True grit, heart of steel, quick wit and creative genius … a great designer has to check all of those boxes. Add to that the challenge of achieving financial success in an undervalued industry in a country as small as Canada. I was thinking about all of these issues at the Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards in Toronto last week. The gala celebrated a new generation of talent at a time when the path forward has never been brighter. “What the world needs now is more Canada,” noted Fashion Vanguard Winner, Imran Amed, founder of the Business of Fashion. And he’s right. With our multi-cultural background and positive approach, the time is here for Canadian businesses to build their brands and expand around the globe. And it helps that we’ve got a high profile ambassador, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, on side.

After being a front row observer of this fiercely competitive business for 30+ years, here are a few of my observations and tips for the road ahead:

Successful siblings: Byron and Dexter Peart of Want Les Essentiels with Chloe and Parris Gordon of Beaufille. Photographed at the Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards.

Support system: Whether it’s family (a twin or creative sibling helps) or a business partner, make sure you have a strong support network. In Canadian fashion, more often than not, it’s family who band together to financially and emotionally support young creatives. Want Les Essentiels and Beaufille are two perfect examples of tightly knit families. Who is on your team? Few individuals can be both brilliant designers AND savvy business analysts. Surround yourself with people who fill in your weak spots. I’ve seen too many talented creatives fail because they didn’t have the skill bases they needed (mainly operations and finances) covered. 

Get Out of Your Own Way: And the sad part is many creative types don’t want to listen to practical business ideas. For fear of watering down their artistic vision, they block their mind to ideas such as including more commercial pieces alongside their spectacular runway designs. I’ve watched too many design houses go bust because the creator felt like his artistic integrity was being compromised. Every collection needs both cake and frosting. The cake is the bread and butter – skirts, trousers and basic pieces – that support the spectacular runway frosting. I like to remind new designers that in my visits to Paris design studios where (at Commes des Garcons and Balenciaga for example), the runway designs rarely get produced. What sells is the more wearable versions inspired by the runway exits.  

Bojana Sentaler, courtesy of Sentaler

Pick it and be it: Like so many other successful Canadian designers (Smythe to Tanya Taylor), Bojana Sentaler started her Toronto-based business by focusing on one category – outerwear in soft alpaca. Her ribbed sleeve wrap jacket has become her design signature.

If you try to be everything to all people, you’ll lose focus and end up with nothing that connects with your customer base. Like Sentaler, be exceptional at that one clear focus and expand once you’ve nailed it again and again.  

Vanessa Mulroney, Tanya Taylor, Mosha Lundstrom Halbert (all wearing Tanya Taylor) with me at CAFA. Photo, George Pimentel

Another example – Tanya Taylor has become known for her exclusive colourful prints. She’s risen quickly in the competitive New York design scene and is a favourite of Michelle Obama. 

Sid Neigum, courtesy of the designer

Think globally: I watched Sid Neigum’s career explode after he won the Toronto Fashion Incubator’s New Labels competition in 2012. What impressed me then, as one of the judges, continues to impress me five years later. The Alberta native has always had an international perspective with both his sculptural design sensibility and business savvy. He’s always been thoughtful in his approach – his collections are cohesive from start to finish, and he’s always looking ahead at new opportunities. 

I'm with Stephen and Kirk at a trunk show

Give the customer what she wants: I’ve been a fan of Stephen Wong and Kirk Pickersgill since they launched Greta Constantine a decade ago. One thing that stands out is their dedication to their customers. While I was at Holt Renfrew, I worked closely with them on countless custom orders. I was always impressed by how seamlessly they alter pieces and colour choices to a client’s preferences. The loyalty and lifelong relationships that builds is priceless. No wonder I always notice a sea of their stunning pieces at every black tie event. 

I'm with Lucian Matis. Photo, George Pimentel

Be consistent: Minimalist one season, OTT maximalist the next season is not only confusing, it’s not a smart way to build a brand. I’ve known Lucian Matis since his days on Project Runway Canada back in 2009. While his style has matured and evolved, he’s always been consistent in his passion for detail. You won’t get a boring little black dress from him. Instead, he’s become known for his embellishments, lush fabrics and feminine silhouettes that his customers adore. 

A Fall 2017 runway dress by Erdem in a trunk show at The Room

Quality is everything: Erdem’s dresses are breathtaking – from the fit to the fabric. Granted, it’s not fair to compare to Erdem’s quality with a fledgling designer, but you get one chance at a first impression. I’ve lost count of the number of times, I’ve seen promising designs that up close disappointed due to crappy fabric that is then poorly sewn. I recently threw away an $800 skirt by a Canadian designer that I wore a handful of times. Why? Poor quality fabric with a cheap lining that was literally falling apart.

Mikhael Kale and models at Toronto Fashion Week, 2015

Know your customer: It’s the first and most important rule in any business. Who is your customer? Mikhael Kale has always been crystal clear about his sexy fashion forward attention-seeker. She’s first and foremost in his mind – that’s obvious in everything from his garment’s details to the hair and makeup on the models in his shows. 

I met a promising designer once who was looking for a financial backer. Her collection was a confusing mix of styles in poor quality fabrics that were badly sewn. (A professional pressing makes a world of difference.) When I questioned who her customer was (I couldn’t tell), she told me that she needed the money from the financial backer to hire a consultant to help figure that out. Go figure.

From what I saw as a judge of CAFA (my fourth year), the future is very bright for the Canadian fashion industry. I’ll be sharing my ideas on that in future posts but want to leave you with one thought. Every seat at the 700+ guest dinner featured a paddle with the hashtag #WearCanadaProud. It was a good reminder that in order to make this industry successful, we have to put our money behind it. Buy it and wear it – it’s that simple.