the shows toronto

How the shOws does what Fashion Week can't

There's some major Canadian fashion design talent about to hit Toronto's runways; designers who got their start at Hermes, Stella McCartney and Viktor & Rolf, to drop a few small names.

They've shown in New York and Paris, studied at Parsons and Central St. Martins, and netted a slew of awards. But despite their impressive pedigrees and well-stamped passports, the foursome of designers remains almost entirely unknown in Canada.

And even though they've got international fashion titans on their resumes, the big top circus under the World MasterCard Fashion Week tents, which holds a captive weeklong audience of Canadian media members each season, is entirely out of their reach.

It's a very common tale for fashion show producer Paola Fullerton -- and the reason that she created the shOws, her showcase of emerging designers, in 2011.

Forty-four-year-old Fullerton, a fashion industry veteran, speaks gushingly -- a mile a minute -- about the "kids" she invites each season to display their collections at her independent event, which she's mounting tonight and Wednesday at the Storys Building.

"I'm utterly amazed by them, constantly. I just think they're so extraordinary. I think they're international brand ambassadors for our country."

The public can't attend the shOws -- it's "one hundred per cent" an industry-only event, Fullerton readily admits. But there's a good reason to pay close attention to what comes out of them each year: Some of Fullerton's "kids" include now-household names like Mark Fast and Jeremy Laing.

This season's crop includes Bellavance, who sold their last collection exclusively to Opening Ceremony; Stella McCartney alumna Kaelen; and Steven Tai, whose work has appeared in British and French Vogue.

While Fullerton's chosen creators are all Canadian, they also operate their lines out of New York or Paris, and show their collections in much-larger, more highly-scrutinized fashion weeks in their adopted hometowns. That begs the question: Why isn't the Canadian media eating up the fact that these designers are internationally-approved?

In New York, where Bellavance designers Nolan Bellavance and Ava Hama debuted their F/W 2014 collection at an intimate presentation, "there's like 450 designers showing over something like eight days," Bellavance says.

"It's really easy to get lost in the mix there, because it's a sensory overload." Hama adds. "People are seeing tons and tons of shows every day."

Fullerton says Canadian fashion outlets are stretched thin on voyages to international fashion weeks: "Rather than seeing, say, Todd (Lynn) and risk missing Burberry, they of course had to, based on demand, go see Burberry."

If recognition on their home turf is what these expat designers are craving, the obvious solution would be for designers to just hit the runway at Toronto's fashion week, which hosts delegations from every media outlet in the country.

But the answer -- as it so often does -- comes down to cash. IMG, the event-planning juggernaut behind Toronto's fashion week, charges designers thousands to expose their collections to an audience of media and buyers at Fashion Week; the starting fee for a small designer has been floated at around $7,000 or so. (They also charge media outlets for their weekly passes, sponsors to market their wares to the throngs inside the Fashion Week tents, and members of the public for tickets.)

"I think it's really un-doable for a young brand such as ours, and many brands who are in the same position as us. It's impossible to have that type of funding," Hama says.

Fullerton, on the other hand, doesn't charge her designers -- or attendees -- a cent.

"Their support means so much," Bellavance says. "We don't have to worry about finding the funds to pay for a spot to show, and to coordinate all the things you need to coordinate for a fashion show, because everything's just provided for you. It's humbling." (Hama adds that sort of opportunity is "impossible to find in the U.S.")

The event is funded through "sponsors, and my own dignity," Fullerton cracks. "I'm begging and borrowing and pleading and getting people to knock down prices -- I have no shame when it comes to planning the shOws."

The focus, then, is entirely on talent that deserves that hard-won backing. "I have to make sure the quality's there, because otherwise, you guys would stop coming, and that would hurt the designers," she says. "I never want it to be a situation where it's like 'Oh, you've got the money? Come on over!'"

That's perhaps the greatest testament to its relevance in the Canadian fashion scene, even with WMCFW a week away. With deep-pocketed international companies increasingly looking to use the fashion week runway to build brand awareness in Canada, the shOws goes out on a limb to give a platform to cash-strapped designers with something extraordinary to offer.

"I think we need to do everything we can to nurture and build their creativity," Fullerton says. "These are kids who are doing extraordinary things, and they need to have a place where they get to be the focus ... and not just become part of the noise."

Photo by Mauricio Calero

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