It was 2008 — and Toronto Fashion Week founder Robin Kay, then-president of the Fashion Design Council of Canada (FDCC), was to make an opening address. The tents at Nathan Phillips Square were packed with hundreds of sponsors and guests, eager to see that season’s Mango show. But as Kay began to speak, it quickly became clear that she was rather tipsy. She rambled so incoherently that Mango executive Luc Laroche eventually stood up from the front row to shuffle her off the runway. Despite a sloppy start, the show went on anyway — and continued to so for another eight years.
Now, Toronto Fashion Week is dead. With fashion month wrapping in September, normally October would have been Toronto’s turn. But, earlier this year, IMG Canada announced it would no longer run Toronto Fashion Week — creating a hole for local designers.
The Toronto Star reported that IMG said the commercial funding to produce the event “to the highest standard that…the industry deserves and the designers in Toronto deserve” — wasn’t there anymore. So it has stumbled away from Toronto Fashion Week, in much the same way Robin Kay did after her speech in 2008. Back then, the crowds applauded thankfully. But without a main stage for Toronto’s designers, is there any applause now?
“The established Canadian brands like Mackage or Joe Fresh can easily afford to do a show, but for new brands we’re more or less stuck,” said Thelonius Poon, designer at Toronto brand NOZO Toronto, in an email.
He doesn’t want people to think that “it was cancelled due to us being a super small city or because our brands are not talented,” or that getting a collection some buzz requires a runway at all. “(Alexander) McQueen did his first collection of garbage bag dresses in a ghetto, abandoned warehouse in London,” said Poon. “I think it’s less about the venue hosting and more about the vision of the designers.”
Throughout the ‘90s, those visions actually did manifest in warehouses and hotel rooms as trade-only events, before Robin Kay formally founded Toronto Fashion Week. The new millennium brought with it the Toronto Fashion Week we knew and loved, founded by Kay and the FDCC. At the time, it had just 200 attendees — but by the time IMG took over it in the summer of 2012, it had grown to roughly 40,000.
When international fashion powerhouse IMG bought Toronto Fashion Week from the FDCC, Kay thought it was a great move. She believed it would grant local designers access to worldwide opportunities, since IMG owned fashion weeks all over the world (including those in New York, London, Berlin, Sydney, and Tokyo.)
And for years, it did. It graduated from warehouses & hotel rooms to tents in Nathan Phillips Square, Exhibition Place, and even a vacant lot in Liberty Village. “It really was a dream of mine come true,” said designer Hilary MacMillan in an email. MacMillan designs womenswear for her eponymous clothing line, and showed during Toronto Fashion Week. “It was the perfect venue to show your items nationally and get instant feedback from media, consumers, and buyers.”
“You get the support of such a reputable event without having much of a financial burden,” remembers MacMillan, who had actress Elisha Cuthbert come backstage to meet her at the show — a moment she remembers fondly. But MacMillan sees the cancellation of Toronto Fashion Week as a cultural loss. “I think it is a big step back for our city. Toronto has become such a booming city with so many attractive cultural events…the fashion industry is a trillion dollar business globally and by not having a fashion week we are becoming less relevant in this sphere,” she said.
“(I) have to admit, that presenting in Toronto, made contact with some buyers easier,” agreed Daniel Beaudet, in an email. He’s the Montreal designer behind womenswear label Leinad Beaudet, and was a contestant for the Mercedes Benz Startup Competition that ran during Toronto Fashion Week.
Over the years, not every designer has agreed with how Toronto Fashion Week (TFW) was run—some even rebelled against it. In 2009, the designers of Greta Constantine, Kirk Pickersgill and Stephen Wong, put on their own show after showing at TFW just once before. They felt forced to use certain venues, makeup artists, and models and as such, chose to break out — getting their own sponsors, venue, and buyers instead.
Greta Constantine’s rebellion hasn’t been the only criticism either. Others have said that Toronto Fashion Week’s inability to attract fashion’s top tastemakers, and the fact that big designers with Canadian roots— like Dsquared2 — didn’t show there, kept the event from entering the fashion big leagues.
“Fashion is a tough game,” said designer Thelonius Poon. To him, Toronto Fashion Week ain’t dead until the cash stops flowing for good. “Canada has a series of very established companies that can consistently fund shows each year, and have a solid invested interest in keeping the week alive.”
He could be right. This August, the organizers of Toronto Men’s Fashion Week (TOM*) revealed that they would be resurrecting Toronto Fashion Week early in 2017 — but didn’t give away many more details.
“The second the announcement was made that [Toronto Fashion Week] was pulling out of Toronto, I received many, many phone calls from sponsors going, ‘Roger, where do I move my sponsorship funds to?’” said Roger Gingerich of the TOM* advisory council, in an article by the Winnipeg Free Press.
Until that revival though, local designers will have to get their collections on buyers’ radar another way. Hilary MacMillan showed this year at Coterie, a New York City based trade show, to build up her stockists for the season. Daniel Beaudet presents at Fashion Preview in Montreal. Thelonius Poon suggests that newer brands attend international trade shows, put shows on in other fashion capitals, and use social media as a low-cost way to promote their product while in Toronto.
“Promotion is the easiest part of the equation. The hard part is developing a style and narrative with your viewer that feeds their soul and brings undeniable value to their table. If you can accomplish that, you can succeed in anything, even selling toothpicks,” said Poon. He’s hopeful about the future of Toronto fashion, no matter what becomes of Toronto Fashion Week.
“Toronto Fashion Week might be dead but the spirit of Toronto fashion will never die,” he said. “I can promise you that.”