…PENNIES FROM HEAVEN…KUDOS TO SUZANNE ROGERS…
Suzanne Rogers Fashion Institute bridges gap from student to career
Toronto philanthropist donates $1 million to Ryerson University to help promising graduates launch their careers in the fashion industry.
Suzanne Rogers is funding the Suzanne Rogers Fashion Institute at Ryerson University. (MELISSA RENWICK / TORONTO STAR)
Sat., Oct. 8, 2016
Suzanne Rogers’ dainty left hand, although burdened by a gob-stopper of a jewelled ring, is draped lightly across the shoulder of a fit dummy in the fourth-year design studio at the Ryerson School of Fashion. A paparazzi pro, Rogers is as still as a sculpture in her stiff, corseted black dress by Sid Neigum, one of her favourite Canadian designers.
The Toronto philanthropist has made Canadian fashion her banner cause, and this Star photo shoot marks the Oct. 8 launch of her biggest project to date: The Suzanne Rogers Fashion Institute (SRFI), a fellowship program at Ryerson University’s Faculty of Communication and Design.
A $1-million gift from Edward and Suzanne Rogers will make the Institute possible; the Rogers family is one of Ryerson’s most generous supporters and this donation brings their total gifting to $34 million over the years. The Institute will provide career-enhancing support and customized development opportunities for up to six top students and recent graduates in the fashion program.
“This is a much-needed feather in the cap for Ryerson and for the city,” says Toronto designer David Dixon, who was a star graduate of Ryerson’s program in 1993.
At this moment, when the fate of the city’s runway shows is back in the hands of individual designers to reinvent, Rogers’ investment in the future is fortuitous, he adds.
“This is the legacy project for Suzanne,” says Robert Ott, chair of the School of Fashion, who developed the concept for the Institute with her over the past two years.
“Looking for the best of Canadian fashion designers is important. Rather than shaking a student’s hand and wishing them the best in the future, this Institute bridges the gap, where school can be part of that early career.”
Fellows will be eligible for support tailored to their own career goals for up to five years.
“I would go to the mass exodus graduating fashion shows (at Ryerson),” Rogers says, “And I would wonder what these students would do next. There was such lost potential without a pathway forward.”
So she resolved to fill that gap. Just don’t call Rogers a socialite.
“It was my father-in-law (the late media mogul Ted Rogers) who told me that I would always be photographed for what I was wearing. He then told me to instead be photographed because I was the hardest-working person in the room.”
Although she says the advice was proffered casually, Rogers took it straight to heart, working first with Canadian children’s charities, which she continues to this day.
“We have raised $2.5 million with Suzanne Rogers Presents,” she says, of the fundraiser galas for which she has brought international designers — Oscar de la Renta, Marchesa and Zac Posen — to town for fashion shows. The announcement for another iteration of the gala will be made “soon” and will take place within the next year.
She also began sponsoring the Suzanne Rogers Award for Most Promising New Label at the Toronto Fashion Incubator (TFI), an honour that comes with $25,000, the largest-ever cash prize in the Canadian fashion industry.
Sid Neigum won that in 2012. Rogers recently flew to England to see him make his runway debut at London Fashion Week. Next spring will be Roger’s fifth supporting that program. She’s also a jury member of the CAFA awards.
The SRFI is “an investment in Canadian talent,” says its namesake benefactor, who plans to continue to be passionately involved. Candidates will go through a rigorous application process. Once admitted, they will receive support according to their needs.
“We are giving the very, very best a shot,” says Ott. “This is not watered down.”
The fellowship elements could include, as needed: undergraduate financial assistance; mentorship from the Distinguished Designer in Residence (the inimitable Wayne Clark); help in participating in national and international design competitions; placement at a paid internship at an international couture house; support for a graduate degree internationally (Canada does not offer graduate degrees in fashion); or the opportunity to show their collection on an international runway or other format to buyers and media.
“Sometimes,” says Ott, “all the difference in a career can be the right phone call at the right time. Sometimes, all it takes is someone who is connected. This is about helping the best of the best build their brand.”
Rogers herself could teach young designers something about personal branding. She wears of-the-moment chic and sleek gowns that contrast with her amazing trademark hair look: big, blonde and timeless as a Disney princess.
And thus she is immediately identifiable, a key component in a great brand. In many ways, Rogers is the face of Canadian fashion here and abroad.
In photos, she looks delicate enough for a breeze to blow away (though her hair would remain fixed in place). Which is why it is such a pleasant surprise that in person, her message is as well-honed and firmly delivered as any boardroom powerhouse. She does not play around.
She also has nailed down her backstory and knows its strength. Rogers and her husband, Edward have been married only 10 years and, in that short time, Suzanne has been remarkably efficient in carving out an identity and legacy.
She is aware it makes yet another great juxtaposition that she is the child of Hungarian immigrants from Elliot Lake.
“I grew up in Goodwill clothing. I remember well the first new thing my mother bought me, when I was about 10 years old: A pair of Buster Brown shoes. We would shop at flea markets, and those would be prized possessions.”
She mentions that although her life now is opulent, with summers in Muskoka where her husband’s family has a long association, she herself was first introduced to the playground of the rich and famous “cleaning toilets at the Cleveland House resort the summer I turned 20.”
The world she came from, she says, informed also by summers being dragged to art galleries by her mother visiting family back in Hungary, is what fostered her love of fashion, arts and culture.
And that connection to what “real” life was like, before couture fittings to fill her gilded closets, is what makes her want to help young designers.
“I love the energy at the school,” she says. “They are making beautiful things from the scraps they can afford at Designer Fabric Outlet. That is real creativity. And I want to make sure no potential for a career is lost.”
There is an element of making dreams come true, says Susan Langdon, the executive director of TFI, who will also sit on the advisory committee at the SRFI.
“This will grant some wishes for high achievers while they are still in school,” she says. “Obviously designers are short on cash and big on ideas. This will be a big motivator to students who want to excel.”
And Langdon thinks that like TFI, which has served as an international model for its incubator concept, the SRFI will be aspirational beyond our borders. “This is a path with merit. I’m sure other international institutions will look at this.”
Fashion designer David Dixon met Rogers at a TIFF party some years back.
“At the time, she was associated with European and American designers, but she wanted to know what was going on in Canada. I introduced her to Susan Langdon at TFI,” he recalls. “Suzanne really sunk her teeth into it, gaining an understanding of all the editing that a jury does, from sketch to final design. She gets things done. So soon enough she was saying, ‘I want something bigger.’
“This institute is the next logical step in her repertoire because she now understands the industry, and what is needed.”
Dixon hopes the government will notice this support coming from the private sector. “Fashion is an art form, it is part of our language as a nation and it needs to be nurtured and celebrated.”
For her part, Rogers is nonplussed with the glamorous part of being a fashion icon. “I’m over sitting in the front row at European fashion shows,” says Rogers.
Now, she says, it is time to roll up those (couture) sleeves and get to work back here at home.