The Joe Fresh Center for Fashion Innovation.

Now the Toronto-based business incubator, which sprang to life because of a $1 million investment from apparel retailer Joe Fresh — is readying for the April reveal of its second round of start-ups that will fill up to 21 residences in this 18-month mentorship program.

But before these winners were revealed, the flood of ideas pitched by applicants has revealed some noteworthy trends to Joe Fresh executives and center partner, Ryerson University.

“We’ve seen some very cool ideas for high-tech accessories, as well as the development of fashion-inspired protective equipment from sports company start-ups,” said Robert Ott, executive director of the Joe Fresh Centre for Fashion Innovation and chair of the Ryerson School of Fashion.

“We’ve also seen some very intriguing ideas for special online interest magazines that involve fashion, as well as full-service online agencies that handle the logistics of distribution and other tasks confronting designers. But now this would all be done virtually,” Ott said.

What has been particularly striking this time around, however, “is the heightened sense of social awareness and activism that these entrepreneurs are bringing to their work,” said Ott. “We’ve also seen nearly double the number of applicants compared to last year. That leap says volumes about the interest in what we are doing here at this center — and the need for it.”

The Joe Fresh Centre for Innovation is not the first incubator program to launch in Canada. For almost three decades, the Toronto Fashion Incubator has played a role in fostering young talent, including the careers of such Canadian designers as David Dixon, Joeffer Caoc, Sunny Fong and Sid Neigum. But according to Joe Fresh president Mario Grauso, this new center for innovation offers the industry something different.

The Joe Fresh Center for Fashion Innovation.
The Joe Fresh Center for Fashion Innovation.

“Other incubators do exist, but their focus is exclusively on fashion design. We take a broader view of things,” said Grauso. “We look for business ideas that are fashion-inspired, but cross into technology, cosmetics and other realms.”

Modeled after Ryerson’s award-winning DMZ incubator program, which is one of Canada’s largest business incubators for emerging tech start-ups, entrepreneurs work side-by-side in The Joe Fresh Zone. According to Grauso, this environment “gives people incredible exposure to ideas and to problem solving.”

“We look at fashion through a wider lens, so it’s not just about re-creating some product that already exists on the market. It’s about moving all kinds of great ideas from the online world into the real world through the use of technology,” Ott explained.

In October, six fledgling start-ups settled into the first residencies offered by the Joe Fresh Centre for Fashion Innovation. The lineup included Blanc de Noir, maker of gender-neutral leather shoes, bags and knitwear, as well as Wear Your Label, a socially conscious, gender-neutral start-up that creates T-shirts and bracelets promoting more conversation about mental health.

Other first-round picks included House of Formen, an organic men’s skin-care and cosmetics line; StyleID, a free app that helps fans find and buy styles worn on TV shows; the personalized mobile app Klothed, which does apparel shopping and style-planning for men; and, finally, Love Winter, a footwear start-up that makes neon-bright, water-repellent felt boots with removable galoshes for harsh weather seasons.

Winners received start-up funding of up to 50,000 Canadian dollars, or $37,000; access to work spaces, high-tech equipment and amenities, and mentorship from Joe Fresh, its parent Loblaw Corp. and Shoppers Drug Mart executives.