TORONTO - Homegrown designers could find themselves sharing stylish company with such fashion heavyweights as Missoni, Zac Posen and Vancouver-raised Jason Wu as a select few vie for the chance to create collections for Target in Canada.
The U.S. discount giant is set to open for business north of the border in March. And in advance of the much-buzzed about arrival, the retailer has already announced plans to bring a distinctly Canadian touch to its popular designer collaborations.
The recipient of the Target Emerging Designer Award will get a chance to create a collection for the retailer's Quebec stores, along with a $25,000 grant to produce a full-scale fashion show at Montreal Fashion Week. The award is a joint initiative of the Montreal Fashion Foundation and Sensation Mode, the firm which organizes Fashion Week.
Meanwhile, the winner of the Toronto Fashion Incubator's New Labels contest will have the opportunity to create a line for Target stores across Canada and get a $25,000 cash award from TFI supporter and philanthropist Suzanne Rogers. The winner will also receive a full-page editorial feature in Flare magazine.
LOOK: Jason Wu For Target
The recipient of the Quebec-based award is set to be announced in February, while the TFI New Labels winner will be revealed in April. The exclusive lines are slated to arrive in stores in 2014.
"We've kind of said from the outset... that we really want to bring the true U.S. brand experience when we come to Canada with some nuances for the Canadian marketplace," Target Canada spokeswoman Lisa Gibson said in an interview.
"Definitely, these awards certainly will bring in some nuances as the collections that will be made for Canada are actually going to be sold only in Target Canada stores."
Ryerson University business professor Brynn Winegard isn't surprised by Target's decision to court homegrown designers — and not just as a potential boost for budding local talent.
She sees the move as part of a broader strategy to help further ingrain the brand with Canadian consumers — particularly those who may be skeptical of yet another outside chain seeking to make a foothold here.
"I think it would be risky to not do something like this," said Winegard, who is with Ryerson's Ted Rogers School of Management.
"It would be risky to not have some kind of local, homegrown inclusion into their products, their portfolios, somehow demonstrating to the Canadian consumer that: 'Hey, we have your back, and we will be part of the Canadian tapestry and landscape, and we do want to be part of your culture and part of your world' ... so that the Canadian consumer is not as leery."
Wendy Evans, head of Toronto retail consultancy firm Evans and Co. Consultants Inc., said she thinks the partnership will ingratiate the retailer with the Canadian community and encourage return visits among customers interested in something new.
"They're creating something new and different, and it's not going to be easily comparable in terms of pricing to other selections," she said. "Other retailers will not have those designers, and they get to give some of these young people a new start."
Montreal-based Melissa Nepton said she would welcome the chance to be a part of a designer collaboration, but it would be key for her to bring her brand philosophy into the mix, such as incorporating soft fabrics and fluidity into a potential new line.
"First of all, I think it's not really for the cash; it's more for the opportunity to have some publicity around that and the experience, too," said the designer, who regularly presents collections at Fashion Weeks in Montreal and Toronto.
"It's a good collaboration to work with a big company like Target. You meet some people, you meet some other designers. It can be of benefit for the future."
The New Labels judging panel has selected a record 14 semi-finalists, and will likely be whittling down the list of entrants further when they receive their proposed outfits in January, said TFI executive director Susan Langdon.
With fewer homegrown retailers buying high-end, Canadian-designed, locally-made apparel, Langdon said many designers have to diversify as a matter of business survival.
"If a company wants to continue making that signature collection for the runway and maybe for a few select high-end stores, you've got to supplement that with something that's more mass-market, whether that's a licensing deal with a shoe company or a sunglass company or working with Winners or The Shopping Channel or Target," she said.
"It's reality now. That's the way business is. People are either brand-driven or price-driven."
In addition his acclaimed eponymous luxury line, Lucian Matis has further expanded his business in a bid to reach a more extensive range of potential customers. His lower-priced Daphne collection is sold on The Shopping Channel, while slightly higher-priced diffusion line, Matis, is carried at boutiques on both sides of the border.
"I think in order for a company to sort of stand on its own two feet you have to have your hand in a lot of pots and satisfy or offer product to as broad of an audience as possible," said the Toronto-based designer.
The 33-year-old said many Canadian designers aren't paid the same level of attention due to the significant amount of American product carried here. For that reason, Matis said he is happy with Target's efforts to shine a spotlight on emerging talent, and is hopeful similar opportunities for more established designers will follow.
"I'm sure the pre-selection process is quite intense and they wouldn't put something on the market that's not esthetically pleasing or beautiful," he said of the emerging designer partnerships.
"I'm pretty sure that the established designers will be approached eventually by Target, and hopefully they'll get to work with them, but I think giving a chance like this to an up-and-coming designer is phenomenal.
"I hope that designer will be able to come through with it and focus and make it into a business and make it into something bigger than a one-hit wonder."
Winegard said some of the brands historically chosen by Target for designer collaborations have been given "a bump" for as long as they were carried in stores. What will be key for newcomers in particular is to work towards ensuring they'll maintain that momentum long after their collections have cleared the racks.
"If I was advising the designers themselves (I would say) make sure that they do have sustainable, long-term business scope for how they are going to partner with Target, but what they're going to do when they are no longer partnered with Target as well, so that we don't see some difficulty and stumbling blocks, I guess, once that run runs out."