Written by Andrew Seale

The year was 2009, the show Gossip Girl was a hit and prep style was in so Toronto designer Erin Fitzpatrick decided to start a headband business to capitalize on the buzz. But she had no idea she’d catch the eye of the Bishop Strachan School in Toronto, Canada’s oldest girl prep school.

They wanted her to design a collection “in the same vein as Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girls.”

“I created a custom collection for them and it was a hit,” recalls Fitzpatrick. “I started going to all the private schools across Canada.”

As her offerings evolved over the next few years, Fitzpatrick added jewelry and accessories for men like cufflinks, items that could be purchased or gifted to both staff and students at some of the country’s most well-known institutions. She changed the company name to RADLEY in 2014. But at its core, every piece clung to that original ethos: school pride and storytelling.

“(It’s) about the story that jewelry tells, its something close to your heart… to commemorate that moment,” she says.

Born in Calgary, Fitzpatrick drew a lot of her early inspiration for the pieces she designed from time lived in London when she was younger.

“Even public schools had very specific uniforms… right down to the socks – everything was very much part of the uniform,” she says. “My years there definitely inspired me.”

Back in Canada, she studied biology at Queens University but she knew it wasn’t her passion.

“I would find myself constantly sketching creating things, putting together jewelry and selling it at the student store,” she says. “I was able to do this side business, make money from it and get to see all my friends and people in classes wearing my dresses and jewelry which was really exciting.”

She participated in fashion shows, won top independent designer two years in a row and started an internship at a fashion magazine. “I absolutely loved it.”

Around that time she head about Enterprise Toronto’s Summer Company mentorship and funding program. Using the funding she was able to launch her original hair accessory brand.

“That was a pivotal moment where I was debating should I do it or not… I had a summer in between schooling so I used that grant to get my kickstart and it really catalyzed the whole process,” she says. “My company probably wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for those resources.”

As she’s grown over the years she’s leaned on the Toronto Fashion startup ecosystem to expand her reach and propel her into over 100 institutions in North America, like Princeton, Cornell, Queen’s, McGill, Upper Canada College and Havergal College.

She continues to expand her presence, moving into new markets like private label jewelry and British riding jacket inspired backpacks and tech cases – all from her studio in the Toronto Fashion Incubator.

“It’s shocking to me first that we are the first fashion incubator of this kind in the world,” says Fitzpatrick, adding that she’ll often catch tours passing through from different fashion communities around the world who’ve come to see the space. “(Some) have actually founded their own incubators based on our model – it’s really exciting that Toronto, even though we’re such a young city, we were the first.”

Photos: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)