L’Oreal Fashion Week: Insider report

This morning I was scheduled to do a CBC NewsWorld interview at 7 a.m. to discuss the launch of L’Oreal Fashion Week in Toronto. After travelling to fashion weeks around the globe I thought long and hard about what truly defines Toronto’s fashion week and how we differ from the other fashion capitals.

Buzzing in my head was that recent unsigned letter presented to the mayor of Toronto, which outlined in great detail the apparent “deficiencies and injustices” of the Fashion Design Council of Canada, and claimed that its longtime captain Robin Kay was the source. Truthfully, I am not sure of the validity of this letter, and I am disappointed in a person going through all that trouble to point out what may be very real injustices—without the courage to sign it. It’s simply hearsay at this point.

What I took from this letter was the truth about the lack of a real trade cycle for L’Oreal Fashion Week. If we are to support local designers, then, like the other fashion capitals of the world, we should make sure that the buyers are present to create real opportunities for our designers. It seems to me that the FDCC has done an incredible job at creating a platform to display our talented designers. Their ability to sway large corporate sponsors to foot the bill for the new venue (modelled after the fashion week tents at New York’s Bryant Park), and the other accoutrements, is quite impressive. This year, L’Oreal and Ford are our corporate saviours, but their interest is primarily to post promotional material in high-traffic areas for their key demographics. So what about the designers?

For me, a great thing about L’Oreal Fashion Week has always been the opportunity for young designers to have the chance to display their talent. In New York, Milan, London and Paris, this is next to impossible. The sheer expense and lack of space keeps the show times at the venues down to only the exceptionally talented or well-connected new designers. Year after year, we see new young designers at L’Oreal Fashion Week only to see them drop off the next season’s calendar. What justice do we serve our young designers when we don’t provide them the proper channels to keep their labels alive for more than a couple of seasons? The greatest problem we face is trying to add our fashion week to a relevant global fashion calendar so that the media and the buyers will still visit us without conflicting with the other major fashion capitals which sustain their business. This, unfortunately, is something that we have been struggling with for some time, and it seems that the debate is finally escalating to the point where the elephant in the room needs to be pointed out.

Last night, I attended the launch of the Holt Renfrew cocktail party briefly before I hit the tents. As I arrived, the security and PR made it feel like entering Fort Knox. It seemed to me that there was plenty of room to accommodate those who desperately wanted to be a part of the launch and partake in the beginning of what has promised to be a great week. Inside, I passed Suzanne Timmins the fashion director of HBC. Suzanne used to be a Holt Renfew exec, but now she has single-handedly reformed the The Bay’s fashion and home departments into very current and affordable shopping centres. To me, she’s the best-dressed girl ever, who reeks of style and sophistication with a touch of rock ‘n’ roll. The usual suspects were in attendance to hear the great speeches that were on the way.

“What are you wearing?” was the tag line that Caryn Lerner, the president of Holt Renfrew, used to open her speech. Not a bad theme to spark interest amongst most during a fashion week, but it also reinforces the insecure tendency to shop high-end labels in order to feel as though one fits in. She then lost me when she answered her own question by saying, “I am wearing Ruffian.” Ruffian is a New York label created by  two very talented designers who embody what is so current in the NYC fashion scene today. Claude Marais, the co-designer of the label, happens to be French Canadian; however, he has spent most of his life outside Canada and is considered an American designer. That moment made me think: If the president of the nation’s largest high-end retailer isn’t wearing Canadian, then what chance do our talented designers have to create a real industry? This is not to say that Caryn, and the lovely Barb Atkin have not year after year supported the buying of some of our greatest designers—in fact without Holt Renfrew many wouldn’t exist—but it goes deeper than that. It is about the moment a woman stands at her closet door and excitedly pulls out a favourite designer piece to wear to a wonderful event. If the head of our great retail giant didn’t have that moment at the launch of our Toronto fashion week, then why should any buyer care to purchase those hard-laboured designs from our talented creators?

In her speech, Robin Kay, the president of the FDCC, commented on something that is great about our city: the fact that over 54 nationalities make up the demographic of our great city, and that when you look at our designers they match this ratio. This is what makes us different, the fact that we are truly a mélange of cultures living under one roof—we are not homogenous. If only we could only somehow create the proper platform to execute a working fashion week that embraces this and the designers and gives them, rather than big sponsors, the big pay-off at the end of the day.

Read fashion market editor Sarah Casselman blogging on L’Oreal Fashion Week!