Here’s to the ladies who lunch: socialites are saving Canada’s fashion industry, one soirée at a time

Culture, Fashion, Politics

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Socialites, fashionistas, ladies who lunch — whatever you want to call them, wealthy women who take an interest in fashion and style are easy targets for snarky takedowns.

Their lavish outfits make them hard to miss on any city’s social circuit, and all too easy to dismiss as little more than one-percenters with an expensive hobby. (Just think of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics to “The Ladies Who Lunch” from the musical Company: “Off to the gym, then to a fitting / Claiming they’re fat and looking grim / Cause they’ve been sitting choosing a hat / Does anyone still wear a hat? / I’ll drink to that.”)

While we praise moneyed men who drop fortunes on artwork as esteemed “patrons of the arts” and “cultured” members of society — David Mirvish, for instance, who has invested untold millions on hundreds of paintings — women who support the fashion world are cast as vain, self-important and spoiled. With galas now in high gear leading up to the holidays, they’re also squarely in the spotlight. Last month, Toronto Life alleged that Suzanne Rogers, wife of Rogers scion Edward, has a million-dollar-a-year clothing budget; naturally, the magazine’s online comment section was riddled with posts declaring Rogers had “too much money, too few brains and way too many silly dresses.” This sort of dated thinking categorizes women as stylish or brainy — never both. It infantilizes women and seeks to strip fashion, a historic tool for female self-expression, of its power. We might as well put on our stodgy aprons and get back in the kitchen.

Joe Fresh says it’s going to support Canadian designers… instead throws a party all about Joe Fresh

Fashion

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Joe Fresh was reportedly making this season all about the little guys. The brand forwent the typical “all about Joe” circus-cum-fashion-show in favour of throwing a party in support of Canadian designers and a new fund the Big Orange is backing for them.

I have to say “reportedly,” because NOW Magazine wasn’t invited.

We didn’t really expect an invite- I’ve presumably, and ironically, been blacklisted for quite some time on account of challenging the brand to up its support of Canadian talent and harshly critiquing its actions before and after the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh.

But, back to the party.

“Joe Fresh is turning the spotlight on the industry as a whole, and the many contributors who make this such a dynamic industry,” a Joe Fresh spokesperson told Toronto Star.

For a celebration of Canadian fashion, there didn’t seem to be much to do with Canadian fashion.

Haute Topic: Does Shepard Fairey’s Obey clothing line make him a sellout?

Culture, Fashion

We ask the street artist, in town to promote a collaboration with Hennessy, about his complicated relationship with fashion. Here’s what he had to say.

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On whether he’s sold out: When people are, like, “Yo, Shepard Fairey got big as a street artist, then cashed in and got a clothing line,” they have no idea what the fuck they’re talking about.

I come from the cultures of skateboarding and punk rock, where T-shirts are the visible currency rather than the album cover itself or the skateboard itself. For me, it was never a question of  “Is fashion a bad move?”

Everything in skateboarding and early punk rock and hip-hop was about tribalism – secret handshakes and things that would let people know you were on the inside. It was like, “Oh, I can see you have all these scuffs on your shoes…. Respect.”

I made T-shirts from the beginning, but stores said they’d never heard of my brand, so why would they carry it?

With the street art, I could just put it out there without permission. So my profile rose as a street artist much more quickly than it did as a purveyor of streetwear, but they’ve always been working simultaneously.

Fashion bad boy gets a dressing down

Fashion

Toronto Men’s Fashion Week’s Jeff Rustia battles allegations of mishandling funds after volunteer board members resign

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Jeff Rustia is a Toronto scenester known in the fashion biz for his charm and flashy blazers. His long list of credits, itemized in numerous enthusiastic online bios, includes hosting Club Fashion, “a weekly national show of fashion, style icons, nightlife and club culture.”

But he’s best known as executive director of Toronto Men’s Fashion Week (TOM*), which wrapped up at the Fairmont Royal York on August 14. This year’s showcase of “established and pioneering Canadian menswear designers” was a headline-grabbing event, but for the wrong reasons.

Read the full story in NOW Magazine.

Fashion bizarre: Toronto fashion is anything but average

Fashion

While cheap supermarket brands and trendy parkas get most of the attention, Toronto’s real fashion gems are indie designers who think way, way outside the box. Their creations aren’t for the average shopper, but that’s not the point.

From non-traditional textiles like latex and elytra (beetle wings) to dramatic capes and wearable robotics, every piece you see in this editorial spread is by a local designer. Ranging from wonderfully weird to just plain awesome as fuck, this isn’t just fashion – it’s art

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Show us the money!

Fashion, Politics

The Ontario government’s refusal to allow fashion designers to apply for arts and culture grants is stifling the local industry

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Toronto is full of immensely creative designers whose inventions go far beyond the fast fashion wear-and-toss items found at big-box stores. It’s a shame so few of them can stay in business.

They face a unique challenge when it comes to securing funding, in that there is practically none available. There’s no umbrella organization similar to the CFDA in the U.S. for Canadian designers to turn to. (The CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund offers one award of $300,000 and two of $100,000 each year, in addition to the CFDA scholarship program and the Fashion Manufacturing Initiative, which provides grants to facilities that manufacture garments locally.) The few fashion competitions that take place here offer laughably small cash prizes or none at all.

Most surprising is that fashion designers don’t qualify for any grant money from the Ontario Arts Council. Unlike interactive digital media, recorded music, book and magazine publishing, film, television, visual art and theatre, fashion is inexplicably not considered a cultural industry by either the federal or provincial government.

The skinny on bad taste

Fashion

The Bay pulls provocative tees, proving Canada isn’t ready for fashion-forward thinking

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I was thrilled when I heard Hudson’s Bay would stock Canadian-born, New York-based designer Christopher Lee Sauvé’s satirical T-shirts that poke and prod the fashion industry in all the right places. No target is too big for him to skewer with his signature pop art portrayals: American Apparel; Anna Wintour; Terry Richardson; waifish model Kate Moss’s infamous “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” remark quoted in a 2009 Women’s Wear Daily interview and since adopted by the thinspiration community.

It’s that last one that got Sauvé in trouble.

The dark side of fitspo

Beauty, Culture, Fashion

Why the fitspiration trend is much more dangerous than thinspiration ever was

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Fit is the new skinny. At least that’s what hordes of trendy fitspiration posts on Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram would have you believe.

Fitspiration (fitspo) bills itself as a support movement focused on health and, as the name would suggest, fitness. Typical fitspo content consists of images and slogans supposedly meant to inspire women to live more active, stronger lives. A noble idea, to be sure, but most fitspo is just old-school thinspo disguised with little more than a neon sports bra and a perky can-do attitude.

Queen West in big-box fix

Fashion, Politics

Landlords turn away desperate smaller retailers, using a convenient tax rebate on vacant space to hold out for brand-name tenants

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Toronto’s indie retailers are dropping like flies. At least once a week for the last few months, an e-mail lands in my inbox with notice of another store closure.

Some shops, like Fashion Crimes, Klaxon Howl and Theodore 1922, have been lucky enough to set up again in more affordable locations. Others, like Magic Pony, Jacflash and Preloved have shuttered stores in favour of e-commerce. Others still, like GreenShag and Perry’s, have folded for good.

Affordable retail space is hard to come by, especially on gentrified strips like Queen West, where it’s now the norm for tenants to pay upwards of $10,000 a month for street-level retail space.

Such high rates are almost impossible for small retailers to pay, but some landlords aren’t angling for them – they’re waiting for the bigger guns with bigger wallets to swoop in. Queen West, which was once a hotbed of opportunity for hip indie retailers is quickly becoming the land of big-box stores and $10 dresses.

Are the CAFAs really all they’re cracked up to be?

Fashion

Award shows and competitions offer a trendy new way to nurture struggling local talent, but it’s big brands sucking up all the money and energy

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Toronto is a city of almost but not quite world-class things. Our fashion industry is no exception.

It’s not easy for a designer to make it here. For one, the market is small and the general public’s fashion consciousness light years behind that of New York City or European cities, especially when it comes to supporting local talent.

So we’re left with a flock of fledging artists whose operations look more Antiques Roadshow than Project Runway, and others who skip town altogether for the aforementioned fashion capitals.

But have we reached a point where designers can – and should – start “making it” back home? What does it take?

Fashion awards and competitions are the trendy answers du jour.

The Mercedes-Benz StartUp (MBSU) competition and last week’s Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards (CAFA) promise to spotlight emerging designers and offer national – perhaps international – platforms to show off their work.

As the name suggests, MBSU is sponsored by Mercedes-Benz, which ranks 16th on Forbes’ list of the world’s most valuable corporate brands. Net worth: $23.5 billion.

The MBSU competition awards winners with a spread in Fashion magazine, a free show at Toronto Fashion Week and access to a team of lawyers and financial consultants – but no hard cash, which is the problem.

“When you’re starting, you need money,” says 2012 winner Duy Nguyen. “I never pay to do Toronto Fashion Week anyway; I always get sponsored. So I didn’t really get anything.”

Just over a year after taking home that big prize, Nguyen tells me that he is quitting the fashion biz.

“I got offered a decent salary,” he says. “I’m tired. I’m not 20 years old any more and I only make minimum wage.”

Then there’s CAFA, which held its inaugural event two weeks ago, by all accounts an indisputable PR triumph.

The sold-out gala welcomed internationally celebrated Canadians like Coco Rocha and Dean and Dan Caten (Dsquared2), who were greeted on the red carpet by a sea of cameras.

But nurturing Canadian talent and strengthening our industry is not about the rare juggernauts like the Catens who’ve already found success outside our borders. It’s about the new class of homegrown designers who struggle to make a living wage.

CAFA pledges to support these designers in several ways.

For starters, CAFA will make a donation to OCAD’s Social Body Lab based on gala ticket sales. An after-party sponsored by mega beauty outfit Sephora promises proceeds “to be donated to the Toronto Fashion Incubator (TFI),” a non-profit dedicated to nurturing small businesses. CAFA also handed out an emerging talent award that comes with a $10,000 prize.

But the CAFA website and press materials fail to mention that a relatively small portion of proceeds actually go to OCAD and TFI. What might appear at first glance to be a non-profit venture is actually a for-profit corporation.

CAFA organizers could not confirm amounts donated to OCAD, saying that it would be worked out after the event.

The amount going to TFI  was up in the air, if not a bit of a mystery, for 10 days after the awards. The final figure came in at 30 per cent of net after-party proceeds, tickets for which went for $100 a pop. They won’t give me an exact dollar value, though, and it’s unclear whether that amount will include any part of the $40,000 dished out by the after-party’s presenting sponsor, Sephora.

Still, that adds up to chump change compared to the cash collected by CAFA from its various corporate sponsors for the evening, which included Rogers and the Mantella Corporation.

According to information available on the CAFA website, sponsorships sold for the awards show itself ranged from $30,000 to $50,000 and $35,000 for the various awards categories.

If you add up the sponsors listed only, CAFA raised just under $300,000 on the night, not counting the sold-out tables that went for $10,000 and individual tickets for $650 each.

We contacted CAFA several times, but their team still can’t confirm how much money the event made. As for the $10,000 emerging talent award, it rings in at the cost of just one gala table and $25,000 less than what Swarovski paid to sponsor the award category.

Any amount of money donated to OCAD, TFI or a young designer is a great thing. No one’s turning down $10,000 or more exposure for Canadian talent.

But if we’re truly serious about taking Canada’s fashion industry to the next level, shouldn’t we be more critical about who actually benefits from these types of events?

As at Toronto Fashion Week with its overly branded tents, big corporations and event organizers seem to reap far more from these endeavours than young designers. We can’t do better?

I don’t purport to know all the answers, but if you ask Canada’s designers – a pretty good place to start – it’s clear they need more than what’s currently available.

Ten thousand dollars, while a nice round figure, actually doesn’t go very far.

Sunny Fong, who won 10 times that from season two of Project Runway Canada, says the money goes fast.

“Winning that prize was great, but when you break it down in terms of all the money you have to put toward shows, sampling and employees, it’s really nothing,” he says.

When I asked him how far he thought $10,000 would go for a young designer, he said it would likely help pay for the debts they’ve accumulated.

By way of comparison, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in the U.S., a registered non-profit organization, awards $300,000 to an emerging designer and $100,000 to two runners-up each year.

Beyond cash, Canadian designers need to get their clothes into stores.

Says local designer Golnaz Ashtiani, “Business is the biggest problem for Canadian designers. We aren’t making enough sales.”

Ashtiani is a past winner of the TFI new labels competition. While the TFI prize has changed slightly over the years, it currently includes a $25,000 cash award, opportunities for mentorship, a spread in Flare magazine and free studio space at TFI headquarters – something designers find especially valuable since it creates a stable home base from where a business can grow.

TFI seems to have the best track record when it comes to designer competitions, likely due to its well-rounded prize package and the fact that it keeps the focus on young designers, not brands. But even TFI can only carry designers so far.

“Retailer support is missing right now,” says Sid Neigum, another former new labels winner and one of the nominees for CAFA’s emerging talent award.

When asked to describe their ideal prize, Neigum suggests a mentorship with somebody from an internationally successful fashion powerhouse like LVMH, the French multinational; Fong says designers, similar to talent in any other industry, need business managers; and Nguyen wants to see collaborations with retailers.

What’s clear from the excitement surrounding MBSU and CAFA is that Canadians are hungrier than ever for our fashion industry to succeed.

Corporations have capitalized on this energy with wild success, making it far too easy to get sucked into the glitz and glam of big, branded events with little thought as to what they actually mean for designers.

Is it so much to ask that the scales be a little more balanced?

*This post was originally published in NOW Magazine

Gucci Fall-Winter 2008 . 2009 Womens + Mens Ad Campaign6.preview

Hey, Gucci: Cut the Eco-Crap and Make a Difference

Fashion

I always know Earth Day is around the corner when press releases touting cork clutches land in my inbox, followed by recyclable “chic and colourful” outdoor patio rugs, then something jade, another shade of green, rubber-this, and waterless-that. Every year, without fail, the annual green-thumbed Earth Day circle jerk hits full stride in April and continues through much of spring. Brands pump out ‘eco-friendly’ capsule collections and media push shopping guides like consumerism is going out of style.

Earlier this season, H&M, the world’s fast fashion leader, introduced a new Conscious Collection of ‘eco-glam’ pieces priced just low enough to encourage maximum consumption. The collection pays homage to all the important eco-buzzwords like ‘organic cotton’ and ‘textile waste,’ but despite its name, is anything but conscious of the real problem and thus misses any shot at being part of the solution. One-time-wear red carpet gowns made of recycled polyester are nothing more than an old wasteful mindset wrapped in new politically correct verbiage.

Gucci is the latest to jump on the green bandwagon with a line of shoes that are “environmentally sound from shoe string to sole.” They come in an array of colours for women (collect them all!) and both a high and low-top version for men. Sure they have vegetable-tanned calfskin and bio-this, bullshit-that, but they’re also part of Gucci’s pre-fall line—a season that basically only exists to encourage increased consumption and sales.

Waiting six months for a new collection can be a bore, so ‘resort’ and ‘pre-fall’ collections have entered the mass market to fill the gap between traditonal seasons that just don’t come quick enough for modern-day consumerist sensibilities. “It has become the season you sell the most clothes,” Michael Kors told US Vogue at his pre-fall in December 2010.

Gucci’s latest enviro-products are nothing more than a cleverly disguised ploy to get us to do more of what we’ve always done: consume. They’re not part of the solution; they’re part of the problem.

This April saw David Suzuki step down from his own charitable foundation over fears that his political views could put the organization’s charitable status at risk. He told the Globe and Mail that the environmental movement got it wrong for years: “We didn’t sell the right message…We thought if we stop this dam, if we stop this clear-cutting, that’s a great success. But we didn’t deal with the underlying destructiveness, which was the mindset that attacked the forest or wanted to build the dam.”

And Lord knows the fashion industry has trouble coming to terms with its own destructiveness.

Read the rest of this piece at Toronto Standard…

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Does Toronto Fashion Week Care About Its Models?

Fashion

With all their long-legged wonder and thin-as-pins glory, it’s easy to forget that models are people too. For one thing, when they don’t eat enough, they die. Sometimes they’re teens who make bad choices and girls who deal with sexual harassment. They also like things like water and getting paid for their work. It’s a lack of basic workers’, and sometimes human rights that has spurred fashion councils around the world to act in defense of models.

In 2007, Montreal Fashion Week banned underweight models and those under the age of 16 from walking the runway. That same year, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) released guidelines for models at New York Fashion Week (NYFW) that encouraged age minimums and healthy bodies. Since then, the CFDA has also received pledges from top modeling agencies – including DNA, Elite, Ford IMG, and Next – not to send any models younger than 16 to shows.

In March, Israel passed a law that prohibits fashion designers and media from using models that fall below the World Health Organization’s standard for malnutrition. London Fashion Week (LFW) designers sign a contract with the British Fashion Council (BFC) to use models who are at least 16, and the major fashion organizations in Spain and Italy also ban models who fall below a certain Body Mass Index level.

In Toronto? Crickets.

The FDCC’s website conspicuously lacks any mention of models, let alone guidelines that mention age, weight, or any other initiative to protect models. While media in other countries are quick to raise concerns over models’ rights, our media is remarkably silent. Is it simply because there isn’t a problem here? Or are we overlooking the issue thanks to good ol’ Canadian “that doesn’t happen here” naïveté?

“In the past, change rooms were very exposed. So anybody could walk through and watch 15 or 16-year-old models ripping their shirts off between sets,” says Dan Grant, publisher of ModelResource.ca and an agent for Next Models. “There were people who were contracted to do maintenance stuff, but they were always walking through the change area between shows and often had their cell phones out. I’m positive that they were taking photos.”

Read the rest of my piece at Toronto Standard…