10/19/2012 03:21 EDT | Updated 12/19/2012 05:12 EST

The business of fashion: Insider tips on taking lines from runway to retail

TORONTO - Regardless of whether their specialty is casual wear or couture, designers are seeking to do more than build buzz — they want to bank bucks.

As emerging and established talents showcase their latest collections at Toronto's World MasterCard Fashion Week, buyers will play a pivotal role in helping to place their products in the hands of consumers.

Before her design career took flight, Kimberley Newport-Mimran of womenswear label Pink Tartan worked in the buying office at the Hudson's Bay Company, and later moved into product development and merchandising for Club Monaco.

"When I started designing a collection, I knew how to fabric source, I knew where to get things made, I knew how to work with factories," she said. "So I think that those elements have really helped me develop into being able to have a brand that retails."

The homegrown label is carried by U.S. department stores including Bloomingdale's, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Newport-Mimran said she tries to visit the locations where her designs are sold to better understand the markets. Whether it be Florida or New York, she seeks to ensure that the buys are modern, fit and are suitable for their respective climates.

"There's a lot of thought that goes into when you present a collection," she said. "That's why the collection is quite large, and what you see on runway is just a capsule of what I do."

Colleen Harris, manager and buyer for Halifax designer boutique Foreign Affair, said fit and fabrication of garments within a collection are key.

"Something can look fantastic on a model, but then we have to take it to another level; and that's from a commercial point of view (of) how it would relate to our clientele," said Harris, whose store stocks Canadian labels including Lida Baday, Joeffer Caoc, Pink Tartan, Dennis Merotto and Marie Saint Pierre.

Barbara Atkin, vice-president of fashion direction for Holt Renfrew, said the first thing they look for is whether a designer has a cohesive collection which features something "really definable."

"There's so many more collections than stores can be possibly delivering to their customer. We can't even buy half the stuff we see. We have to edit it ourselves," she said.

"So whatever they're designing really has to stand out from all the rest of the clothes that are out there, and they have to figure out what's going to make them unique."

Harris said she tries to look for a hint of something extra that distinguishes a traditional garment, whether it's a touch of leather on a black dress or an outerwear piece with a lot of detailing.

"It becomes very attractive to the eye. "

Atkin said simply producing generic clothes isn't enough: to be a designer, they need to be distinctive.

She recalled London-based Peter Pilotto caught her eye with the label's unique take on digital prints. Toronto design duo Kirk Pickersgill and Stephen Wong of Greta Constantine also stood out when they emerged with their jersey dresses, Atkin added.

"It was like a T-shirt: you could put it over your head, slip it on, and it didn't matter what your body was like, and you just felt sexy and comfortable and easy," she recalled.

"They always fit perfectly, and we loved the quality of the jersey; so the price equation between fit, quality and price, it just worked."

Designs can still make a statement even when they're not universally embraced by critics.

Hedi Slimane's recently unveiled debut collection for Saint Laurent in Paris was met with mixed reviews, but Atkin said it was evident to her who the line's prospective clients were.

"You could see who those girls are that are going to lust after those clothes. You saw that this girl was going to be a sexy, rock 'n' roll girl," she said.

"It wasn't just some mediocre line trying to appeal to everybody and anyone. It actually said: 'These are the clothes, and these are (the people who are) going to want it,' ... and I think that's so important."

The crafting of the runway presentation is also critical because within those 15 to 20 minutes, potential buyers get a window into the brand DNA, Atkin noted.

"I think it's important to understand the vision: How does the designer see those clothes being styled and worn by their customer?"

Yet while great music and styling can elevate a mediocre collection on the runway, Atkin said each piece still needs to stand on its own when observed up-close on a barren showroom rack.

"Great collections get into stores regardless of whether (designers) do runway shows or not," she said.

"They get into stores because of ... great quality, great fit, having an idea of who the customer is, and standing out."