PLAYING DRESS-UP WITH THE BIG BOYS

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By Truc Nguyen

Some of Canada’s most important fashion buyers and media will gather at the Liberty Grand near Exhibition Place this Wednesday for the biannual L’Oréal Fashion Week. Many will be there to check out the fall/winter 2007 collection from local fashion label Comrags, designed by Ryerson graduates Joyce Gunhouse and Judy Cornish.

Although they have a flagship store on Queen Street and established retail relationships spanning more than two decades in the industry, these designers still consider runway presentations to be one of the most important promotional tools.

“It is always exciting and inspiring to launch a collection on the runway,” writes Gunhouse and Cornish in an e-mail. “We can have a bit more fun with design and focus on the more forward pieces of our collection.”

The story of how Gunhouse and Cornish met as Ryerson fashion arts students in 1980 and have been in business ever since is practically a part of Canadian fashion lore — it is even documented on the label’s website. The pair, who showed their first collection in August of 1983, are an often-cited and true example of successful independent designers in Canada.

“The one secret to our success is to never say never,” reveal Gunhouse and Cornish.

Such success stories are increasingly rare, however, in Canada’s small fashion industry. Although the fashion design program at Ryerson remains highly competitive and prestigious, it’s clear that many graduates and students would rather pursue employment with mass-market brands and established designers than create their own collection after graduation.

“Initially after graduation, I considered staying in Canada to start a label,” says ‘06 design grad Joanna Song, who is currently working in New York City. “But the reality remains that the pool of consumers willing to support and buy Canadian designer goods is so small.”

Fourth-year fashion student Julianna Haveman has a similar view on the local prospects for young designers, especially those without financial backing and student loan debts.

“It’s just not worth the endless hours and struggling,” she explains. “The whole point for most people when buying designer clothing is having that brand name on it, which is something I just can’t compete with.”

Besides recent graduates Arthur Mendonça and Lucian Matis, most Ryerson-affiliated designers who are showing at this year’s fashion week graduated long before Ryerson was even recognized as a university.

In the 24 years since Comrags has been in business, many new challenges have blocked the path of success for young, aspiring designers. From the rising cost of tuition to globalization, financial and practical barriers now exist for designers who want to strike out on their own in Canada’s very small retail market.

“You seem to need a rich mate, a rich family or support from political parties to even start your own label today,” jokes Letty Lam, an ‘05 graduate who is currently working in Toronto for a mass-marketed brand.

“As more and more production shifts overseas, even the breadth of materials available for small start-up companies is very limited,” Lam points out. “More importantly, fashion is not supported by the government, nor is it considered a serious and viable business sector and a source of civic pride in Canada.”

This sentiment is echoed by Linda Lewis, chair of Ryerson’s School of Fashion.

“There doesn’t seem to be a commitment from the media, business and finance to create an indigenous Canadian industry,” she admits. “The economic incentive isn’t there.”

So this week, as members of the Toronto fashion industry celebrate their best and brightest, perhaps there is more to talk about than the latest trends and colours for fall.

Tomorrow’s success stories are in today’s classrooms, and the industry must consider how to better support and encourage young designers and renew faith in a fashion system inundated with European fast-fashion chains and American mega-brands.

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