The Transformation of Toronto’s Fashion Industry

In 2020, there were numerous significant impacts on Toronto’s fashion industry. The COVID-19 pandemic and the BLM movement influenced several changes to how Toronto’s fashion industry will operate. This article will explore some of these changes.

The Toronto Fashion Industry

Background

Fashion is one of the world’s most important industries, with support from various governments as a key economic driver. According to a 2017 study carried out by the City of Toronto’s Economic Development Committee, there is a significant interest in the industry in working collaboratively with the City to grow the sector. The studies key findings suggested that in 2017 the industry was growing, but companies continue to request assistance from the City to overcome barriers such as hiring skilled workers and increasing exports. Businesses in this sector are typically small, and feel support is not being provided by senior orders of government. More importantly, the data indicated that if the City does not respond to these requests, production could move to other areas or provinces that may do more to actively support the sector. This provides the City an opportunity to act as a leader and champion for the sector, with senior orders of government to help grow companies, jobs, innovation, and increase the economic return to the local economy.

The City of Toronto has been working with the fashion industry in various capacities since 1984. In conjunction with industry partners, the City established the Fashion Industry Liaison Committee (FILC) that year as an effort to facilitate the growth of the sector in Toronto’s economy. FILC reports directly to City Council, and was instrumental in the creation of the Toronto Fashion Incubator (TFI), Toronto Fashion Week (TFW), the Fashion District Daycare, various industry awards, and the international trade missions promoting the sector.

Following the amalgamation of the new City of Toronto in 1998, the standing committee ceased to meet formally, but the City’s Sector Development Officer for Fashion/Apparel & Design continued to work with members of the fashion sector to support and promote its activities. More recent initiatives include the provision of:

Toronto Fashion Week

In July 2016, global sports, entertainment, fashion and talent company IMG announced its withdrawal from Toronto Fashion Week, stating there was a lack of local interest and support for the event. At the time, many were concerned about the impact this would have on the local fashion industry, resulting in the Council requesting staff to conduct an industry consultation to determine how the cancellation has impacted the sector since.

Toronto Fashion Week (TFW) was originally founded by the City in partnership with the industry in 1992, with the Fashion Design Council of Canada (FDCC) managing the event beginning in 1995. FDCC sold the event to IMG in 2012, during which time the event had grown to become the second largest fashion week in North America, second only to New York City. A semi-annual event held in March and in October, TFW launched the ready-to-wear collections of Canada’s top designers to media, buyers, and industry VIPS; it included more than 30 runway shows per season, attracting 60,000 guests per year – including over 1,000 international media members. The City was a founding co-sponsor of the event, providing some financial and in-kind support. However, as the event grew, the City’s ability to provide financial support was unable to compete with private sector sponsors. Even still, the City continued to provide considerable in-kind support. IMG secured a number of large title sponsors for the event from 2012-2015, but once they expired, IMG ended up running the March 2016 event without a title sponsor.

Following the IMG cancellation, industry members began brainstorming alternatives to fashion week, to show designers’ new lines to media, buyers and industry. Unsurprisingly, as with previous years, when fashion week lost a title sponsor, a number of events were created to take place of the larger, primary events for fashion week. In October 2016, Yorkdale Shopping Centre partnered with Canadian Arts & Fashion Awards (CAFA) and The Collections – to present FashionCAN– a 2-day runway event showcasing some of Canada’s most notable designers. The shows were livestreamed via Yorkdale’s website, and a pop-up store inside the mall sold the designers’ ready-to-buy collections until the end of year. Additionally, The Toronto Fashion Incubator held its annual Press & Buyers Trade Show, and Eco Sessions held their kick-off event in Toronto.

The following year, in March 2017, the organizers of Toronto Men’s Fashion Week (TOM) staged a week of runway shows, including Toronto’s Women’s Fashion Week. TFI presented the TFI New Labels runway show and 30th anniversary celebration. The Collections presented included:

  • RE/Mix
  • 2 days of runway shows
  • Static presentations
  • See-now-buy-now showcase

As well, Yorkdale Shopping Centre and CAFA again presented a 2-day FashionCAN, including the pop-up store venue for 2 months. Toronto also hosts a number of other important fashion promotion and sales events that take place outside of the fashion week calendar, including:

  • Fashion Art Toronto (April)
  • Inland (May & September)
  • Mode Accessories (January & August)
  • The Profile Show (March & September)
  • The Toronto Show Show (February & August)

In 2018, TFW was held in its new location in Yorkville, a high-end fashion neighbourhood in the City, and partnered with THE COLLECTIONS, RE/SET, CAFA, and Fashion Talks. According to TFW’s executive director, Carolyn Quinn, these partnerships provide new and engaging experiences regarding the presentation styles of designers; how they present the collections to attendees, engage with fashion, and shine a spotlight on talented Canadians. The programming of the 2018 festival included studio presentations, runway shows, and fashion talks – with the Yorkville village set up to feature everything from the classic behind-the-scenes details to open concept areas where media, guests, and the public could feel like a part of the show. As well, the 3-day event was held in a new “See Now Buy Now” format, considering the needs and consumption patterns of millennials. This new format allows for guests to shop collections immediately after their runway debut.

In January 2020, the team behind TFW announced there would be no spring shows in a press release, only days before participating designers were planning to send out invitations to their Fall 2020 presentations. TFW stated, “The organization is pausing production” of its bi-annual event in order to “reassess the format of its platform.” This announcement shocked the industry, and left many brands and designers scrambling. One designer stated he only knew something was wrong when TFW stopped returning his emails. TFW’s Carolyn Quinn said via email that the decision to pause the production of the fall/winter 2020 slate of shows was “very difficult”, and that it was made “in order to rethink the platform, focusing on how we can best engage the industry, support designers, and resonate with consumers across the country.” When asked whether TFW had trouble securing corporate sponsorship, Quinn chose to indirectly respond, saying, “We are looking at the platform in its entirety, which includes how we can provide sponsors with the best opportunities to collaborate with our brand and its designers. We have always had great support from the corporate community and have received positive feedback on this pause from sponsors and designers alike.” However, it must be noted that the global fashion industry as a whole is in the middle of an awkward, but massive transition. At one time, fashion weeks were about showing press and retail buyers styles 6 months ahead of the next season. Now that fashion influences are so multifaceted, with ideas spreading instantly and trends tending to overlap or contradict, the ‘big reveal’ moment is gone from the runway. Vicky Milner, President of CAFA, says that “the fashion week format and model is being reevaluated on a global scale as the industry adapts to the new realities with social media and the evolving purchasing behaviour and preferences of the modern shopper.”

Fashion Industry Roundtable & Survey

In response to the City Council’s direction to consult with fashion sector stakeholders, a half-day roundtable consultation was held on December 12, 2016 with 30 key Toronto fashion industry stakeholders in attendance. This included:

  • Key industry organizations/associations
  • Organizers of major industry events
  • Respected industry veterans & emerging talents
  • Representatives of the cluster components (manufacturing, design, wholesale, retail, education, & accessories)

In addition, a working group was established to provide additional feedback to City staff during the consultation process. The key findings of the roundtable included much optimism surrounding the fact that IMG’s announcement provided Toronto the unique opportunity to create a new wholly “made in Toronto” fashion week – based on a completely new, innovative model. Thereby, being less constrained than other global cities who are attempting the adoption of new fashion week models within existing frameworks. Alternatively, the key challenges identified included the changes in consumer habits and demands, rapid changes in technology, labour supply challenges, a lack of statistical data, and a lack of understanding by others of the fashion industry.

In addition to the roundtable consultation, an online survey was disseminated to members of Toronto’s fashion industry in April 2017, based upon the insights provided by the roundtable. Over 350 industry members from across Toronto completed the survey, representing all organization sizes and all sub-sectors, including manufacturing, design, education, wholesale, retail, media, industry associations/organizations, fashion professions and other service providers. Surveys were completed primarily by owners, managers or executives, and garnered a number of significant results (see the infographic below).

Toronto Fashion Survey Results

COVID-19 Pandemic Impacts on the Fashion Industry

The fashion industry, like many others in Canada, has been hit hard by the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic. Vicky Milner, President of CAFA says the impact has been huge. “When it just hit and everything started shutting down, there was a big panic. I think through this whole pandemic it’s accelerated a lot of things for brands – things that maybe they were planning on doing before but were waiting, anything that obviously involves digital and consumer experience that needed to be seamless,” said Milner. “This situation has definitely upped the ante so to speak and upped the standards of what brands and designers have to now do. Because you couldn’t just go into a mall an buy things, a lot of things shifted to online when it comes to fashion. It’s not an essential service. So a lot of brands weren’t positioned well in the e-commerce space, or didn’t have a strong social media presence or weren’t selling through social media, had to definitely pivot quickly to make sure their exposure on all of those platforms was very strong.”

Fashion & COVID-19

The impact to the local fashion industry has been very specific to commodities and what companies are producing. For instance, an evening wear designer would have experienced a significant slowdown in business due to a lack of events taking place; whereas a loungewear designer might find they cannot keep their inventory in stock. People have shifted their buying habits tremendously due to whats going on. As well, the expectations of consumers has shifted regarding how quickly they want something. So, to compete with companies like Amazon, independent brands have had to try to keep up, providing quick delivery and a seamless experience.

The Canadian Arts & Fashion Awards (CAFA) was formed to recognize, celebrate, and promote established and emerging talent within Canada’s fashion community, has had to postpone all of its annual awards. All events across the country have had to be postponed as well. The national awards were originally tentatively rescheduled for November 2020, but was unable to occur due to rises in cases. However, CAFA has pivoted to host some online events such as a shopping event in support of Canadian brands with 160 participants. It also held “Live with CAFA” where experts gave the industry advice on navigation during the pandemic on a bi-weekly basis.

However, the impacts of 2020 on the fashion industry haven’t all been negative. For instance, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has made significant changes to Toronto’s fashion industry and its inclusivity, and the introduction of #SupportTorontoFashion.

#SupportTorontoFashion

Before the pandemic, Toronto’s fashion industry employed over 50K people, and contributed to more than $1B in annual wages. The pandemic has ravaged the fashion industry, leaving behind a trail of bankruptcies, empty storefronts, and crushing debt. The need to support local businesses has never been so essential, with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) estimating the closure of small businesses in Canada at 14% due to COVID-19 as of late July 2020. Since the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020, Toronto’s fashion industry has been working to take action to fight the spread of COVID-19. For example, brands such as Canada Goose, helped produce PPE for frontline workers and the Peace Collective launched fundraising collections.

The City of Toronto’s Fashion Industry Advisory Panel (FIAP) launched a campaign in September 2020 to bring awareness to Toronto’s fashion industry, and to celebrate its perseverance in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Titled #SupportTorontoFashion, the campaign spanned several weeks and highlighted the people, brands, and institutions that make up the industry. The campaign will specifically take a look at people in tech, sustainability, inclusivity, and ethical standards in the local fashion industry. The campaign launched with a video message of support from the City’s Mayor John Tory. “We have a lot to be proud of when it comes to Toronto fashion. We are the home of iconic people and popular brands that are known and celebrated globally. Toronto is a leading force in the fashion industry and that recognition starts right here with us today,” he said. “I encourage everyone to support local and to support the Toronto Fashion campaign so that together we can help our City’s fashion industry.”

As of October 19, 2020 the hashtag #SupportTorontoFashion had been seen by over 1000 users, while the Support Toronto Fashion Instagram handle itself has been tagged by hundreds. The campaign is not just for brands and retailers, but for anyone who takes pictures of Toronto fashion items that they’re wearing can use the hashtag on their Instagrams. As well, success is being seen in activity from beyond the geographical borders of the City, despite the original mandate to focus exclusively on Toronto. Interest in the campaign from surrounding areas ad cities such as Leaside and Mississauga have come about as the word has spread.

Black Lives Matter Movement

Canada’s fashion creators, retailers, and brands have been illustrating their solidarity for BLM, with some pledging thousands of dollars in donations, while others have opened up their platforms to share resources and facilitate necessary conversations. As well, in an effort to combat systemic and anti-black racism, local leaders and educators within the Black community have developed tools and resources to be used across all industries, including fashion.

In the City, Black designers and educators have launched initiatives to highlight diversity within the fashion industry, such as footwear designer George Sully’s Black Designers of Canada (BDC) Index. “The Black community has been marginalized when it comes to fashion and our contribution to it,” says Sully. “So I created a platform to lessen the excuses often used by the industry, like ‘Black designers do not exist.'” At his count, Sully says there about 160 designers featured on BDC, spanning across fashion, furniture, accessories, and interior design. Sully’s aim was to counter the argument he had been hearing for decades: that Black designers weren’t being featured because there weren’t enough of them.

Low visibility of people of colour in the fashion industry has always been an issue. Assistant professor at Ryerson University and fashion historian, Kim Jenkins, launched the Fashion & Race Database in 2017 as a reaction to the crises that she had observed in the industry; a lack of adequate representation in media and pigeonholes the standards of beauty. Jenkins believes that a major way to incorporate more diversity into the fashion landscape is by targeting the larger retailers, which designer Aurora James is doing through her campaign the 15 Percent Pledge. “Right after the tragic killing of George Floyd, I was seeing a lot of brands, retailers and influencers from across industries posting messages of solidarity but not actually changing anything about their business,” says James. “They say they stand with the BLM movement, but I didn’t see diversity in their boardrooms, the content they create or on their shelves.”

15 Percent Pledge

Conclusion

Overall, the fashion industry in Toronto has been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the BLM movement in 2020. Countless businesses have closed, and a sizeable number of those who remain have had to completely transform to adapt to the new expectations and behaviours of Toronto’s consumers. Not only did the City experience business closures and a pandemic, but also significant changes for the Black community within the fashion industry. As we move into 2021, there are a number of organizations, campaigns, pledges, and programs highlighting local problems in the industry, in addition to showcasing local talent.

Make sure to keep an eye out for more articles on the fashion industry in Toronto. The Sustainable Switch will be providing updates on the various changes and initiatives being carried out by the industry in 2021.

2 Comments

  1. Good morning Saige,

    A very effective post given your aim.

    More of the same.

    If you would like some academic material pertinent to fashion and sustainability let me know.

    Love to all in TO.

    Mark & Judy…

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