The Mercedes-Benz Start Up initiative seeks to offer a nationwide platform to discover and support emerging design talents who've been in business less than five years, and scouts out fresh talent with an annual cross-Canada search.
Raizonville and Urbanovitch were awarded grand prize honours in the competition finale last fall after the judging panel was deadlocked, marking the first time the contest was won by two separate labels. In addition to receiving mentorship support from industry experts and being featured in Fashion Magazine, the womenswear designers made their return to Toronto's World MasterCard Fashion Week to reap the prime reward of their prize: a fully produced runway show.
Edmonton-based Urbanovitch has had her ready-to-wear line since 2010 which she had mainly been producing locally; but since she's been expanding her label has started to outsource to Europe. She has an exclusive agreement with boutique Gravity Pope, with her garments carried at locations in Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto.
Urbanovitch was also a Start Up finalist in 2012. Now with a fully backed show, she plans to capitalize on her extended turn in the spotlight.
"Hopefully everyone is left wanting more and I hope I can impress everyone," Urbanovitch said in an interview prior to the showcase.
"I really do feel like this is my big debut, so I'm hoping that it'll be really different from anything that we've seen at World MasterCard Fashion Week in Toronto, and I can kind of be a little bit of a standout in the group of Canadian fashion designers."
French-born Raizonville, designer of Montreal-based label Matiere Noire, already has an online boutique and presence in a downtown Toronto boutique, but she has her sights set on expanding further within Canada's largest city as well as New York, and possibly in Vancouver next season.
"We hope the public in Toronto is going to respond well to the collection," she said in an interview.
Raizonville said she is inspired by cultural details in fashion.
"For example, the Amish. I really love the way they dress which is really strict and austere," she said. "Also, I use a lot of motifs and prints that come from the Inuit and other native peoples, so it's been translated into handwoven motifs and belts and also in the knits."
Raizonville opened the runway showcase on Tuesday with a pair of models already positioned on platforms stationed on the runway. The line featured a contrast in masculine styles and mainly featured navy and black hues.
Urbanovitch said her new collection was inspired by rave culture and underground cultures, with a diverse slate of knits and feminine fashions on display.
"The pieces are all very classic and minimalist," she said. "Colour is a huge component in all of my collections, so that's going to be a big part of it again, and the fabrics are just very special. I'm always drawn to specialty fabrics and very luxurious fabrics, all-natural fibres, and this season is really taking that to the max."
Following the Start Up showcase, Jarrad Clark, global creative director of IMG Fashion Events & Properties — whose organization spearheads Fashion Week and Start Up — announced that the program had been extended for another three years.
While Raizonville and Urbanovitch are thankful for the opportunities afforded so far by their Start Up title, a past winner of the contest doesn't believe the victory translated into significant success for his brand.
Montreal-based Duy Nguyen of ready-to-wear label DUY landed the top prize in 2012 with a richly hued collection inspired by the 1980s. He returned to the Toronto runway the following March to present his Canadian winter-inspired fall line.
Nguyen said he was hoping there would be more widespread exposure and the chance to find a collaborative project with a retailer after his Start Up showcase but said no such opportunities came to pass. While he has continued to do custom orders for the last few years, the challenges of working between 60 and 80 hours a week without any security in a notoriously tough homegrown industry have taken their toll. Nguyen said he plans to stop producing his line by the end of April.
"I realize that at the beginning I did everything myself — patterns, sewing, accounting. Everything was just by one person. I made money, " he said in an interview. "And then, with more orders, I have to hire. I have to hire a part-time seamstress, I get some of my patterns done by other people. Then I realize that a sample if it's not done by me, if I hire it costs me $1,000 a sample and that's way too expensive."
Nguyen believes a cash prize would be of far greater benefit to Start Up winners given the high costs associated with producing a line.
"They give you mentorship, but I mean mentorship, they provide you with advice from accountants, lawyers. But I think Start Up needs more money. And then if you want to develop, then you need lawyers and accountants."
Clark said there are a number of existing awards where earning a cash prize is a possibility.
"That's just not the basis of this particular program, and we've had some great success stories come through the program," he said in an interview.
Past Start Up finalists and Toronto designers Hussein Dhalla of HD Homme and menswear specialist Christopher Bates will be showcasing fall-winter collections at Fashion Week. Clark said Triarchy — a Vancouver-born, Los Angeles-bred denim label and past Start Up finalist — has built "a great business" on their participation during the week, and work done year-round to grow their brand and business.
"There are other designers that have been part of the mentorship and continued to show with us season on season, and we're looking to continue to support those designers who participated."
Raizonville said while money would be an added bonus, she said the contest prize as is is "a good start," such as providing funds to buy fabric.
Urbanovitch agreed that while a financial reward would be beneficial, there are key elements to establishing and building upon a brand.
"Money is always needed, and it's really tough. When you're starting a fashion busienss, there's so many components that you don't even realize. It's not just the clothes and the production and even the show, there are so many little details that just add up, so having some financial help would have been really, really great as well.
"But, having a show in Toronto which is something that I think is really important to getting your name out there and expressing your point of view and your brand to all the buyers in Canada and elsewhere, that's something I'd have to pay for if Mercedes-Benz didn't cover that. So that's a huge cost that's taken off my shoulders."
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