Toronto's Fashion Week, which wraps up March 16, might be Canada's biggest fashion event, but it doesn't attract the kind of attention shows in New York, London, Milan or Paris do. Still, industry experts say that when it comes to exciting, cutting-edge designs, Toronto doesn't disappoint.
World MasterCard Fashion Week, as it's now formally known, marked its 13th official year this year. The week-long exhibition of fashion has earned a reputation for striking a good balance between showcasing the work of some of Canada's top established designers and featuring newer talent that puts Canada on the global fashion map.
It has undoubtedly evolved over the years, launching new collections that have gone on to sell well and building the reputations of Canadian designers, but most importantly, it has become a platform where Canadian talent can shine.
That wasn't the case when Bernadette Morra, editor in chief of Fashion magazine, started writing about the industry.
"I've been covering fashion since the day there was no fashion week in Toronto at all and saw it sort of start to struggle in hotel ballrooms with very small runway shows," she said. "Actually, even before that, there was the Festival of Canadian Fashion … then it sort of fell apart into smaller shows in hotel ballrooms and then struggled along to slowly build and build."
The event has come a long way since those early days.
"Fashion Week has hit a level of maturity that is giving it this really fabulous energy," Morra said.
Canadian designer Joeffer Caoc agrees the industry is evolving but says it has a long way to go before it can measure up to its European counterparts.
"It's still new for Canada … [but for] Europe, it's very in their culture, because they are older countries," Caoc said.
Robin Kay, president of the Fashion Design Council, a not-for-profit organization created in 1999 to support Canadian fashion designers and the Canadian fashion industry, agrees.
"We are a younger country, and we have a shorter history that pertains to culture and pertains to the economy and the importance of a fashion landscape," she said.
But that newness is also what sets Toronto apart from the other four major shows on the fashion-week circuit.
On the world stage
The most prominent fashion weeks happen in the four cities that are home to the world's leading fashion houses: New York, London, Milan and Paris.
It's difficult to compare the shows when there are so many factors to consider, such as attendance, exclusivity, population and established reputation.
It would be unfair to try and place Toronto on the global circuit, says Morra.
"Toronto is a regional fashion week," she said. "With increase in public interest has come this explosion of fashion weeks in every nook and cranny of this Earth that has a consumer base to support it. So, you have Mumbai, Sao Paulo, Kiev, and Toronto is on that level.… It doesn't have a global appeal."
But that doesn't mean it isn't meaningful, said Morra.
"It has an appeal to a Canadian audience, Canadian media, Canadian consumer," she said. "And it's also a way for Canadian designers to hone their runway skills before they go and show in New York or in Paris."
Kay agrees and says the evolution of Canada's most important fashion week says more about the country's fashion industry than its position on the world stage.
"From the first two-day shows at the Windsor Arms in 1999 to today, where there is a week full of shows and huge, huge participation — I find the comparison to ourselves — [rather] than to other countries — more interesting."
Toronto's Fashion Week has come a long way since its start in 2000 and now hosts more than 60 designer runway shows, drawing thousands of fashion industry insiders, professionals and fans.
The Toronto event is open to the public, which distinguishes it from the top four fashion weeks on the circuit, where admission is by invitation only. At those events, only buyers, industry types, press and celebrities get to view the collections.
"In a city like Paris, people are coming from all over the world — China, Russia, retailers and media," Morra said. "A room holds only so many people. A show in Paris can pack a huge tent, so there's no room for outsiders."
But in Toronto, says Kay, the public can get a taste of what it's like on the inside.
"I think that being Canadian, it's healthy for that exposure to be less exclusive in a small way, almost aspiration for those who aren't at the level of industry that the designer's sale depends upon at that moment," Kay said.
Getting down to business
Aside from the glitz and glamour, Toronto Fashion Week is still primarily a money-making event for designers.
A strong brand is an invaluable and very powerful component of sales, and everyone, including designers and those running the show, recognize the importance of that.
"It's all about sales," said Kay. "Designers have got to sell their clothing. It's not a hobby."
No one knows that better than Canadian fashion designer David Dixon, who struggled to get a foothold in the industry after graduating from Ryerson University's School of Fashion.
"In 1995, there were no job opportunities, so I started my own label," he said. "By being a part of Fashion Week, it helped build my brand identity within Canada, and now, over the past five years with my partnerships with people like Mattel and large corporate companies, it's brought my brand recognition global."
For Caoc, what matters most is what impacts buyers and what's best for his brand.
"A lot of what I design are directed by the consumer that buys my clothing," he said. "At the end of the day, my aesthetic depends on whether or not it can be worn."
Canada 'a little hot spot'
Toronto's Fashion Week is still a young event with lots of room to grow.
"I don't think Toronto's World MasterCard Fashion Week is ever going to be the fifth stop on the fashion circuit," Morra said. "It's a regional fashion week; that doesn't mean it can't be a fabulous fashion week."
Dixon says that although the Toronto event has a fraction of the runway shows that new York has — about 50 to New York's 300 — it helps brand Canada's fashion industry to the world.
"Over the past few years, Canada has become a little hot spot, and a lot of these designers … Jeremy Laing, Erdem — even though [they're] not based here — still represent Canada," Dixon said.
"Even the top models in the world are from Canada. People are recognizing that Canada has something to offer. It may take a few more years to really be on that calendar, but we certainly do have the talent."
Caoc agrees that Canadian talent is well represented at all echelons of the industry — "from mass market to high end" — and well poised to achieve bigger and better things in the years to come.
"I think it kind of reflects on other creative parts — music and film; there's sort of a wave," he said. "Canada is a little gem. There's a lot of opportunity, and Canada is going to continue to grow."