Those are indicators of people who are trying to get in and who may be dealing with some frustration. It’s not easy, as we know. Of course, everyone would certainly benefit from a governing body. It will unite talents, focus media attention, facilitate opportunities and champion our designers. I also hope that the CAFA will be our country’s answer to Canada’s untapped fashion industry.

    My best friends are highly skilled and extremely talented fashion designers, once being named as ones-to-watch by major magazines. They are not rich and I’ve seen first-hand how hard it is to sustain a small label. They have since gone on to do product development for fashion retail brands. They’re now very successful and seem to be happy, but I have always felt sad that their voices in the fashion industry had to be put aside due to a lack of support.

  • http://mandalasky.com Sky

    Thank you for writing this article, so many great points and a very honest look. Posting number #3 on my page. Sky

  • aT

    The government doesn’t hire anyone in the oil industry, you twit. You don’t effectively make an argument when you fabricate facts.

  • Jordan Lewis

    If only our Canadian fashion leaders would read this and get the point!

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    Not only our fashion leaders, but our government, who should be supporting the brands.

  • Eric

    Canadian fashion industry doesn’t thrive because it was never meant to.
    We live in a country with a population smaller than California. To
    succeed in fashion, you need the talent and a market. We have plenty of
    talented designers here, but a super small domestic market. It’s not
    the government grants, a council, or lack of Canadian support that cause
    the downfall. You do not have to leave Canada to make it in fashion,
    but your clothes should definitely be appealing enough to be sold to a
    world market, not just the US. The size of Canada at least gives us an
    advantage in an easier market competition.

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    Sweden has a population less than a third of Canada, and they have a decent industry. France has double the population of Canada, Britain similar. The population should not be a deciding factor. There is talent and wealth – we should be able to have a strong fashion industry.

  • Eric

    Alexandra, Canada already has a thriving fashion scene here. We have tonnes of brands, independent designers, events, fashion weeks, bloggers, international brands. Believe it or not, this is actually the scene thriving. Just don’t expect it to get much bigger than this. Our cultural capacity / population won’t grow it any larger. This is as big as it’s supposed to get.

    Government handouts, a fashion council (a fashion council cannot help you achieve stability as a brand), “working together more” (we actually already do) won’t change that. Canadians also do support Canadian labels, the good ones. Look how well Mackage, Wings and Horns, Naked and Famous, and Canada Goose do every single year, even Nobis is making a killing now.

    Despite Sweden’s geographical advantages (being in Europe, and close to many European buyers, and the French and Italian fashion weeks), Sweden still does not have a decent fashion industry. It’s extremely small and niche. I wouldn’t compare it to Canada in a positive light.

    France and Britain’s fashion industries are not comparable to Canada, regardless of population size. France is double the population of Canada, and Britain is also double the population of Canada, and both countries have existed and established fashion distribution networks for centuries. France historically invented fashion and is considered a primary world leader for fashion.

    Canada is a new country, with no fashion history, with half the population size, geographically separated from every fashion week in the world except for New York’s. Why would any buyers fly all the way to Vancouver for one small fashion week, when they can Eurorail all around Europe and attend the most prestigious ones in the world?

    We have a dope fashion scene here, we can’t force it to be bigger or something it’s not. The fashion industry here will grow and develop, al it really needs is time and for designers not to call it quits when it gets tough.

  • Eric

    We get the point, but it’s not the truth about the current situation.

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    I don’t think you’ve understood the point of my article because I never suggested anyone fly to Vancouver for fashion week, in fact, I explained that they never would. I also don’t think you have any clue about the success of the Swedish fashion industry, because it does very well. The scene in Canada is not “thriving” – it is the furthest thing from.

  • Caro

    You did not mention Toronto Fashion Incubator in your article. TFI has been around a long time, I’m curious what your thoughts are about the organization’s effectiveness in stimulating the industry through its support of emerging fashion designers and entrepreneurs?

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    I don’t know much about them, which is why they aren’t mentioned. On paper, the organization looks great.