The Walrus Blog

Still Dressed Up

Earlier, Alexandra Kimball went to Toronto Fashion Week, where she saw a lot of clothes and collected much promotional Stuff. This is second and final report on the event
Clothing by Evan Biddell

Clothing by Evan Biddell
Photograph by Peter Balinski

Style appears less powerful at Toronto Fashion Week’s Wednesday morning event, a political discussion that takes place in a wood-paneled dining room in the basement of Queen’s Park. The Fashion Design Council of Canada (FDCC) has come to promote a motion, currently being reintroduced by two Ontario MPPs, Christine Elliott (Conservative, Whitby-Oshawa) and Cheri DiNovo (NDP, Parkdale-High Park), that would reclassify the fashion industry as part of Ontario’s cultural portfolio. This in turn would qualify fashion designers and events for public grants currently available only to projects in film and television, book and magazine publishing, interactive digital media and music recording.

The scene is a master class in juxtaposition — the fashion people are wearing cocktail dresses, fur stoles, and complicated heels, while members of the provincial NDP stand around in sweatshirts, drinking coffee. There are about fifty people in the meeting, where DiNovo, Elliott and FDCC president Robin Kay give various figure-laden speeches, and fewer still at the press conference that follows upstairs. (There, I am one of three reporters in the room. A story appears on the Toronto Star’s website within hours, but fails to rival the buzz created by Fashion Week’s runway shows and parties. Number of times this event is tweeted under the #LGFW hashtag: zero.)

“Fashion is a part of culture,“ DiNovo, tiny behind the meeting room’s conference table, preaches to the choir. Elliott repeats the big figures from a previous meeting: fashion contributes $500 million to the province’s economy annually; in Toronto, nearly 50,000 apparel workers generate $2.6 billion in revenue. Meanwhile, a civil servant in a pantsuit looks blankly at her loafered feet. As the fashion people are ushered out by more pantsuits, Kay’s heels beat an angry staccato on the hall floor.

Since 2006, Ontario has provided $169,000 for LG Fashion Week through the Tourism Event Marketing Partnership Program (an additional $7,500 per year comes from the City of Toronto). The provincial commitment is little compared to the $300,000 conferred yearly on similar local events with corporate funding, like the Toronto International Film Festival, Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, and Luminato. And next to what Quebec does, it’s nothing. Two years ago, Ontario’s neighbour poured $2.4 million into Montreal fashion’s initiatives, and in 2007, earmarked $82 million for the fashion industry as a whole (once fashion was qualified as culture, the province’s apparel employees doubled within a year). To the French and Italians, even that amount must appear laughably low. Their fashion industries have powerful government presences and are routinely bailed out during periods of crisis to the tune of billions.

I’ve already been told that the issue is too complex for a simple handout to solve. In an email he sent to me before Fashion Week, Bob Kirke, executive director of the Canadian Apparel Federation, pointed out that while apparel jobs have rapidly declined in the post-Free Trade era, revenue for key Canadian firms has doubled due to the lower cost of offshore production (in, as he writes, “China, etc”). The next part of his statement was underlined and indented: “However, government funding does not and will not determine the success of the industry.

Kirke’s opinion, however, is not universal. “I don’t know what industry he is talking about,” Kay laughed dismissively, when I interviewed her at Fashion Week’s Zoran Dobric show. As the models filed down the catwalk, press tweeting their every step, I saw her point. Kirke, ostensibly the industry’s voice in government, seems to represent retailers and garmentos only, and they speak a different language than designers and fashion fans. Where Kirke says “apparel” and “firms”, Kay’s people say “fashion” and “labels.” When Kirke says world class, he means Le Château, lululemon, and MEC; when fashion people do, they mean Alexander McQueen. As in, where’s ours? And if he’s here, who’s paying attention?

* * *

Evan Biddell might be Canada’s McQueen. I meet him the Friday after Fashion Week, in his OZ boutique on Toronto’s hipster Ossington Ave. shopping strip. Like McQueen’s, Biddell’s experimental designs are frequently described by fashion press as “avant garde,” “forward-thinking,” “directional” — words that evoke propulsion and motion, fashion being rocketed toward its future.

“Nobody buys my clothes,” he laughs. “But I’m still one of the lucky ones.”

In 2004, the Matinee Fashion Foundation, which provided $300,000 in prize money to emerging designers, folded when the federal government introduced restrictions on tobacco sponsorship. In the post-Matinee era, television’s Project Runway Canada has provided crucial funding and publicity for Canada’s fashion scene. The Saskatoon-born Biddell, who’s now twenty-six, won the show’s first season in 2007; it’s $100,000 grand prize helped finance the startup of his eponymous label in Toronto.

But as Biddell he tells me, it’s particularly difficult for a designer of his ilk to establish himself in Canada, where the market is small and notoriously conservative. “We’re not so look at me,” he explains. He loans a lot of clothes out to “the fabulous people” (former supermodel Stacey McKenzie is a fan), and, his prize money spent, relies on corporate sponsors such as Audi to finance his collections, which each cost around $30,000 to manufacture.

Biddell points out that European consumers are more eager to invest in pricier pieces that they keep for longer. “Anyone I talk to tells me to get out of [Canada],” he says, and points out several successful homegrown exports to the world’s top design centres such as Jeremy Laing, who lives in Toronto but shows in New York, and Dean and Dan Caten of DSquared, who are based in Milan. “They’re like, ‘Why are you still here?’”

At this year’s Fashion Week, Biddell’s Tuesday evening show seemed like one long, glorious F.U. to domestic convention. He opened with a film short that poked fun at French New Wave; his models walked to different versions of the same Kate Bush song. And then there were the clothes, in comic prints and materials made from shredded cork, each outfit weirder than the last: a pair of pants that curve horizonally from the model’s thighs like giant rudders, a sculpted dress whose colour and texture suggest a Jurassic-era Easter Egg. The collection is built fore and aft from the wearer’s body, sculpting silhouettes that, in profile, are hunchbacked, thunderously thighed, doubly- and triply-chinned. At the end of the runway, the models posed for the press gallery in profile, so the cameras could capture the effect: Edwardian dowager, mummified in Pop Art.

I tell Biddell that as I watched his show, I briefly experienced a very unfashionable feeling, one so uncool I’m almost embarrassed to repeat it: “Hey,” I thought, “I’m proud this guy is ours.” It’s a feeling I’ve experienced only with our more prominent cultural industries — our Olympic teams, say, or some of our writers — and it hadn’t occurred to me that it could happen with fashion, too.

Biddell shrugs. “Well, it’s Toronto.”

At this, I recall a conversation I’ve had with buyer Juan Carlos, whose Magnolia boutique in Toronto’s Eglinton village stocks several Canadian labels alongside better-known American and European ones such as DKNY. He told me that he tries to mix these different labels together, not only because he is averse to self-congratulation, but because customers will often avoid an item if they know it’s from a local designer. “If I tell them it’s Canadian before they try it on, they’re like, ‘Ugh,’” he said, holding his pinched fingers at arm’s length, like he’s dropping an overripe fish into a compost bin. “But if I tell them that after they’ve tried it on, and see how good it looks, they’re like, ‘Huh!’” Maybe it’s not that patriotism is a priori unchic. Maybe it will be fashionable when we are convinced that our fashion is, too.

There is also the problem of fashion marketing and coverage in Canada, which often promotes the frivolous peripherals of the industry (the celebrities at the shows, the parties) over the clothes themselves, says Sarah Nicole Prickett. She writes about fashion for Toronto’s EYE Weekly, and is becoming a minor celebrity within the fashion blogosphere for her personal style. To many Canadians, she points out, fashion still appears as “glossy, blonde and vacuous” as a celebutante. Unserious. Commerce, not culture.

* * *

According to Lily Cho, who often teaches fashion as part of her cultural studies classes at the University of Western Ontario, these issues — fashion’s bad rap and Canada’s national insecurity — are linked, and overdue for public discussion.

“Fashion is a culture industry,” Cho tells me when we meet after Fashion Week. A culture industry, she explains, is the type of product that we often dismissively classify as “entertainment.” The term was coined in 1947 by Frankfurt Marxists Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer to discuss the dumbing-down, wallet-opening effect that the emerging Hollywood system had imposed on the public. In more recent years, explains Cho — who is decidedly stylish, and often buys Canadian-made labels — critics have been able to look at the topic with less bearded disapproval. Among others, British theorist Angela McRobbie has pointed out the ways in which the attack on fashion is gendered, demoted from “art” to “craft” as so many things associated with women tend to be (look around any Fashion Week — this is a world of straight women and gay men). Like Roland Barthes McRobbie studies fashion as something that is “closely aligned to art and artistic production [and having] substance beyond this superficial cycle of [consumption].”

Cho, whose background is in literary criticism, defines culture as a kind of narrative, a story we tell ourselves about ourselves through which an identity, however nebulous, emerges. Who are we? Where have we been? Where are we going? Fashion, obsessed as it is with time — looking to the future, revising its own past — is not only a part of culture, but a kind of metaphor for culture itself. As Canada is “obsessed with its lack of identity,” she says, we would be wise to start looking at what we wear for more clues.

Still, there is the pesky problem of fashion’s inevitable status as a mass consumable. Several people I met at Fashion Week were opposed to the motion introduced at the FDCC’s Queen’s Park meeting, because they believe the industry is too commercial to be lumped in with, say, painting. Cho points out that fashion’s commercial nature is an advantage in a cultural market where Capital-A visual art becomes less and less available for public consumption. These “video installations, mounds of things on floors — [are] things I find incredibly compelling, but can only participate in an institutional context,” she explains. In contrast, she says, “fashion could fill that strange niche where you can actually buy something, and be supporting a young artist.”

The government’s reluctance to define fashion as part of our national culture, as it is elsewhere, stems from what Cho feels is a deeply-rooted Canadian anxiety about the worth of our cultural production. There is a sense, she says, that “the real arts are these things that happen elsewhere and only come back to us when [they’ve] been validated somewhere else.” In the meantime, she says, there’s no wonder Fashion Week postures and poses. “To self-appoint your own importance is to enact teenagerdom at its worst,” Cho says.  She would like to see Canadian fashion embrace its marginality. “You’re not in Paris, you’re not in New York. Why pretend? All the cool stuff happens on the outside anyway. It happens in art, it happens in literature, it happens when the margin says to the centre, ‘Hey, you really missed the boat on this.’” A public investment, she says, would close the gap between fashion and the capital-A Arts in the public’s mind and allow fashion to start marketing itself as an art. Ideally, she would see Canadian fashion shows as something less like a corporate convention, and “functioning [more] like an opening at the Art Gallery of Ontario or at the Power Plant, which are models of public-private interaction. Think of the National Ballet. It’s not that corporate sponsorship doesn’t exist, but there’s an understanding that the logo can only be so large.”

In other words: more art, less Stuff. Toronto Fashion Week, courtesy of the taxpayers of Ontario.

* * *

On the last night of Fashion Week, fashion people gather at the Women X Women party at a gallery space on Queen West to schmooze, drink, and relax. It’s only a pitstop, though — in two weeks, the festivities will resume, and everyone will recharge for Fashion Art Toronto (FAT), a sponsor- and publicity-lite event where many students and specialty labels show their stuff. They filter in, then out, moving on to other parties where they will get the last #LGFW things they need for their blogs: photos, interviews, anecdotes. But I need a metaphor for mine, so I go home to weigh and sort the glut of promotional Stuff I have collected over the course of the week.

The Stuff weighs thirteen pounds. To put that in the context of Fashion Week, it’s about one eighth of a typical runway model, and about one tenth of Crystal Renn. In the tote bags, the Stuff had a kind of invisible power, but all ajumble on my bedroom floor, it’s as depressingly intimate as a stranger’s purse contents — less Stuff than someone’s stuff. The black lace tube bra, the Woolite packages — these could mean something to a person. They meant something to Fashion Week, and it gave them to me anyway. I actually have to swallow down a lump of guilt. Toronto Fashion Week wanted me to have its Stuff, and now I am throwing it all away.

From one of the six Power of Style magazines I have collected, Joe Mimran, the current chair of the FDCC, regards me with poorly concealed terror. It occurs to me that the maybe the best metaphor for Toronto Fashion Week is not the Stuff, but this portrait of Mimran, its most VVIP. His expression is confident, but his stance defensive; he’s moving, but we can’t tell if he’s pushing forward or being shoved back: “Woah there!” He’s all dressed up in his best Joe Fresh apparel… available at Loblaws across Canada.

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