FORT Apparel

Designer Files: Toronto T-Shirts by FORT Apparel Mark Their One Year Anniversary

Is there an iconic Toronto t-shirt? New York flaunts its famous I Love New York one. Since some like to refer to this city as the other center of the universe shouldn't we at least have something similar to show for ourselves?

Well, we do, kind of.....There's the I Love T.O. option, I Bike T.O. for cycling enthusiasts and, fresh off celebrating their one year anniversary this month, the bold, aggressive designs created by FORT Apparel.

With fans from The Hour's George Stroumboulopoulos to Score Media's Cabbie Richards, FORT has managed to tap into a certain niche market for their designs. There are three versions to choose from. It all sounds like more than enough for founder and designer Trevor Crane to handle, all the while trying to learn about the fashion industry and balance his day job. Recently I caught up with Trevor to find out more about his Toronto-focused t-shirt brand one year in the making.

This month marks the 1 year anniversary of the FORT Apparel brand. What are 2-3 of the biggest challenges you've faced in making it this far?

As a newcomer to the clothing game, the biggest challenge I've faced in the last year is connecting with the resources required to produce a quality garment. Lacking those key relationships in the start, I've had to learn a lot through very expensive trial and error. That said, even something as simple as the FORT Apparel label on our sleeves makes me proud because I know how many hours I spent researching and sampling to make it complete.

I should also point out that I've been fortunate along the way in receiving some key introductions and guidance from some very experienced people in the industry. There is a culture of mutual respect and support within the clothing business and even though it took me a while to meet the right people, their guidance has been invaluable.

Second on the list has to be the many challenges that come along with being essentially a one man operation. While my girlfriend is amazing with the numbers and my family and friends have never said no when I needed a hand, I definitely underestimated the kind of commitment that goes into starting a retail business on your own.

Combined with a demanding day job that I dedicate myself to 110%, I've found myself juggling my free time and FORT on a constant basis. When the work day ends, I typically find myself trying to balance all the work for FORT (online order fulfillment, site maintenance, publicity and relationship building etc) with my free time. On the positive side, I have to admit that I'm getting a lot more organized and better with the time management as a result of the balancing act.

Why have you decided to focus your designs on obvious (one might say cliche) Toronto images like the CN Tower and Skydome? What is it about these landmarks that you feel will appeal to potential customers?

FORT Apparel's focus from the start has been the strong identity that exists in Toronto. While I can see those images being seen as cliche to some, there is a culture in Toronto for which those images are some of the most symbolic of our city's identity.

As a Toronto native myself, I am proud that Toronto's skyline is one of the most recognizable in the world and feel it was an appropriate foundation for my Toronto-centric designs. As I build a larger audience and greater resources for the brand, you will see more creative license with the Toronto identity and deviation from the more recognizable city images.

Home Field Advantage, honoring The Audience installation adorning the Skydome, was my first step in this direction and I'm happy to see that it is being very well received. Toronto is a huge city with a really complex identity, so I think both our customers and potential customers alike will continue to enjoy how we explore that identity and showcase the city in seasons to come.

I notice you print on Alstyle brand t-shirts. Aside from cost, were there any reasons you decided not to go with a sweatshop free brand like American Apparel, a local brand like Shared, or an organic option?

When I set out to create a clothing brand, one of my main goals was to create a product that I would purchase myself had I stumbled across it hanging in a store. In researching garments, I found that Alstyle was used by a lot of the brands that I had hoped to emulate from both a quality and fitting perspective and decided that they were also a good fit for my own brand.

I took a look at American Apparel and organic options as well, but I found that their fit wasn't what I was looking for and as mentioned, the costs were extremely prohibitive to me as an individual starting a brand with personal funds. As I work on expanding the line's offerings, we'll just have to see what the future holds.

You currently sell some t's at Stolen Riches and previous to that at Lounge on John St. Are you trying to expand to other retail locations? How tough is it to get some shelf space in stores around the city?

We're actually doing the opposite! We withdrew from Lounge's shelves a while back and decided to focus on an exclusive relationship with Stolen Riches. They have a strong following, great location and a very professional staff serving their customers, so I felt it was a really promising place with whom to partner. They also have a huge sneaker selection that complements our designs, so it's a very good fit for the brand.

I've been extremely lucky from the start in that I've had to turn down some great retailers both inside and out of the city looking to carry the brand. The main advantage of keeping stock exclusive to Stolen Riches and the FORT Apparel online store is that I'm able to interact personally with the brand's audience and maintain a strong pulse on how it's doing and who it's reaching.

What was the response like at Rolly Garage's July Market. Is that a good venue for you to connect with your target customer?

The July Market was a great experience and right in line with the local focus of the brand. I was thrilled to see past customers come out to meet me personally and picked up some new fans along the way as well. This was a perfect venue for us to participate in, but as I mentioned earlier, the time commitment involved is sometimes a challenge as a single person with other responsibilities. Nevertheless, I plan to continue participating in these local events as much as possible and really enjoy the one on one engagement with my customers.

What's next for FORT Apparel? Any plans to diversify beyond t's?

I feel this season's releases mark the first time in which the brand is actually caught up to where I wanted to be day one. Now that I feel it's ready, I hope to expand the design selection in the Fall/Winter 2009 release to include a lot more designs and am working on adding a couple of hoodies based on the feedback we have received. Beyond that, I plan to continue to take it slow and ensuring that every FORT Apparel product is the best it can be.

Anything else you'd like to tell us?

I made a big post about it recently on fortapparel.com, but I just wanted to emphasize the thanks I have to everyone who has supported the brand in the last year. Whether you're the new customer picking up a tee at Stolen Riches or Cabbie Richards wearing a tee on The Score, FORT Apparel would not be here without you. The greatest satisfaction I get from the brand is when I'm walking downtown and happen to see some FORT Apparel on a stranger.


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