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IMG Fashion Week Takeover

Fashion may not make the world go round, but when a fashion story makes front-page news, it makes my personal planet spin a little faster. Last week’s announcement that international management giant IMG had bought Toronto’s ‘World Master Card Fashion Week’ was boldly announced on page one of The Star, and it was a business writer that had the privilege of delivering the scoop—a story we fashion insiders had been speculating about for a while now. While the details of the sale remain a mystery—there’s been no disclosure about exactly how much IMG paid the FDCC (Fashion Design Council of Canada, which is headed up Robin Kay and Joe Mimran) for the sale—the fact that it was a business writer who broke the news illustrates what’s at the crux of fashion today. Beyond the silhouettes, fabrications, colour palettes, and struggling designers who try to re-invent the wheel each season, this is a world driven by the fortunes that can be made when all the manufacturing, retailing and marketing machinations are in synch. There is one tiny piece of the puzzle though—a key component for success: design talent. Without that vision, all the hype and grandiose production does ring hollow.

Traveling to assorted fashion weeks around the globe for almost three decades, and watching the slow and laborious growth of our own Toronto seasonal showcase, I was filled with mixed emotions when I heard the news about IMG, which had consulted for years with fashion week director and FDCC’s founder Robin Kay on how to best procure sponsorship for our shows. On one hand, I was excited that such a revered powerhouse would actually want to own our week. On the other hand, I was dismayed that we as Canadians couldn’t continue running our own ship. Yes, IMG has a Canadian arm, but at the end of the day, it’s a global enterprise. Of course, IMG’s international mandate is key to landing major sponsors, and provides the organization with enough eclectic experience to tailor-make each fashion week for the 30 or so disparate cities they service, from Berlin to Beijing. In a recent conversation with IMG’s Peter Levy, who heads up IMG Fashion worldwide, I was assured that every consideration will be given to the distinctive social flavour of our city, as IMG develops its strategy to bring us the best fashion week possible. “We see ourselves as a facilitator and enabler of opportunity,” Levy told me. “Our goal is to support and put talent on other people’s radar.” That’s probably all any of us can hope for at this precarious time in the history of Canadian fashion—a wildly challenging time, when countless international designers are clamouring for attention, and most importantly, sales.

Robin Kay, who so tirelessly and passionately ran Toronto Fashion Week for the past 13 years, knew that in order to help take our designers “to the next level”, in terms of international recognition, it was inevitable for a behemoth like IMG to take over the reigns. While Ms. Kay did have her share of detractors (with some even circulating a petition demanding her resignation a few seasons back), she soldiered on these past 26 seasons like a stoic warhorse. Fact is, as a former Canadian designer herself, Kay knew too well of the struggles our designers face. Always adamant about exposing and supporting talent, her sometimes unorthodox behaviour got her into hot water. But we who know her intimately know her heart was always in the right place. She wanted to get us all excited about fashion, and support our homegrown talent. She certainly succeeded in helping to excite us. And while all the local and national media our Toronto Fashion Week garnered did help support our Canadian talent, I often wonder how much it did—could ever do really—to entice us to buy into our own. In a world where H & M and TopShop and ZARA have become such go-to brands, can Canadian labels, other than the monster-marketer that is Joe Fresh, ever realistically compete? And with more and more American retailers coming into the fray, does our humble homegrown talent realistically stand a chance?

“I don’t think the talent pool here is big enough to even garner a big machine (like IMG),” says designer Joyce Gunhouse, who, with her partner Judy Cornish, founded the Comrags label 14 years ago. Gunhouse and Cornish have religiously presented one collection a year at Toronto Fashion Week since the beginning, but Gunhouse points out that most of these designers that have presented over the years come and go: They simply can’t sustain a business in this country. “The average person is excited about fashion,” notes Gunhouse. “But is that really creating more business (for designers)?” Gunhouse acknowledges that change is good, but claims she and Cornish are indifferent about the IMG takeover. She believes that designers will inevitably bring audiences with them, no matter where and how they show.

Personally, I’ve always believed that one of Canadian fashion’s biggest problems was the lack of international media attention—a kind of global awareness of the level of product we had to offer. IMG’s Peter Levy is promising that as his organization helps to develop and expose talent in this country, we will eventually give the world something to buzz about. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. But above all, I’m urging everyone, as I have for years, to take a good look in their closets and count their Canadian labels. If you don’t have a healthy handful, start shopping for them. If we don’t support our own talent here at home, how can we ever expect to sail in international waters? IMG has given us its vote of confidence. Now we just have to rise to the occasion. And dress for it.