Should Canadian designers receive government funding?

Is Canadian fashion art? And will you sign the fashion petition?
Sid Neigum Spring 2016. Photography by George Pimentel

Is fashion art? Well, kinda.

The question matters suddenly thanks to a petition launched by Anjli Patel, a lawyer who works with Toronto designer Sid Neigum. Patel wants fashion designers to be able to apply alongside artists for funding from Ontario’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Sport.

This isn’t the first time someone has tried to push for fashion to be classified as a cultural industry. Former designer Robin Kay lead the charge for the second time in 2010, calling it “absurd” that designers aren’t considered similar to writers, dancers or filmmakers.

Five years later, the challenges facing Canadian fashion designers remain, from competition from powerhouses like Zara to homeland retailers who will only take their clothes on consignment. But just because the playing field is horribly uneven, should they be eligible for government funding? If we change the question slightly to “Are fashion designers artists?” it becomes easier to answer. Some are, some aren’t. Some “interpret” existing work. Others conceive from scratch. Many fall somewhere in between, walking a graceful line between innovation and commercial appeal for their own survival. The wilder the design, the smaller the market. Unless your name is Kanye.

Patel points to recent exhibits at the AGO, Design Exchange and Bata Shoe Museum as examples of institutions that recognize the cultural contribution of fashion. Very little fashion, regardless of where it is designed or made, is “museum quality.” But as a cultural signifier, a great deal of what is designed here in Canada fits the bill.

British designer Zandra Rhodes makes a great point in an interview with The Guardian. “Fashion can tell you what people wore at a certain period just as pottery can tell you what their tea parties were like. I don’t think the fact that these things were designed to be practical distinguishes them from fine art. You could say a painting is designed to go on the wall, but if it were made as a fresco, where it was part of the wall, would you say it was not art because it was practical?”

It’s worth pointing out that with the help of the British Fashion Council, British designers have support that runs deep and wide, from the Mayor of London who backs London Fashion Week to commercial sponsors such as American Express and Net-A-Porter. Italy and France both have ministers of fashion tasked with boosting the industry.

Closer to home, Quebec designers have long had support from various levels of government. So come on. Sign the petition here.