Christian Chenail has endured for more than two decades as a designer, but with the steady arrival of large-scale chains offering lower-priced products, the battle for coveted consumer dollars has become increasingly fierce.
"A girl who would maybe buy my stuff at 50 per cent off at the end of the season, now she's doesn't come anymore to see my things. She's buying at Zara," said Chenail, whose made-in-Canada offerings for his Muse label include jackets retailing for around $450 and dresses in the $350 to $400 range.
"I still have very good customers that like my work and like my stuff and spend three or four thousand a season in stores. But the girl who would leave me maybe $500 a season and buy on sale, she's not there anymore. So this is affecting us.
"But I have two choices: produce in China or still doing what I do the best, and try to find a way to attract those people again."
With Montreal Fashion Week kicking off on Tuesday, Chenail will be among the first to unveil spring-summer 2014 collections, with late screen and style icon Grace Kelly serving as the main inspiration for his latest line.
"I still have the energy and the excitement to show my collection on the runway," said Chenail. "This is one of the things that's the most important for me — to get pleasure from my work."
Sensation Mode co-president Jean-Francois Daviau, whose firm organizes the event, said homegrown designers may not be able to compete with the pricing and output of affordable apparel chains, but they can distinguish themselves by producing items unique to the marketplace.
"You have to develop an authentic product ... with a good price, but not fast fashion. You cannot go there," said Daviau. "You cannot look at H&M or Zara. That's volume. That's the game of mass production. You'll never be able to fight the price.
"The niche for designers is really having your own store and using the web for transactions or having such a different product, very specific, that people cannot repeat it.....You need to have quality."
In celebration of the semi-annual event's 25th edition, Montreal Fashion Week organizers are inviting designers to show their new lines without charging a participation or production fee.
Daviau said the $1,500 sum would typically cover show essentials like hair and makeup. Organizers also approached modelling agencies in the city to request a break on fees, and contemporary art complex Arsenal — which plays host to the event — is also offering a deal to use their facilities, he added.
Despite the consistent winds of change swirling around the industry, Daviau sees the staging of fashion weeks as a key constant.
"It's a way of developing marketing tools — the pictures, the lookbook — that will lead to sales. I think it's one of the options with the best results for designers still," he said.
"Also, I think when a designer does a fashion show, that pushes him to enhance his creativity and explore more and challenge himself because you have the reaction," Daviau added.
"If you always stay in your atelier developing products and you don't (have) any relationships with the media or the buyers or consumers, your product won't evolve. It becomes more for yourself. It's really a place for networking.... and I think it's important for the designer, but also for a city. It's a way of branding and bringing a lot of energy into a creative industry."
The latest edition of Fashion Week will see a pair of labels commemorating key milestones: Bodybag by June marking its 15th anniversary and Dinh Ba Design celebrating its 10th.
As winner of the Target Emerging Designer Award during the previous edition, Melissa Nepton earned the chance to design a line for Target's Quebec stores. The Montreal-based designer and new mom will be back presenting a collection from her signature line. Pedram Karimi, Annie 50, Eve Gravel, Travis Taddeo, Helmer and Nargisse Ennasri Akyuz of Nisse are also slated to showcase new collections, as are design duos atelier b., Martin Lim and UNTTLD.
Fashion fans unable to see the presentations in person can access collections online with shows being live streamed on the Montreal Fashion Week website.
Members of the public can also purchase tickets for individual shows, a day's worth of collections or all of the runway presentations to get a glimpse of styles bound for stores next spring and summer.
"When we look at Quebec or Canada, one thing about the designers that we realize is they have an accessible product. But more often than not, the people, the consumer, the guy on the street, he believes it's not for him," said Daviau.
"Having those exclusive shows, that's a signal on top of the rest of signals that it's not for everyone, it's very selective," he added. "We have to be more accessible."
Montreal Fashion Week runs from Sept. 3-6.