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Fashion & Style

Why is it so tough for local fashion labels to stay afloat?

Posted by Amy Michelle Smith / April 25, 2013

LABEL Clothing TorontoOver the past decade or so, Toronto has made a strong name for itself in the international market as a purveyor of incredibly talented fashion designers. As one of any number of examples, Jeremy Laing has been seeing an incredible amount of Stateside success of late, having shown his last three collections at New York Fashion Week. Why is it then, that incredible talents who choose to stay local (Evan Biddell, Arthur Mendonca, Ashley Rowe and Rita Liefhebber to name a few) struggle to stay afloat in a city meant to be a vanguard of contemporary fashion and style?

One of the labels sadly affected by the difficulties of the Canadian market is LABEL Clothing, a contemporary ready-to-wear line out of Toronto, with a focus on sustainability and ease. Since 2009, designers Shawna Robinson and Natalie Syorduk have been churning out collections that have received accolades from most if not all of the major fashion publications in Canada. On the eve of their final curtain (Robinson and Soryduk will be hosting a final sample sale and closing party tomorrow at Levack Block), I spoke with co-founder Shawna Robinson to get her take on what works and what needs some work in the Toronto fashion and retail industry.

Tell us a little bit about how LABEL first started, and what you and Natalie were hoping to achieve with your brand?

LABEL started when Natalie and I met while working part time at a clothing store on Queen St. Her modeling career was slowing down, and I was doing some freelance styling work but had always wanted to have my own brand. We started talking about what we thought was missing from the contemporary market, and how we wished that there were more quality garments available in the $60 - $250 price point that weren't made of polyester, or made overseas. Essentially, we were trying to create contemporary basics with a twist, but made in Canada and sustainably designed and manufactured.

What attracted you to starting your brand in Toronto? Was it simply a means of convenience, or is Toronto really a hub for independent fashion designers?

Well, starting in Toronto was mainly due to the fact that we both lived here and had no plans to move. I think there are actually limitations to building a business in Toronto. Rents are very expensive, the production facilities that exist are incredibly expensive (and not particularly high quality) and Toronto consumers tend to support big brand names and not smaller brands. Even if you go to Montreal you'll see a huge difference in terms of support for unknown brands. Here in Toronto it's all about international brands, which is why, from day one, we were pursuing the US market.

Can you explain why it is that you decided to shut LABEL down for good?

Shawna:  Without getting too much into the dirty details, we really felt that our product offering wasn't successfully competing with other brands with a similar price point and aesthetic. LABEL was not really 'designer', more 'contemporary', and larger companies can produce similar styles with retail prices way lower than what we were able to offer. The capital investment to start a brand like LABEL is really high, and when we started LABEL we were in our early 20s and we were completely self funded. For the brand to keep going we would have had to do a major overhaul, and I don't think that Natalie or I was willing to invest that much financially or personally. We are both just ready to go on separate paths.

LABEL Clothing TorontoIs the retail industry in Toronto a part of the problem? How does (or can) Toronto's retail industry play a role in helping to sustain born-in-toronto companies? Do you think there's a way for the retailers to shape the consumer trends?

I don't think so, actually. There are so many great independent boutiques in Toronto who carry smaller brands. I think it falls to the consumer market-they don't like spending a bit more to get something unique, which then creates a problem for the retailers who have taken a huge risk in the first place in purchasing a smaller label. Customers are very price-sensitive these days, and they prefer to buy three dresses from a chain like Zara, rather than one from say, Sid Neigum. It's mass consumption at it's worst.  Obviously, I'm generalizing.

You were heavily involved with organizations like The Collections and Toronto Fashion Incubator. What role do you think supportive, funding groups like these play in Toronto's fashion industry? Are companies like this unique to Toronto?

I'm not sure that they're unique, but they're very important! Like I mentioned earlier, when Natalie and I started our business we had no business plan, no studio, no idea what we were doing.  We had a strong sense of what type of garments we wanted to offer, and the type of branding that we wanted, but other than that, we were babes in the woods. We applied for the TFI designers residency and luckily were accepted. Susan Langdon (founder of TFI) was an amazing mentor, and the TFI program is so unbelievable when you think of all the things residents get access to.

Subsidized rents, mentorship, access to equipment, it's really great for start up brands. As for The Collections, Dwayne, Mel and Brian are definitely spreading the word in terms of emerging talent in this city.  The shows that they produce are flawless, and they curate a wonderful roster of talent every year. People are paying attention, which is great for the individual designers involved, as well as the city as a whole.

LABEL Clothing TorontoIt seems as though then, that there are so many programs out there meant to foster the talents themselves, but perhaps what Toronto is missing is a way of really educating the consumer, and fostering a community of shoppers who understand the merits of shopping local. Can you speak to that?

Yeah, I think you're right.  If you go to New York, consumers want to buy the most obscure brand, they want to be the first person to be wearing something.  But here, it's not like that. Most brands invest heavily in PR in order to get Canadian media talking, just to be able to compete with the international talent that is so widely represented here in our city. Then again, I don't think that consumers should feel like they have to buy something just because it's local.  They should also love it.  So I do think it's about the designers finding their market, and playing to it.  There are many very successful designers who are based here, but sell mostly overseas, or in the US.  At the end of the day it's up to you (as a designer) to figure out where your product fits in, and then offer it there.

Correction: The intro to this article has been altered to address some factual errors regarding designers who are not, in fact, based in Toronto (Mark Fast, Erdem Moralioğlu).

Photos courtesy of LABEL clothing

Discussion

20 Comments

Mikey / April 25, 2013 at 09:42 am
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Umm... because it is a microscopic market, not known for setting trends, a la New York City?
Alex / April 25, 2013 at 09:59 am
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"[W]hen Natalie and I started our business we had no business plan, no studio, no idea what we were doing."

umm... maybe THIS is why they failed?
Karin Zee / April 25, 2013 at 10:05 am
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I just want to say thank you for this article. It is eye-opening and I have wondered the same as to why a lot of the local labels don't last. This is very insightful and I respect these ladies tremendously for their knowing when to pull out of the market. I have always wanted to start a fashion label in Toronto, but knowing this, I would definitely look elsewhere. I will look for a market that embraces the independent labels. I do agree that Toronto is all about international brands as well, which is a shame. We need to embrace our roots and the wonderful talent our city has to offer. All the best to these two!
TJ / April 25, 2013 at 10:13 am
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Haha. Isn't it obvious? Local designer clothing isn't cheap. Majority of people (who have the money) don't like to spend money on brands/labels they have never heard of. If I'm going to spend $300 on a pair of jeans, do I buy a pair with a label 99.999% of the population has never heard of or do I buy a pair of Prada/Diesel/D&G/Armani?
And for fashion forward crowd (a few of my friends), they don't have that type of disposable income to pay for local designers. They can generally find something very similar to a local designer for a fraction of the price at H&M or some other chain store.
mj replying to a comment from TJ / April 25, 2013 at 11:11 am
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@tj I disagree. In fashion, the more obscure the label and the better the story, the better for the high end market.

Those looking to conspicuously consume are not the target market of these labels. Neither are they fashionable consumers, they are trend followers.
Ashley Dunlop / April 25, 2013 at 11:13 am
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Great article. Sad to hear that Label is closing, and best of luck to Shawna & Natalie for their next step! x
Samantha Stylish / April 25, 2013 at 11:30 am
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It's very sad to hear when local labels go out of business... I've been strictly blogging about Canadian-manufactured fashion for over a year now and have worked with over 50 designers from right across Canada... I am happy to say that only one of them has closed up shop...People are becoming more interested and responsible with their shopping... I do feel Canadian-made fashion is on the rise! (yay!)
TJ replying to a comment from mj / April 25, 2013 at 11:47 am
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"In fashion, the more obscure the label and the better the story, the better for the high end market."

I believe that is only true when you've gotten amazing ringing endorsements from famous individuals international high power fashion designers. Magazines, blogs, and such media sources don't tend to work too often.
Think of the top high end labels/designers today. They are certainly not obscure. How did they build their labels/empire? Through many decades and years of hard work. A lot of "designers" today think they can be successful within a year or two. When they aren't, they run out of money and go out of business. All I am saying is you can't be a brand new no name designer in Toronto and try to compete at similar price levels as international powerhouse labels/designers.
Fashion plebe / April 25, 2013 at 12:16 pm
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I agree 100% with TJ! Canadian designers come out the gate with prices that rival international luxury label pricing. At that price level, when given a choice, I can't justify going with an unknown.
Nic / April 25, 2013 at 01:18 pm
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I love these blogs, filled with comments by people who literally have no idea what they're talking about.
Why do they fail in Toronto ? same reason as they fail the world over, it's a very tough game to get into. People fail in London, Paris and NY as well.
Why high prices as expensive as major brands ? Simple really, if you produce a lot you benefit from economies of scale and better pricing from your factories, when you're producing under 20 pieces of one style then its expensive. Also, you get orders in from stores... how do you finance the production ? This is where a lot of young designers come unstuck - treasury holes.

Good luck to those who try their luck at it. Much better than the armchair critics that inhabit these blogs ...



Shawna replying to a comment from Alex / April 25, 2013 at 02:03 pm
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That sentence of mine that you quoted was only a small part of a larger answer concerning the importance of organizations like The Toronto Fashion Incubator. I was saying that when we began our business, we had no idea what we were doing. Most designers are not business people. The Toronto Fashion Incubator helped us to get our business plan together, which allowed us expand and enjoy 5 years in the business.

Deciding to close a business to pursue other ventures doesn't have to be defined as 'failure'. What have you done recently?

Gail McInnes replying to a comment from Nic / April 25, 2013 at 02:15 pm
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Thank you Nik! Those are exactly my thoughts.
Joe / April 25, 2013 at 02:30 pm
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Hi Shawna,

Just wanted to try my luck with a question since I see there is a chance of you replying.

If you were able to get your products made over seas (at a cheaper price) would you say your chances of sucess be much higher?

How big of a factor was the cost of your product to your sucess or lack there of?

Thanks
TJ replying to a comment from Nic / April 25, 2013 at 02:58 pm
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I do completely agree with your points as well. My friend, who's currently in London, is starting her own label. I personally believe she has a huge leg up on others trying to get in because she has a Business/Management degree and worked in the business world for 3-4 years (but fashion was her passion); her father owns several food franchises here in the GTA as well as a business in India; her relatives in India are business owners with connections to factory labour and fabric; and as you probably guessed, she comes from money. Even then, its an incredibly tough business to get into.
Eric / April 26, 2013 at 06:11 am
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Speaking on behalf of the two street labels I've run out of Toronto. The article rings true. High startup cost, difficult to compete with American/corporate brands. I am very sad to hear that Label is closing, it's like hearing the death of one of my sisters.

My friend in Quebec has had much greater success with his street label, I'm always surprised at how much more supportive Quebec consumers are towards their indie brands. He came to Toronto and was shocked there are only 3 street boutiques here, while he's in 15 in Quebec.

Worst part of this whole situation? Toronto consumers would like to support local, they would like to be proud of the clothes their city is putting out. It's either we die off too early, or can't match the quality/price. But like any creative industry, we can't all survive. Then there would be no glory. I'm starting to believe it's not even about who can get to the top first, but who can survive the longest. I
Eric replying to a comment from TJ / April 26, 2013 at 06:13 am
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Aside from having money and an education, I believe the hardest part of starting a label is really connecting with your audience. I know quite a few brands with the best possible resources to start, but weren't able to succeed because they weren't adequately able to construct a communal identity around their brand. These things are almost intangible, and this is why I think many brands fail.
Deathofdesign replying to a comment from TJ / April 26, 2013 at 07:32 am
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You can have all the business 'smarts' in the world, but design is design. The simple answer why these designers are having a hard time is education. Toronto has no great institutions to support the development and creation of designers. Our design education, outside of OCAD programs, is severely lacking. Compare to other centers of fashion, Toronto designers are churning creations that seek to support a learn-while-doing mentality. This is simply to state that most 'designers' in Toronto are not designers. They practice 'design' yet aren't educated in design.
Deathofdesign replying to a comment from Shawna / April 26, 2013 at 08:06 am
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So Shawana, you cease operations because you guys cannot innovate and design better products or develop alternative aesthetics? This is a design failure, a failure to derive economic benefit from design in a competitive market.
james fowler / April 26, 2013 at 09:29 am
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if you want to swim you don't whine about the little puddle in front of you, you go to the sea, if you want to sell clothes you go to wear there are enough people to buy them. Doesn't mean your not Canadian. Erdem, Calla, Jeremy Laing, Paul Harnden, the list goes on....
The following,a borrowed quote, from a Canadian who moved to NYC in 1978: "There really is so much talent there.” She repeated. “I wish Canadian designers could be given a chance.”
But she admits that the small size and huge diversity of the Canadian fashion market, plus the inaccessibility of quality fabrics, were as much to blame for the limitations of Canadian designers as were a disinterested public and industry."
Elvia Gobbo, quoted in the Montreal Gazette July 22, 1978
not a new problem, but one which has a solution. business is business, it requires customers to pay your bills, unless you want to go hungry....
Jean McClaire replying to a comment from james fowler / April 27, 2013 at 02:21 am
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You live in the past, james flower. A past without the internet, globalized supply chains and international commerce. Canada's market place is the world, and the world's market place is in Canada. To suggest otherwise is to ignore reality. The problem with 'LABEL' as a design project was that, it was two women who had a fleeting 'passion' for fashion without the requisite training and education. They even admit it themselves, their product wasn't any more contemporary or designer than their competitors and those who they can compete with (fast fashion) was able to utilize scale to drive them out (fast fashion also has the benefit of having a stable of designers). The business strategy for them to survive would have been basically to invest personal time researching and developing for a new aesthetic. That's innovation, but that requires a desire to innovate, a desire 'LABEL' seem to have misplaced with their molasses and familiarity of mediocrity.

This doesn't mean local labels cannot survive, they can but these labels have to realize that they are competing in a globalized fashion market where local isn't necessarily better, or more innovative, or needing a 'subsidy' to support. We accept shitty indie music, support it in lieu of decent music, in hopes of facilitating the developing of those artists, but the issue here (honestly) is that there is a more dynamic forces of fashion is occurring elsewhere in the world.

This is the mentality designers need to take if they truly believe they deserve the support of local consumers, who really, in all honesty, deserve better than what the market currently provides them.

Also, as stated by these 'LABEL' chicks, to suggest that Canadian consumers do not enjoy the search is entirely misleading. Great fashion, like great art, stands up on its own. Sid Neigum is not great at all.

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