There’s no question the fashion industry is unrecognizable from the one that existed 30 years ago, when the city of Toronto launched the Toronto Fashion Incubator to support emerging designers. Fast fashion was non-existent, owning big label designer brands was reserved for the affluential and production was only beginning to move offshore. Fashion was one of the city’s largest employers, creating jobs for 20,000.
Now we live in the era of Joe Fresh, H&M and Zara, an era where affordable mid-range designer labels have cropped up to serve the middle classes, where consumers are brand driven but price focused.
“That makes everyone who is trying to sell something in between that much more difficult to get into the market,” says TFI executive director Susan Langdon. She’s been with the incubator, which offers mentorship and space for young entrepreneurs, since 1994.
Still, the industry has grown in the city, with the fashion/apparel cluster employing nearly 50,000 people, more than half of them in manufacturing. The TFI estimates it’s created 18,000 jobs alone over its lifetime.
“We want to see people succeed and we want to see the industry succeed,” says Langdon. “Fashion is a major industrial sector for the city of Toronto, it’s a thriving and a driving economic force and we want to see that continue everybody wants to see that.”
Toronto is home to more than 550 apparel manufacturers with wholesale shipments totaling nearly $1.4 billion annually, which accounts for 16 percent of Canada’s market.
And part of growing and fostering that sector is a constantly evolving ecosystem. In addition to the TFI, other resources for budding designers and fashion entrepreneurs based in Toronto have arisen.
Four years ago, fashion entrepreneur Jodi Goodfellow launched Startup Fashion Week a not-for-profit focused on supporting the interplay between technology and fashion.
“It was such a new world, people didn’t quite understand the relationship yet,” says Goodfellow. After struggling to launch her own startup in the sphere and finding barriers with more traditional fashion weeks, she decided to launch her own to “create something that supports startups and pays attention to the crossover of fashion and technology.”
The format, which includes panels, forum talks, runway shows and network events, has evolved year-over-year, continually drawing design talent, fashion supporters and entrepreneurs from throughout North America to Toronto.
“We like to change things, keep things relevant and find areas that aren’t being addressed so that we can offer new opportunities to people,” says Goodfellow.
Ryerson’s Fashion Zone incubator has also expanded. In 2015, Joe Fresh contributed $1 million to set up the The Joe Fresh Centre for Fashion Innovation to incubate, develop and support fashion-inspired businesses.
These resources are changing the way Toronto designers grow.
“Back in 1987, the trend was for a lot of designers to leave Toronto and go elsewhere (to) make it big,” says Langdon. “Now we have all these support systems here… there are lots of opportunities where people can become famous without having to leave Canada.”
In this spotlight on Toronto’s fashion startup ecosystem, we take a look at some of the shining stars in the scene: the positive messaging behind Black Orchid and Wear Your Label; brave new designers like House of Anesi, Miriam Baker; styling game changers like Stylu and Stylist Box; and forward looking accessory designers like RADLEY, Foxy Originals, and BHF Empire.
“There’s no question Toronto is the fashion startup capital of Canada,” says Langdon.
StartUp Spotlight on: Toronto’s Fashion Startup Ecosystem
We start this series with a look at Foxy Originals and their well-designed but affordable costume jewelry made in Toronto. Check back to learn about other Toronto-based fashion startups.