Arts & Culture

The Canadian School

A new generation of designers marries the local with the avant-garde

by
Illustration by Thomas Libetti

• 2,414 words

Illustration by Thomas Libetti

Just over a year ago, Jeremy Laing, a young fashion designer from Toronto, was in Florence, where he found himself thinking about the Old Masters and the discovery of perspective. It seemed poignant that painters had then made the leap from two-dimensional to three-dimensional representation. Laing, who comes up with many of his ideas in response to specific technical challenges, wondered if there was a corresponding jump to be made in fashion. Back home, he consulted with an architecture student from the University of Waterloo; working with software normally used to design corridors and rooms, the two came up with a cocktail dress that incorporates a vanishing point (in garment terms, this means a dress with a central focus from which the design and the print ray out). For fall-winter 2010, Laing produced an evolved version of the dress, collaborating with another Canadian designer, Calla Haynes, on a print that borrows from the tradition of Haida art—a strong, graphical style popularized in the ’60s by West Coast artists like Bill Reid.

Laing wanted to make high fashion that was tacitly Canadian. “One of the things I’m interested in is the idea of a national aesthetic, ” he said, a couple of months after the dress was shown to critical acclaim at New York’s Milk Studios. “Why don’t we know what that is? ” Unlike Sweden or France, whose aesthetic cultures help to frame their national identities (think of Ikea, or Chanel), Canada is not a fashion country; our biggest contributions to the clothing world have been Hudson’s Bay Company furs and, more recently, those ubiquitous Olympic mittens. If Laing could make designer fashion that was “Canadian,” it would be positively avant-garde. That’s what a designer’s designer—as opposed to a producer of mass-market wear—really aims for. Laing, like a handful of creators whose names are hallowed in the field (Rei Kawakubo, Dries Van Noten), takes an intellectual approach to fashion. His objective is not so much to set trends, but to advance our concept of what fashion is.

To observers, the idea of a Canadian avant-garde is an unlikely, if delightful, proposition, but Laing is a rule breaker in more ways than one. He was in his mid-twenties when, after working in London for Alexander McQueen (the brilliant and provocative designer who committed suicide earlier this year), he showed his first collection in New York. He didn’t wait to establish himself in Canada before looking south for buyers; nor was he discouraged by the fact that New York fashion week is essentially closed to unknown designers; he simply showed his collection off-site, making sure the right people heard about it. Before long, his cool, intellectual style was accepted by the fashion elite. He has since been covered in the New York Times and profiled in Interview. This spring, his first trip to Los Angeles was blogged about at vogue.com.

Given the quality of his work, to say nothing of his work ethic, you’d think Laing, now thirty, would have succeeded anywhere. So it’s interesting to find him in Toronto, working out of a rundown studio in Parkdale that smells, to me at least, a little of mouse. At any given time, there might be just a handful of people—Laing, his assistant, and his press agent—working to get his $1,050 dresses to socialites in Texas and Dubai.

In the fashion world, only a handful of creative capitals—Paris and Milan and, to a lesser degree, New York and London—really count. Their top shows are the ones that get reported on; respectfully imitated or carelessly knocked off; and, in one way or another, mass produced. But recently a growing number of Canadian designers have been treating these locales like training grounds: attending Ivy League–equivalent fashion institutions (London’s Central Saint Martins, New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology), working for big-name designers to gain experience, then coming back home to create local fashion with an international scope. Laing is joined by Abel Muñoz, who studied shoe design in Milan and now painstakingly hand-makes $800 footwear. Ken Chow emerged from an internship with Marc Jacobs with Krane Bag, a highbrow line of messenger bags made from waxed canvas. Virginia Johnson studied at Parsons and worked for Helmut Lang, returning from New York in 2001 to start her own line of dresses and shawls. Season to season, they take on impressions from her travels in Canada and abroad the way leaves are pressed between the pages of books: acorns and geese, camels and tropical fruit. Johnson operates out of a small store on Ossington Avenue in Toronto, not far from Laing’s studio. And like Laing’s, her designs belie the up-and-coming neighbourhood in which they were conceived: her brand is carried at Barneys and in the kind of LA and Miami boutiques frequented by the denizens of Us Weekly.

“There is no particular teacher or fashion school in Canada that they owe their styles to,” writes Laura Minquini, a Paris-based trend forecaster, on her Canadian School fashion blog. “But they all come from Canada, and never before has the country exported so much rising talent.” It’s big news. There was a time when success for a young designer here necessarily meant moving away. Canadians who wanted careers in high fashion disappeared into the ranks of fashion houses in bigger cities: take Dean and Dan Caten, identical twins from Willowdale, Ontario, who went to work for Italian labels like Versace before launching their own line, Dsquared2. Meanwhile, most graduates of fashion programs at Toronto’s Ryerson or Vancouver’s Kwantlen would count themselves lucky to land nine-to-five jobs designing department store pyjamas (Laing’s first bread-and-butter gig was for the Hudson’s Bay Company, where he worked for three years between graduating from Ryerson and working for McQueen).

In part, the change is a local manifestation of the democratization of fashion worldwide. Thanks to websites like style.com, which catalogue all the important designer collections, and the many bloggers who are upstaging magazine editors as the arbiters of style, emergent designers in Canada and elsewhere can find larger audiences for their work and develop international profiles. At the same time, due to globalization—which has made the same blue-chip designer labels (Chanel, Tiffany) available on every city’s shopping strip—originality now verges on a fetish for some high fashion buyers. A good Canadian designer can distinguish his or her work by making it unique, perhaps by drawing from local inspirations.

Canada may not be a fashion country, but it does have a fashion industry, albeit a beleaguered one, and the success of Laing and his colleagues has relatively little to do with it. For many years, Canadian fashion has suffered from the factors that haunt many of our cultural industries: collections are often derivative, their presentation unimpressive; and Canadians, not to mention foreigners, rarely buy the clothes. The world’s major fashion weeks are frenzied showcases displayed before retail buyers and the media, but Toronto’s LG Fashion Week is largely characterized by half-filled bleachers and a mostly dutiful crowd. When I first started reporting on the shows almost ten years ago, it was a shock to see that the models’ legs bore the unmistakable signs of their first shaves’ razor burn. Symbolic of a fledgling industry, the girls were beginners, their older (perhaps more promising) sisters having gone to larger cities and left them holding the bag.

But at the most recent Toronto Fashion Week last March, fashion editors, bloggers, and buyers filed into the dressed-up CNE grounds for the only show one ever has to fight for an invite to. When the lights dimmed, a thousand heads turned simultaneously, the way a flock of Canada geese will reorient itself in unison, as if on cue. To a soundtrack of contemporary hits—not Muzak, as is often the case—models flown in from more important fashion weeks took to the runway. Decked out in sweatpants and blazers, (faux) furry purses, and enormous horse-sized ponytails, they proposed endless permutations of the trends you could imagine a teenage girl whining to her mother for on a Saturday grocery run (or the same mother, shopping exhaustedly on a weeknight, treating herself to as a quick way of recapturing the fun of life as a teenage girl). This line, Joe Fresh Style, is produced by Loblaws.

Joe Fresh launched in 2006 and, as if by hype alone, almost immediately became one of the most successful labels in Canadian fashion history, winning over devotees of cheap and cheerful brands like Zara and H&M, and convincing hardened fashion editors to run, not walk, to buy $25 ballet flats, bypassing parking lot skids of fertilizer and garden hose in the process. The line is the work of creative director Joseph Mimran, founder of Club Monaco and still the closest Canada has ever come to a Ralph Lauren or a Calvin Klein. As shown with his previous franchises (Club Monaco in fashion, Caban for home), Mimran has a gift for designs that are both distillations of timeless classics (the trench, the pencil skirt) and the trends that designers like Marc Jacobs charge much more for.

It takes the kind of money and experience that Mimran—who sold Club Monaco to Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. in 1999 for $52.5 million—possesses to market a collection this well. Joe Fresh offers those of us who follow Canadian fashion something we’ve always wanted: a presentation that seemingly meets what we see in imported magazines and foreign runway shows. To witness it feels a bit like watching one of our Olympic athletes bring home the gold. Never mind that Joe Fresh clothing falls apart too soon, or that the fits are cut for the lowest common denominator, a rather short, boxy type. And shoppers would be forgiven for not wanting to know how an $8 T-shirt is made.

Fashion production is often thought of as a creative process. In reality, success—at least, commercial success—involves convincingly pitching a line to buyers and media, who then convince us, the consumers, to buy in. Designers’ opportunities are limited by market sensibility. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Joe Fresh is a relatively easy sell in no-frills Canada: low prices for style that’s been pre-approved elsewhere. The divide between its runway and its retail presentation is not lost on tastemakers: writing for the Huffington Post, Globe and Mail columnist Amy Verner described it to foreigners as “Target or Tesco producing a line that generates local buzz equivalent to a Marc Jacobs or Prada show.” But it almost doesn’t matter. The flushed crowd at the last show wasn’t necessarily cheering on Joe Fresh. They were cheering us, for having at last won the medal.

Joe Fresh’s success won’t do much to help the aspiring designers’ designers who show at Canadian fashion weeks, most of whom are not trying to outfit the masses, but to help them ascend beyond polar fleece to a world where sweeping ball gowns are de rigueur. But it’s hard to convince Canadians accustomed to international brands to switch to local equivalents and, quite possibly, pay more for them. This sounds a lot like the artist’s lament from time immemorial, and in some ways it’s worse: unlike writing music or fiction, which can be accomplished by one person with the right combination of dedication and ingenuity, fashion is a collaborative art form that entails considerable start-up expenses. In a way, the first skill a designer really needs is to learn how to run a business. Starting a line is similar to making a movie, with comparable barriers to entry. In the end, you can produce a short film—or a collection of canvas totes—for $10,000 to $50,000, but chances are you’ll always be overshadowed by the Hollywood blockbuster. If you want to be a player, you’ll probably have to move to Hollywood. And that’s what most Canadian fashion designers have done, from Dsquared2 to Calla Haynes, who recently launched a collection in Paris.

But designers like Jeremy Laing are working in a new, and relatively untried, model. They tend to run small, specialized operations out of low-overhead neighbourhoods like Vancouver’s Strathcona and Toronto’s Parkdale. Their livelihoods are enabled by FedEx accounts, and the relatively few international buyers who can afford designer clothing but whose tastes stretch beyond Prada. Business is keyed to production rather than promotion. The downside is that, like all forms of artisanal workmanship, this approach doesn’t provide the same return as, say, the hit everyone was wearing last year. (The dress that Laing laboured over received a single order, for just two dresses—from a store in Australia.) But if it makes for a hardscrabble existence, it also comes with less creative compromise. Canada, with its low rents and relative lack of competition, is for nascent fashion designers what Virginia Woolf prescribed for women writers: a room of one’s own.

In a perfect world, a Canadian designer could be as innovative as Laing and as successful as Joe Mimran. As it stands, the familiar gap between creative and commercial success is further polarized in Canada, with its relatively small population. For many years, national culture producers have thought the solution was to professionalize: to make and promote cbc dramas that emulated Hollywood movies, to model garments on American and European trends and present them with pomp and circumstance. But one doesn’t have to be the biggest to be the best; one only needs to have something to say, and to say it originally. Judging from some of our oddball darlings in other disciplines—musicians like Feist and Broken Social Scene, artists like the Winnipeg Royal Art Lodge—this is precisely where Canada excels. This country’s new designers may not be household names. But, working in the outsider tradition, they do us proud.

This appeared in the September 2010 issue.

Jessica Johnson (@thegoodshopper) is a senior editor at The Walrus, a National Magazine Award-winning writer, and a former books editor of Saturday Night and the National Post.

Thomas Libetti was included in the thirty-first edition of American Illustration.