CANADIAN FASHION BUSINESS: PAST AND PRESENT

Today is a bit Throw Back Thursday and a bit Future Forecast…

The first article, from the Globe and Mail, some 34 years ago (wow, I remember reading it then, time flies) is nicely summed up by (now retired after some 30+ successful years as a Canadian Designer, but now painter,) Marilyn Brooks: “To survive as a designer you have to be daring, you have to think ahead,” says Miss Brooks, contemplating the past and the future. “You have to be willing to work out new (design) ideas. But you also have to watch the bottom line. You have to know your cash flow. I think Calvin Klein is very lucky to have his partner (business wizard Barry Schwarz). If you can have your counterpart- that’s dynamite. If you can’t, you get good people who freelance.”.

The second article, from the Financial Post, this past weekend, summed up by Patrick Assaraf, president of PYA fashion house in Toronto “Coming up with ideas is one thing; execution is the main thing,” he said. “Once a Canadian designer gets a customer base in the U.S., you have to make sure you have very, very strong financial backup and logistics.”

“There are some strong headwinds now that are favouring the export market, not the least of which is a low Canadian dollar. Plus the fact customers like to buy young designers’ work, Assaraf noted. “But they also have to know they have a serious company behind them and can produce and ship what they sell.”

In the same article Joe Mimran agrees: “The key is knowing both sides”, he said “and if you don’t have both, you need partners that can fill the gap.The business side needs the creative and the creative absolutely needs the business side. Together it’s an organism.”

Although some 34 years apart they are saying the same thing…Design Mind and Business Mind to be successful. I can trace this thought back another 18 years (that’s a total of 51 years) see the previous post; Feb 25, 2016 on CANADIAN DESIGNER: JOHN WARDEN / MAYFAIR 1965. I am seeing some success from CANADIAN DESIGNERS at home and abroad, GRETA CONSTANTINE (Kirk Pickersgill and Steven Wong, Toronto residents) have just shown in Paris and been covered by Paris Vogue and are celebrating their 10th anniversary in business. ERDEM Moralioglu resides and shows in London, and is covered constantly in all major media and is available globally through major retailers with bricks and mortar and online outlets, and he recently celebrated his 10th year by opening his eponymously named boutique in the fashionable and very expensive London neighbourhood of Mayfair. Dean and Dan Caten, residing in Milan have recently celebrated the 20th year of their globally recognized and purchased label, DSQUARED. There are more, there is growth, for which I am thrilled, but, not enough exponentially for having had this knowledge for over 50 years… My question, as we constantly hear we have so many talented designers: where are the talented business people to team up with the these talented designers, to become mutually successful?

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In a country rife with talented fashion designers, you can practically count the number of iconic international brands on one hand.

There are the pioneers, such as Simon Chang and Peter Nygård, who have become global branding empires; next generation entrants such as Kimberley-Newport Mimran of Pink Tartan fame, a label that is making waves in the Canadian and international fashion scenes. Then there are newcomers, such as Sid Neigum, hot off a series of successful fashion show competition wins and making a move outside Canadian borders with his first international showing at London Fashion Week this February.

But brand success stories are few and far between. One of the first to break the barriers was Alfred Sung. “When we met Alfred in 1979, there were no international brands. So we made it our mission to develop something we could export and license in time,” said Saul Mimran, president of Mimran Group Inc. and co-founder of the Alfred Sung brand.

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At the time he says, he and his brother — Joe Mimran of Joe Fresh fame — realized Sung had all the right elements to achieve that. “We asked each other (for) one name in Canada we would like to approach and we both said Alfred Sung. “His drawings, his presence, his marketability, his work ethic — we knew all of that would resonate.”

Still, entrepreneurial success in fashion, whether domestic or international, can be harder to come by than in other sectors. In the fashion world, startups work ridiculous hours, in many cases for little recognition or reward, Neigum said.

The problem is designers aren’t as well versed in the business side of things, he said. “The work ethic is there; but a lot of us starting out don’t know what we’re doing. Designers are trained to be designers at school; not how to run a fashion company. The business side was all very foreign to me. That’s where designers need the most help.”

“Sometimes designers don’t have all the pieces in place. They may be very good creatively but not have a business mind,” noted Carolyn Quinn, Toronto-based director for fashion for IMG events in Canada.

And sometimes designers also could be missing out on some golden opportunities. There’s no reason they can’t go international, as long as they have the right foundations in place, said Andrew Williams, CEO of DHL Express Canada. “The world is simply too big for them to ignore.”

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In truth, Canada’s domestic fashion and textiles market has matured and is growing at a mere one- to two-per-cent a year, Williams said. “Canada exports $1 billion in textiles and other related products; and of those we do export, 80 per cent of fashion and textile exports are to the U.S.

“One of the biggest barriers is infrastructure within local markets,” Williams explained. “Each one has specific customs and import rules which can be daunting for someone whose first passion is design to wrap their head around. It’s as complicated as it can get. For example there are 500 tariff codes for apparel and another 101 for footwear in Canada alone.”

Yet another challenge is the speed in which the industry operates, he said. “Going from design to production to fulfillment is critical. There’s nothing worse than pouring your heart and soul into a collection and shipping it for a show only to have it hung up at the border.”

In addition, money is hard to come by. Designers don’t have access to government funding to set up their businesses in the way developers and other types of startups have, IMG’s Quinn said. “Once you finish school, assistance ends. You have to do it on your own.”

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Industry partners such as Mercedes-Benz, Toronto Fashion Incubator and DHL are stepping up to help designers build an infrastructure for their business that will allow them to sell in Canada and start shipping internationally, Quinn said. “And with social media, designers have many opportunities to build brand recognition internationally.”

Mimran acknowledged that the landscape for young designers is vastly different today, with the potential that technology can bring. “There are fewer Canadian manufacturers, and competition has gone crazy. But in spite of the competition, the opportunities have never been greater because of improvements in manufacturing, logistics and communications.”

Patrick Assaraf, president of PYA fashion house in Toronto, who launched a line of menswear in 2011 under the PATRICK ASSARAF label, is one designer who understands the complexities of the business side. A successful importer of brands, he has had more than 25 years’ exposure to international markets, including relationships with major high-end retailers such as Saks, Harry Rosen, TNT, and luxury retailers across North America. Designers have to know what they’re getting into and be prepared to deliver, he said.

“Coming up with ideas is one thing; execution is the main thing,” he said. “Once a Canadian designer gets a customer base in the U.S., you have to make sure you have very, very strong financial backup and logistics.”

There are some strong headwinds now that are favouring the export market, not the least of which is a low Canadian dollar. Plus the fact customers like to buy young designers’ work, Assaraf noted. “But they also have to know they have a serious company behind them and can produce and ship what they sell.”

Mimran agrees: The key is knowing both sides, he said. And if you don’t have both, you need partners that can fill the gap.

“The business side needs the creative and the creative absolutely needs the business side. Together it’s an organism.”

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