04/29/2012 10:00 EDT | Updated 06/29/2012 05:12 EDT

Toronto Fashion Incubator Marks 25 Years Of Helping Canadian Designers (PHOTOS)

TORONTO - After graduating from design school and working for several London fashion houses, Golnaz Ashtiani came to Canada armed with an arsenal of creative skills — and no clue where to start.

But like many other emerging designers pursuing solo careers, she sought out the Toronto Fashion Incubator in a bid to help find answers.

As an outreach member, Ashtiani said the incubator offered a wealth of resources to conduct research and learn the steps needed to start her own label.

To further help boost her budding brand, the Iranian-born, Toronto-based designer took top honours in TFI's New Labels contest last year. But she says the incentives from winning extended beyond the $10,000 cash prize.

"When you start your own label, you're caught up by all of the passion and the creative side of what you do, and you kind of forget about what it really means as a product in the market," she said. "They give you some insight into what is best and how to approach it.

"It's just getting down to business — what is sellable, what people really want."

Despite her success, the 27-year-old still faces challenges forging a path in the industry.

Putting her prize money towards production, Ashtiani opts to work from home rather than renting a separate studio. She admits sales aren't currently where she would like them to be.

But there have been bright spots.

Ashtiani said winning New Labels and presenting at Toronto Fashion Week has helped with exposure for her label. She has also secured a stockist in the U.K.

"This is my passion," she said.

"The things that I create, when I see the finished product, it's very motivating."

Since its launch 25 years ago, the non-profit business centre has fostered countless designers and style entrepreneurs seeking to foray into the fashion world.

TFI will celebrate its quarter-century milestone with a gala fundraiser and fashion shows Thursday at the Royal Ontario Museum. Designers from Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal will also compete in this year's New Labels contest, which received a boost to $25,000 through the involvement of philanthropist and honorary gala chair Suzanne Rogers.

In 1986, the fashion industry was the second-largest industrial employer in the City of Toronto. A volunteer industry organization proposed the creation of a fashion incubator that could help spur business growth, translating into job growth and new business development. TFI launched a year later.

All members have access to a resource centre and mentoring hours among other support services. TFI residents pay extra for use of private or shared design studios.

TFI's concept has been adopted by cities worldwide, including New York, London, Milan, Melbourne, Auckland and Amsterdam.

In the process, it has helped launch the careers of some of Canada's leading talents, including womenswear designers Joeffer Caoc, David Dixon and Arthur Mendonca, sibling duo Alia and Jamil Juma and fashion label Smythe.

"I believe everybody has some degree of creativity and talent — it's a matter of honing that and helping them to understand the business side," said TFI executive director Susan Langdon, who had a 17-year career in fashion design.

"You can be the most creative designer in the world, but if you're not selling anything, there is no next season."

Barbara Atkin, vice-president of fashion direction for Holt Renfrew, said today's talents need to be savvy about the business of fashion, from management to marketing. They also need to stay true to their vision and core design philosophies on everything from quality to fit and fabrication.

But it's not design alone. Atkin said what organizations like TFI also help reinforce is the value of up-and-comers in establishing a strong support base.

"They really need to understand that getting coached and reaching out to mentors in the industry is probably the most important thing to do."

Langdon said designers can still offer a unique point of view at an affordable price for the Canadian market.

"Nobody needs another black T-shirt or jacket. You have to make it your own," she said. "If you're good at pattern-making, you're good at ... construction, then you'll know how to cut that pattern in a way to keep the costs down.

"It's all about cost-efficiency: knowing where to put the seams ... and understanding what construction techniques there are to help you achieve that look from the outside without compromising too much on the inside."

While there are vast opportunities today to gain exposure through social media, Langdon said making the sale remains a perennial challenge.

"I think the conversion of social media impressions into actual retail sales ... is still low and in its infancy at the moment. But I think eventually that will probably translate into dollars," she said.

"It's very difficult now, though, because when I had my line, there was so many more Canadian retailers that carried Canadian designers. There was Lipton's and Eaton's and so many other big chains. Bretton's. They're all gone."

Yet within the notoriously competitive industry, Langdon said those coming up through the TFI ranks continue to gain inspiration from previous successes and others currently plotting a similar path.

"I think being here in the TFI environment, working alongside your peers and watching them make strides forward, it's motivating," she said. "I think it encourages people to go that extra mile because you see if you're not doing it, someone else is.

"That kind of healthy competitiveness early on in one's career, I think that's a very good influencer."



Golnaz Ashtiani:

Toronto Fashion Incubator: