Katrina Clarke | October 29, 2016 | Toronto Star
When Marie-Eve Emond started designing clothes, she wanted her friends to actually be able to afford them.
But that wasn’t easy.
“I wanted to have the highest quality possible,” said the Montreal-based designer behind the Betina Lou clothing line, available in Toronto at Coal Miner’s Daughter and Victoire. To do that and keep her prices affordable — around $200 for a dress or jacket, she would have a very narrow profit margin. The challenge includes balancing quality and quantity and costs — rent, staff, supplies, keeping clothes ethically-made in Canada, and getting noticed in the first place.
Fashion is a competitive field with a huge range of price points. Independent Canadian designers have to eke out a living somewhere between the high end haute couture market of say, Giorgio Armani, and the lower end fast-fashion factories the likes of H&M, all in the relatively small Canadian market.
The goal is to find the sweet spot and then convince Canadian fashion lovers to shop locally.
“Canadian designers have to be really smart. We’re already up against some very well-known brands and a lot of these brands have huge margins and enormous marketing budgets,” said Michelle Germain, the founder of Shopgirls, a Toronto clothing boutique that sells Canadian-designed clothing. She is also a co-designer of a clothing line called Ninety-eight. “We have to pay attention to the quality of the product … and the longevity of the styles we’re designing.”
Germain says the real difficulty is convincing Canadian shoppers to look for local designers when they’re in the market for a new outfit or that special garment.
“It’s like Canadians won’t support Canadian designers until they’re recognized somewhere else,” she said. Toronto designer Jeremy Laing, for example, didn’t truly gain popularity until he presented his collection in U.S. fashion shows and earned praise from U.S. media.
“It’s like (consumers) need that kind of validation,” Germain said.
Adding to that is the sticker shock that hits shoppers who enter a store stocked with local independent designer pieces when they are accustomed to the fast fashion prices they see at stores such as Joe Fresh and H&M.
Design experts say these shoppers are missing the bigger picture.
“Affordability — it’s a weird term,” said Henry Navarro, an assistant professor with Ryerson’s School of Fashion.
Navarro stresses that when talking about the cost of a piece of clothing, consumers must think holistically, looking beyond the price tag.
“When you get something for a really low price, the question is, ‘How is that possible?’ ” he said. “Who was exploited or what was exploited in order for that price to be so low.”
Factors that come into play when an independent designer prices a garment include: where the garment was made, the quality of the product, payment to staff, landlords and marketers and miscellaneous overhead costs.
“That’s an educational component that consumers, in general, often times don’t fully grasp,” he said.
And while incidents such as the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,000 workers, put exploitative outsourcing for clothing into the headlines, customers continue to shop with the price tag foremost in mind, said Navarro.
He says there is a gap in the availability of “affordable” clothes altogether in the Canadian design market. Partly contributing to this is the fact that some design students are lured by perceived glamour and prestige into designing for the high-end fashion market exclusively, skipping “affordable” clothes altogether, he said.
But there is a sweet spot: when the items are well made and not exorbitantly priced, customers are willing to pay more. And designers like Emond are juggling to hit it.
“(My customers) prefer to buy less and keep it for a longer time,” said Emond, whose business is now seven years old. Her designs are carried locally at Coal Miner’s Daughter and at Victoire Boutique on Ossington Ave. “They don’t change style every three months, so they can invest in a piece of clothing a bit more.”
Emond said her clientele are young, creative professionals who want good quality, everyday clothes — read: timeless, not trendy — and who care about buying ethically made items. All her clothes are made in Quebec, and are sold at 20 retailers in Canada, the United States and Hong Kong, as well as her storefront in Montreal. Most garments are priced between $100 and $200.
While some designers might be tempted to increase their prices in the hopes of widening their profit margins, Emond knows that strategy could backfire, alienating her loyal consumer base.
Still, it is tough for Canadian designers to get noticed on the international stage.
The cancellation of Toronto Fashion Week, announced this summer, seemed to mark a step back for Canadian designers, too. While the cost of entering such an event made it prohibitive for independent designers without some kind of financial backing to participate, it is the loss of a showcase for Canadian fashion.
“Even though it elevates the profile of a line … it’s a really expensive event,” said Hayley Gibson, the Toronto-based designer behind the Birds of North America clothing line, who never participated in Toronto Fashion Week because it would have cost her thousands of dollars to book a show.
For these small independent designers, a big boost in notoriety and sales can come if a high profile person, such as the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton or Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, wears your label. During the royal couple’s September tour of Canada, Middleton wore a $1,195 coat by Toronto-based designer Bojana Sentaler. It sold out within hours.
But not everyone wants the “Kate effect.”
“It’s kind of a mixed blessing, that sort of thing,” said Gibson. “There would be nothing worse than being swamped with orders and having to put out an inferior product.”
Gibson admits the thought of instant fame is appealing. “I’m sure it would skyrocket your profile,” but she is more interested in the long game — establishing a loyal clientele who will love her clothing in the long-term.
But behavioural shifts take time, as Shopgirls owner Germain has noted.
“We’ll have customers come in with Michael Kors bags … and they probably spent $400 on that ugly bag,” said Germain. “And they’re complaining about a $150 shirt that’s made in Toronto. Come on, man.”