The yay-us sentiment is high on opening night at Toronto Fashion Week. On the last, wet Sunday of March, the Canadian fashion elite gather en masse at the newly tricked-out Allstream Centre (né Automotive Building) to kick it all off. They are here despite the rain, sworn enemy of sleek-haired, fine-fabric-wearing fashion people everywhere; despite the fact that their industry is something of a jumble. Many of Canada’s top designers are still leaving the country, apparel jobs are increasingly scarce, and government support for the industry is spotty at best. But the mood is celebratory, even self-congratulatory. Case in point: there are international reporters here tonight, including Mark Holgate from (gasp!) Vogue. But even he can’t steal attention from Jeanne Beker, here in the front row. Beker, Fashion Television’s long-serving hostess, is Canadian fashion. She is surprisingly tall with a marvelous slash mouth, and seems to live inside a circle of bobbing cameras.
As the first presentation starts it’s easy to imagine Beker’s delight. New label IZMA is a collaboration between veteran designer Izzy Camilleri and journalist Adrian Mainella; it has a deliberately patriotic bent. The label’s foci are sustainable leathers and wild-sourced furs, which the partners have worked into strikingly modern pieces: a black coyote skirt that can also be worn as a cape; a cream-coloured leather pantsuit, tight and matte as tooth enamel. The lines are sharp and urban — they point to Montreal — but the materials and colours (birch, tundra, mineral-flecked soil) swing the compass needle way north, to a Canadiana we don’t hear much about these days: Farley Mowat, igloo jokes, Hinterland Who’s Who. The giant screens above the runway project a forest of bare white trees. You can almost hear the mournful loon.
Say “fashion week” at the Fall 2010 edition of Toronto Fashion Week and you’ll get a mouthful of correction: it’s officially LG Fashion Week with Beauty by L’Oreal Paris. It is also a media extravaganza. With over 400 million media impressions from last October’s Spring 2010 Fashion Week and even more expected this year, the event’s command of the Canadian press is undisputed. There are dozens of cameras at the IZMA show, crowded into a gallery at the foot of the runway. When the music softens, you can hear the rainlike patter of their shutters working in rapid sequence. There are also cameras in the audience — seemingly every fashion person has a blog and a Twitter feed, and both these things need pics. (More this year than ever, show coverage will happen in real time, trended under Twitter’s #LGFW hashtag.)
Photos from the gallery will appear in the major dailies and fashion magazines throughout the week and into next month; audience snaps show up immediately on Twitpic, the majority beside 140 characters of praise. The show gets a standing ovation, and there is an undercurrent of gratitude in the crowd. “Beautiful fur fare from ISMA [sic],” Beker tweets. “[So] hot for fall/winter. And WE ARE CANADIAN!”
Over 1,000 were present at the IZMA show, and many more join later for the Party of Style I in the Allstream’s Runway Room with DJ Honey Dijon, whose thumpa-thumpa-waa-waa dance music sets the pace for a frenzy of wine-lubed scenester schmoozing. Everyone at the party knows everyone else at the party. From time to time, there is an appearance by Robin Kay; each of these sends a tremor of excitement though the crowd. Kay is the president of the Fashion Design Council of Canada (FDCC) and, as fashion matriarchs tend to be, a figure of great power and controversy.
Love her or hate her, the crowd parts for Kay. She charges through like a tiny battleship, all billowing hair and jewel-encrusted torso, before she is sucked back within her usual coterie of stabby-heeled young assistants and Important Bald Sponsors. Toronto Fashion Week as we know it is Kay’s creation and raison d’être. Now in its twelfth year, it’s growing up fast. Attendance at last October’s shows was 40,000 — up 300 percent from the season before. Numbers for this season are not out yet, but the FDCC says it is bigger still. Still, it wouldn’t be Toronto if enthusiasm didn’t meet a strong countertide of corrective cynicism. Before the week is up, a number of articles will appear, among them invectives by the Globe and Mail’s Amy Verner and EYE Weekly’s Sarah Nicole Prickett, each begging a litany of questions. Were the collections too safe? What was up with media getting charged $100 for passes, and the empty seats at many shows? Why are some of the city’s best designers disassociating themselves from the LG spectacle and showing off-site (“Rogue” fashion shows started last week, and are in fact still going on, in city bars, boutiques, and even a rental truck)? Why is our Fashion Week still a month behind the buying season? And why, in the name of Jeanne Beker, can’t we settle on a location (the event has moved five times since 2006)?
In her pre-show speech, Kay told the crowd that the FDCC-created Fashion Week is meant to make our design “a calling card for our country.” Behind her directive is an admitted concern. She wants to keep designers in the country; she wants them to do good, internationally recognized work. But there are persistent problems with securing government funding, something the FDCC feels is necessary given the increasingly unstable global apparel market. Others say there are problems with the FDCC itself. The media griping both reflects Kay’s anxiety, and throws back still more questions: Are we there yet? No? Why not? The theme of this year’s Fashion Week, “The Power of Style,” is a nod to major cellphone and electronics sponsor LG but it is also, as fashion people say, “aspirational”: it hints at what the FDCC wants for Canadian fashion — major clout.
According to Gail McInnes, a twelve-year-industry veteran and owner of fashion PR firm Magnet Creative, these murmurs of discontent are positive: restlessness is a sign of ambition. McInnes looks like Betty Page and plays up the resemblance with saucy, retro-ish outfits, many of them sourced from Canadian designers. “[The complaints] mean we want to get better,” she will tell me, post-Fashion Week. “It means we care.”
But these are things to think about later, once the IZMA buzz has worn off and the hubbub dies down. Tonight is party time. High on the success of the show, the guests are energized, optimistic. Fashion folk love looking at things, and here, there is so much to look at: outfits, models, and a voguing show with fashionably androgynous young dancers. Several of them hold picture frames around their faces, and photobloggers queue for pics. There is a lot of wine. The rain has stopped; hair and makeup have been surreptitiously retouched. Everyone loves the drag queens. Everything is, as fashion people say, gorge.
If last night, at the IZMA show and party, Toronto Fashion Week was a glammed-up beauty stalking the catwalk, today it is a teenaged model on her off-hours: makeup off, backstage eating Pringles. The sparkly, knife-heeled fashion people are fewer and further between. The Allstream Centre fills with sneaker-wearing women on mom-and-daughter dates, baggy-looking interns, starry-eyed teens taking each other’s pics in a plexiglass Barbie booth. At the shows, there are people like me being ushered into the front row, feeling VIP when really, we are just P. In the light of day, Fashion Week shows its youth.
As a young event, Toronto Fashion Week has a tough challenge that is unique to the glamour industry: it has to drum up public interest while maintaining an aura of OMG!! exclusivity. The teenagers and Mississauga moms are highly valued, but so is the kind of social regimentation that can only happen at their expense. On opening night, three sections of the Runway Room were off-limits to me: a VIP section with a cash bar and extra seating, a couch-strewn VVIP section in front of that, and a makeshift strip in the middle with velvet ropes and cocktail waiters.
Fashion Week works hard to keep up the intrigue, but this is difficult during the day shows, which are sharply demarcated from the glitzier night ones. As a result, my status at Fashion Week rises and falls with the sun. On opening night, I am told the guest list for the closing-night party at megaclub Muzik is invite-only. The next afternoon, I am hustled onto it twice. And at two daytime shows, I get to sit in the front row.
Like everything else at Fashion Week, the letters that preface one’s P are intimately connected to seating at the runway shows. In the evening front row: top-tier media (editors for Flare, Fashion, and the major dailies), celebrities like ’90s supermodel Stacey McKenzie, major buyers (ex. Holt Renfrew), sponsors, FDCC bigwigs, and super-bloggers like Anita Clarke. Anyone beyond the front row is organized into sections by pass-type. I am in Section B, which houses many web media. We are different from personal bloggers, whom one of my seatmates sums up thusly: “Look at my outfit today!” Most of the bloggers are young and outrageous dressers; they sit in the seemingly lawless Section F. They react to shows with genuine emotion: applause, eye-rolls, shouts of “HEL-lo!” These Ps have a highly permeable front row — apparently, charmed VIPs have been passing off their seats to Section F-ers — that becomes the cause of some grumbling among ambitious IPs who can’t get past row two.
Milliner Jorge Midence is a Section F staple and the most dramatic dresser at Fashion Week. He can’t walk three steps in the Runway Room without having to pose for a camera-wielding blogger (and once, an autograph). Midence, twenty-five, has a devilish laugh, and the kind of speech one can only transcribe with a lot of italics. When I meet him, he is wearing a silver organza bubble tunic, four-inch heels, and a spectacular, two-foot-wide black halo: Medieval saint by way of S&M.
Midence’s custom headpieces and fascinators are highly regarded by Toronto fashion people, but he is a young designer without corporate backing who has yet to show a collection at Toronto Fashion Week. Still, he’s in the audience every day, not only to view the presentations, but also, he tells me, to inspire and instruct. “I want to show these people how it is done properly,” he tells me. “People are here from all around the world, they want to get their money’s worth! They come here for a show. We’re Toronto, we’re young. We can be anything we want to be. I want to make people dream and laugh.”
I tell Midence that there is an impending meeting at Queen’s Park between the FDCC and two Ontario MPPs to open up funding for young designers such as himself. His dark eyes light up. “Good! Protest! We need the lesbians to get involved, because they make shit happen. Fashion needs support! You go tell those MP3s what’s going on.”
A beat, to adjust his headpiece, then that satyr’s grin: “Did I just say MP3s? That’s hilarious. Make sure you put that in.”
It’s just before the Pat McDonagh evening show on Tuesday, and the day crowd is trickling out. Exquisite fashion people stream in, all double-cheek kisses and excitement. Am I hyped for the veteran designer’s regal coats and military details? Not really. The Allstream has become a circus of sponsor publicity, and my arms hurt. I am carrying so much Stuff.
To paraphrase George Carlin, Toronto Fashion Week is a pile of Stuff with a runway in it. Sponsors (besides LG and L’Oreal, there are Town Shoes, Schick Quattro, Barbie, and Peroni Italy, among others) provide almost all of the event’s funding. Their money allows the FDCC to put on shows, market the event, and — through its new Designer Development Fund (FDDF)— confer a $10,000 grant on each year’s worthiest designer. These corporations’ support is crucial; in exchange, they get access to the event’s 40,000-plus attendees. In addition to billboards, digital posters, and the commercials that loop constantly on the site’s dozens of flat screens, sponsors provide free services, samples, and flyers galore. These things reach guests through both the booths that line an area called the “Fashion Atmosphere” and the gift bags that are left on select seats at the runway shows.
It’s a lot of Stuff, and, at some point on Tuesday, I decide to avail myself of all of it. Every look book, every sample packet of Beauty SoClean Cosmetic Sanitizer Wipes, every offer to flatiron my hair — I take it all. As a consequence, I spend my days at the Allstream carrying one or two tote bags (also free) into which Stuff — event schedules, Venus razors, and Town Shoes coupons — accumulates at an alarming rate. The Stuff is heavy. It is unfashionable, and it makes me huff and hunch and generally look like a weirdo. Friends are constantly exhorting me to check it. Robin Kay is less subtle. When I view the Zoran Dobric show with her from the much-photographed front row, she immediately has an assistant whisk my Stuff out of sight. “We have a coat check,” she reminds me, before disappearing behind a wall of sponsors.
Wednesday’s Pink Tartan and Joe Fresh evening shows are packed to the gills. In the front rows are many local VIPs — non-fashion people from the neighbourhoods that are invariably described as tony, particularly around the time of the Toronto International Film Festival — and everyone else gets pushed way back. In the back row of Section B, Stuff is as rare as a view of the runway. At Joe Fresh, plus-sized model Crystal Renn walks alongside the usual skinny minnies, but I can’t even pick her out. She is a fizz of dark hair bobbing on a rim of audience.
Joe Mimran is the founder of Joe Fresh, the chairman of the FDCC, and, like Kay, a person of some controversy. (Blog TO: Should a megabrand like Loblaw’s, let alone a sponsor, be allowed to show at LG Fashion Week? Amy Verner: What does it say about us that we get excited when they do?) “Whoa there!” Mimran seems to be saying in his smiley, palms-forward Fashion Week portrait, which appears on a vast amount of Stuff. When he takes his bow after the Joe Fresh presentation, he does a similar handsy “Ha! Let’s not get carried away here!” move, like he’s defusing a threatening situation with sudden humour.
I appreciate the jokey humility, so post-show, I push through the crowd for an interview. But as soon as I hit the stage: wall of security. A coordinator yells that Mimran’s backstage is closed to all media except his own documentary film crew. As if on cue, they rush in, giant cameras hoisted on beefy plaid shoulders. Guests behind me talk about the Joe Fresh afterparty, and I wonder why I am not invited.
For me, Stuff is physically and socially prohibitive, but for many Canadian designers, it is a symptom of the creative restrictions designers can face at Toronto Fashion Week. Several bail out of the event altogether, participating in the dozen-or-so “rogue” shows that are gaining buzz (this year, torontolife.com has a “Rogue Fashion Week” blog series). Designers rogue their shows when they can’t afford the $1,500–$12,000 LG Fashion Week entry fees, when their corporate sponsors conflict with the FDCC’s, or, as in the case of the much-acclaimed Line Knitwear and Greta Constantine presentations, both held before LG Fashion Week, it’s because they want absolute control of the environment — Stuff and all.
On the last day of Fashion Week, I ask Kirk Pickersgill, one of two designers for Greta Constantine and menswear line Ezra Constantine, his thoughts about going rogue. The Milan-based Pickersgill is known in the Toronto fashion community as an outspoken individualist, and has become something of a figurehead for the outsider movement.
“Considering we have only two fashion shows a year, [each requiring] six months of blood, sweat and tears, [the runway presentation] ought to be exactly how you want it,” he says. Showing off-site allowed Pickersgill and co-designer Stephen Wong to scout the perfect space and bypass restrictions on permissible shoes and makeup. The duo showed their fall collections for Greta and Ezra Constantine in an underground parking space at an east end Audi dealership (the automaker is the label’s corporate backer), a setting that provided guests with something they can’t get at a one-size-fits-all runway show: a total presentation. “[The] leather leggings gave the models the sleek look, like the interior of a luxury car, as they sped down the long runway at top speed,” wrote Danielle Meder on her blog, Final Fashion. A neckpiece resembling the four-ring Audi logo held up a billowing, drapey dress; the Ezra models looked battered and bruised, as if from a collision. Pickersgill says roguing it can be risky — it’s difficult to find a good space, and there’s no guarantee of a full house — but ultimately worth it. “It’s about creative freedom,” he says.
The relationship between emerging designers and their backers is complex; it can’t be reduced to a dorm-room debate about selling out to the Man. “This is a capital intensive industry,” Laurie Belzak, the Sector Development Officer for the Toronto’s fashion cluster at City Hall, reminds me. Designers often need to pay for production and marketing costs six months ahead of getting paid; external sources of funding are scarce. “It is extremely beneficial when companies like LG, L’Oreal Paris and Audi provide support for new designers,” she says. Every designer I spoke to with corporate backing was unequivocally positive about it, including Pickersgill. His “creative freedom” is less about opting out of the system than choosing how he opts in.
“Media reach,” Megan Loach, communications coordinator for the FDCC tells me, by way of explaining the official Fashion Week’s advantage over Rogue. “We offer designers the opportunity for tremendous publicity.”
Later, Robin Kay clarifies with a written statement: “The benefits of showing onsite, on the calendar, in the venue far surpass what I could have imagined before we built the event ten years ago…I cannot help to believe that, speaking as a previous designer, manufacturer and retailer, this type of exposure is a fast track to brand awareness which is the precursor/desirability for the demand of designer clothing. It only makes sense.”
OK, then. “The Power of Style” — a nod to LG, a call to arms, and also a cheeky reminder: Look who’s still in charge, here.