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02/12/2019 13:46 EST | Updated 02/12/2019 13:54 EST

Why I Didn't Participate In Toronto Fashion Week

Every single day, I am let down. As a country we don't care about supporting the Canadian fashion industry.

Keith Beaty via Getty Images
Designer Hayley Elsaesser presents her collection at World Mastercard Fashion Week in Toronto.

It sucks to have to write this letter. I have an intense feeling that I am forgetting something every morning when I wake up and start my day — that thing being Toronto Fashion Week.

Toronto Fashion Week was a week away when I first typed this. Normally by then, we would have opened our doors to scores of hopeful models, all smiling nervously as they talk about what a great opportunity it is to be able to be considered for a runway show. I would have swiped through hundreds of photos, a blur of different faces — all heights, shapes, sizes, races and gender identities represented. Not to tick a box or make a point, but because we put out an open call, and this is who came. Everyone. Not diversity for the sake of it, but rather representation — a microcosm of our customer base and a visual metaphor for why I do what I do.

In 2018, Gucci was criticized for cultural appropriation for having white and non-practicing models wearing turbans on their runway. We've worked with multiple Sikh models, and last season had two models wearing turbans, because that is what they wear every day. You might think, "So what? Canada is a very ethnically diverse country and has been for years, it's not news." That may be true, but that didn't stop a random photographer in the press pit from assuming one Sikh model was the other, and telling Black models to make gang signs in a photo.

Edward James via Getty Images
Hayley Elsaesser walks the runway on March 25, 2015 in Toronto.

This past season, YouTube star and trans rights activist Stef Sanjati appeared on our runway with the words "Fuck Doug Ford" written across her stomach, in protest of his rollback on sexual education curriculum in Ontario, including important information regarding consent, gender identity and sexual orientation.

You might think, "So what? There is plenty of liberal media coverage of LGBTQ issues." That may be true, but that didn't stop transgender sex worker Sisi Thibert from being stabbed to death in the lobby of her Montreal apartment in 2017. I was anxious about the potential backlash of Stef's statement, but I knew it was an important statement to make, and wanted Stef to feel like she could express herself. Unfortunately, there was zero attention surrounding this statement on the runway, positive or negative.

We've showcased models from five feet to six feet seven inches tall. Women's sizes two to 20, and men's sizes XS to XXL. We've had models ranging in age from 18 to 72, and everything in between. We tell models to be themselves and show their personality because I want them to light up my clothes. I live for the five minutes right after the show when I can come backstage and see my team and all of the models looking so happy and excited. I live for the opportunity to showcase people who would never get an opportunity otherwise.

You might think, "So what? Body positivity is a trend now." Tell that to the commenters who angrily tore into me for not being a real runner when I was featured on Nike Toronto's page after starting my run club and trying to get back into shape after years of neglecting my health to push my business forward.

So, why?

Because every single day I strive to push our brand forward, support my community, and shed light on social and political issues that I think are important and relevant in an industry that is still very much propped up by exclusionary practices, elitism and corruption. Every day I try to put out clothing that is as ethically sourced as I possibly can. That isn't designed to be consumed and thrown out. That isn't built on exploitation and unhealthy body and beauty ideals. Every day I work with my team and try to think of new and more exciting ways to get our content, our photos, our art and my clothing in front of people so they can support our brand. Every day, I try to put money back into our local economy and to partner with local brands, so we can push our city forward. Every day, I try to engage positively and professionally with my peers, and to be proactive in generating interest around Canadian fashion and Canadian industry. And every single day, I am let down.

As a country we don't care about supporting the Canadian fashion industry.

Roberto Machado Noa via Getty Images
The Louis Vuitton store in downtown Toronto.

We look to international fashion weeks for inspiration, and look to fast fashion retailers for a quick consumption fix. We covet designer brands like Louis Vuitton, Givenchy and Christian Dior without realizing they are all part of the same massive corporate conglomerate along with Hennessy and Moët & Chandon, selling us an unattainable and unsustainable dream of opulence and luxury. We buy into the hype of brands like Supreme, dreaming of the resale value, lauding them for effortless street-level coolness, while failing to acknowledge that they were apparently recently partially acquired by the Carlyle Group, known for opportunistic international lending, weapons manufacturing and corporate real estate — all decidedly not "street-level" endeavours.

So, why did I not participate in Toronto Fashion Week?

Because I am tired of trying my absolute hardest to push an agenda of progressive acceptance and inclusion. I am tired of spending thousands and working non-stop to put on a show that gets barely a fizzle of national attention. I am tired of working around the clock and not seeing it result in more sales, more recognition or more support from mainstream media. Until we cover Toronto Fashion Week like we cover a mundane Wednesday night Game 38 in an 82-game season of the Toronto Maple Leafs, our industry will suffer. We could work towards having a thriving clothing manufacturing industry. We could lead the global fashion industry towards more sustainable practices, and away from fast fashion. We could try to lead by example instead of falling in line with international fashion weeks and designer labels that trade in wealth and inequality. We could support each other. But we don't. And I'm tired of it.

I'm not giving up on the industry.

Arguably, if I played by the rules a bit more, and featured only conventional agency models, and styled my shoots to look luxurious and opulent, I would find more success. I am not going to do that. I am going to continue trying my hardest to build a company I can feel proud of. To support models who wouldn't otherwise get an opportunity. To make clothes that are affordable for most people. I'm honestly just trying to make the world a brighter place, one printed denim jacket at a time. But for now, I am tired of burning money, and I need to focus on trying to sell some clothes so that hopefully my brand still exists a year from now.

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What I will continue to do is support the Canadian fashion industry. I'll be attending all the shows I can next week, and keeping an eye on my model friends as a sincere fan of Canadian fashion. I'm not giving up on the industry, and if I can continue to support it in the eye of the hurricane, you can, too.

----Hayley Elsaesser----

A version of this post originally appeared on HayleyElsaesser.com.

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