fashion fold

Kathleen passed along an interesting article about Canadian fashion designer Philippe Dubuc. If you’re not a Canadian Fashion nerd you may never have heard of Dubuc, who has been in business for 13 years, putting on fashion shows and dressing dignitaries, achieving sales of $3 million – and struggling to the bitter end last month when the label went bankrupt.

The story touches on a number of sticky issues for Canadian apparel companies. The perennial failed-fashion-business whine about government support is there. On one hand, there are a number of grants and subsidies available for fashion designers. Perhaps there is no private venture capitalists beating down the doors on our “sunset industry” – but the government certainly can’t be accused of being tightfisted. On the other hand policy initiatives from the Canadian Government present a paradox for Canadian industry.

Dubuc previously based his cut-and-sew operations in Montreal. Being close to the source is a great advantage especially for high-end designers like Dubuc – smaller runs, closer proximity to oversee production issues, and faster turnover should mean domestic sourcing makes sense. Ideally a designer wants to form a partnership with their contracters – Hilary Radley is cited in the article as a successful example. Dubuc had no reciprocal partnership though – the article hints that they paid their contracters up front. Certainly there must be issues behind the scenes that a short article can’t elaborate on – still, perhaps some sort of government facilitation for forming partnerships between designers like Dubuc (as a winner of Canadian Fashion Designer of the Year he’s not an unknown quantity) and the struggling Canadian manufacturing sector would be beneficial for the Canadian industry in general.

Instead, the policy tactic from the Canadian government has been to eliminate tariffs quotas on imports of clothing… and more recently textiles (which I’ll talk about on another post). This is supposed to encourage the white-collar design industry by making it cheaper to become an importer. Essentially selling out tens of thousands of middle-class jobs (apparel is still Montreal’s biggest employer) for a few executive and design positions. Will Canadian fashion enjoy a renaissance under such conditions?

Sometimes I wonder if it’s just a romantic notion but it seems to me that a strong industry supports every level of the production chain – not just the top. Countries that experience design renaissances (Italy, Japan) are supported by close partnerships between designers and production and active facilitation of the government. Innovation struggles when oceans and language barriers keep design and production apart. Depending on the logistical infrastructure of globalization is not a sustainable long-term option.

In my humble opinion, financial aid to designers and decreased tariffs mean very little in terms of Canadian fashion identity – and therefore won’t instigate the hoped-for design renaissance. Canada still won’t acknowledge the truth – Canadians don’t care about fashion design and that’s the way it should be. Internationally we are acknowledged for our outdoor clothing, our workwear, and a rugged, unfashionable aesthetic. As long as we award Designer of the year to quiet, serious, tasteful (yawn) designers like Dubuc and David Dixon, we ignore success stories in apparel like Tilley, Canada Goose, and Dickies – labels which have greater international recognition than any designer in the insulated, obscure Canadian Fashion industry. Tellingly, part of the success story of each of these labels is due to domestic manufacturing. And unlike Dubuc, no taxpayers money was wasted on expensive international fashion shows.

Dubuc’s new venture is designing for a Quebec retailer… more inexpensive clothing, which will be imported from Turkey. Whether this is the first step out of Canadian fashion obscurity remains to be seen. Let’s watch.

17 thoughts on “fashion fold”

  1. Bravo on a great post. Canadians don’t care enough about “fashion” to facilitate a market for it. The issue has little to do with government funds and more to do with the fact that the clothing lines are not running sustainable businesses to begin with, as well to create a “brand” that can be competitive in an international market.

  2. The CDN goverment did not remove the duty/tariff on apparel coming into Canada, they just agreed along with the USA and other WTO members to eliminate quotas. I think this was the point in which many CDN designers got heavily discouraged.

    With quota out of the way, the whole flavour of the industry changed.

    As for government funding, it does exist, although many will say the Quebecois companies receive the lions share.
    I happen to know that the Toronto Fashion Incubator (not to be confused with Kathleen Fasanella’s Fashion-Incubator) are vastly underfunded. Jeez, even the City of Toronto’s apparel office get something like a measly 25 grand to develop jobs and to hopefully see a continance

    Fasanella’s Fashion-Incubator, Susan Langdon of TFI, and the City Of Toronto’s Laurie Belzak have done more to promote local apparel manufacturing than any goverment agency I know about. The CAF does promote CDN companies to the best of it’s ability, but it doesn’t give a damn where the apparel is made.

  3. I think as designers, we can’t forget that our ultimate goal is to sell products.
    Globalization gets a bad rap (sometimes for good reason) but ultimately, the standard of living in the third world has gone consistantly up since the sixties, mainly because of better health care and education – a result of western investment in foreign manufacturing.

    I think designers who manufacture overseas can make a positive difference in third world labour standards. If s/he insists on using factories which are known for protecting employee rights (ie: approved by ISO or another ethical rights group), it helps set the bar overseas for human rights codes in countries where governments don’t.

    Plus – don’t I, as a consumer have a right to the most efficiently made product? Don’t government subsidies create artificial, inefficient industries? Look at the US farm industry. Government subsidies have made a mess of it. As far as I understand, they actually pour milk down the drain when there is too much so that the prices don’t go too far down.

    Don’t get me wrong – I’d love to see more manufacturing in Canada – IF there is something we can legitimatly do better and faster and cheaper than overseas. American Apparel can make a t-shirt is 17 seconds…. I’d love to do an internship with them and see how their company works, they seem like they’re doing something right….

  4. Hi Irene,

    Where did you get the impression American Apparel manufacturers in Canada ? They claim everything is made in “downtown LA” in a sweatshop free environment. No mention ever of any contractors in Mexico or Honduras that may make apparel for them.

    I do hear Dov Charney loves to take on interns on a regular basis. His reputation for giving special attention to female interns is legendary.

  5. Sorry – should have said North America. But the US has the same issues with manufacturing going overseas that we do.
    Are you suggesting that I would have to sleep with Dov Charvey to do an internship there?

  6. In no way was I suggesting you sleep with Dov Charney if he gave you an internship.
    Let’s just say he admits to some pretty bizarre behaviours which he thinks are perfectly normal but would get him arrested in most CDN provinces and some US states.

    I forwarded an article in JANE Magazine( June/July 2005 ) to Danielle that interviewed ole Dov. What I read was pretty bizarre. You may want to ask Danielle for a look.This guy is just asking for it.

  7. The issue has little to do with government funds and more to do with the fact that the clothing lines are not running sustainable businesses to begin with, as well to create a “brand” that can be competitive in an international market. – andrea

    I just don’t think Fashion shows are worth the money anymore … and I often wonder if any of these acclaimed Canadian designers ever do turn a profit… even the most talented have yet to create a Canadian label that lasts…

    Of all the Canadian designers I can think of who produce international shows, Jeremy Laing seems like the one who may be able to tip it. I really hope Laing can build the label into something enduring

    The CDN goverment did not remove the duty/tariff on apparel coming into Canada, they just agreed along with the USA and other WTO members to eliminate quotas. – Big Irv

    Big Irv thank you for correcting me! I should know better =P

    The CAF does promote CDN companies to the best of it’s ability, but it doesn’t give a damn where the apparel is made. – Big Irv

    You put it much more succinctly than I.

    Irene,

    I agree that there is a lack of competitiveness in the Canadian industry.

    Globalization gets a bad rap (sometimes for good reason) but ultimately, the standard of living in the third world has gone consistantly up since the sixties, mainly because of better health care and education – a result of western investment in foreign manufacturing. – Irene

    I agree also that globalization has its rewards as well as its drawbacks. I think that where you see the standards of living rising in Asia it is as much to do with the government policies and a supply of diligent, hardworking population. Western money, as you says, goes wherever the buck bangs hardest. Not exactly a philanthropic motivation but not without its benefits.

    I think designers who manufacture overseas can make a positive difference in third world labour standards. If s/he insists on using factories which are known for protecting employee rights (ie: approved by ISO or another ethical rights group), it helps set the bar overseas for human rights codes in countries where governments don’t. – Irene

    I can’t comment so much on this because I have only recently begun to scratch the surface of fair trade and ethics. If only it was a simple thing to certify. For instance, we see pictures of Chinese factories that are clean as a pin, ergonomic, run efficiently with military precision. They are competitive, meet standards. But it’s all relative; the workers are happier relative to rural poverty – but they are not free. Would you do their job for what they are paid? The hours they work prove that we are non-competitive. Should minimum wage be reduced in this country to make us competitive? “Rights” are so subjective, they’re different even in every western country. What do these organizations certify, exactly? I don’t know the answers.

    Plus – don’t I, as a consumer have a right to the most efficiently made product?

    Yep… it’s a free market. You vote with your dollars. I try to.

    Efficient on whose terms in the long term I wonder? How much jet fuel was burned to get that efficiently made rag to you? How much dirty coal was burned? I have a right to a future without a climate crisis, don’t I?

    How subjective this “rights” mythology is… kind of like “privacy”…

    Don’t government subsidies create artificial, inefficient industries? – Irene

    Yes. Frequently funds are misallocated and politics interferes with the best interests of the people.

    Government funding should be about the best interests of the citizens and taxpayers. It can help small businesses get off the ground, support job creation… or it can fund politically powerful interests with lobbyists in Ottawa.

    How can we fix this? Government funding shouldn’t be so broken.

    … as for the Dov Charney thing, I think this may be future post material… hey, did you hear he just sold AA?

  8. I happen to agree with you that fashion shows are just not worth the money anymore, especially in the CDN market.
    They cost a lot of money to participate and you have to sell a lot of clothing to recoup some of these costs.

    We have some awesome talented designers here in Canada. Doing all categories of apparel,and some doing it very well.

    Sadly, many think that by trying to service the local CDN market, their company will thrive and grow leaps and bounds.

    Not so in my opinion. We have a huge country with a miniscule population of 32 million people. We don’t spend like Americans on apparel, we have no quota protection, as well as high distribution costs to reach the few thousand buyers that will buy our products.
    I think CDN designers need to peddle their wares to the US marketplace in order to make any kind of decent living.
    I am not surprised Dubuc’s company went bankrupt. Producing clothing in Montreal has been difficult in recent years, but it shouldn’t be cited for being at the center of the bankruptcy.
    I wonder just how much of Dubuc’s sales were to US concerns.

    As for Dov Charney selling American Apparel, does this mean every female employee of AA is now breathing a huge sigh of relief ? Does this mean his “plans” on opening a US minimum wage factory in China are onhold ? Keep us posted.

  9. You’re right, Dan – “fair trade” with the 3rd world is pretty new & there’s no one way to go about it. I think it’s a slippery slope and can be done well, or done very, very badly.

    You make a good point about sustainable manufacturing being closer to home. It’s definitely cleaner not to ship things so far…. I would argue that ideally, investing in 3rd world countries (worlds biggest polluters by far, yuck) should help them modernize, make the switch from coal to electricity/nuclear.

    The whole thing with production in China is that – and sorry to sound like a huge nerd here – the Chinese dollar is undervalued by the (Communist) Chinese government right now. It’s not like here where a free market sets the value of a dollar. The CG says “okay, eight yuan are worth one American dollar” and that’s it. No one even KNOWS how much a yuan is really worth. Insane, right? It’s messing up the whole world banking system. But people getting paid, say 0.50$/hour in China might actually be worth a bit more than we think it is.
    But it’s really unfair to US/CDN manufacturers and part of the reason so many factories keep moving over there.

    If it were to be revalued living in North America would be alot more expensive, though. The cost of living here would skyrocket, since all our cheap Chinese toys wouldn’t be so cheap anymore (domestic production might rise, too – a bonus for CND manufacturing).

    Big Irv – I don’t think Dov Charney is perfect, by anyone’s standards. I just think he’s done a few things right with his company that shouldn’t be overlooked because of his behaviour at work.

  10. This whole issue surrounding the value of the yuan is confounding many economists Irene, so thanks for bringing that to our attention.

    I just returned from a trip to China last month. I toured apparel factories and fabric mills. This trip provided me with a much better understanding of the “bigger picture” and not just issues surrounding the garment industry. I needed to see things for myself and I saw some sad things.

    The pollution really bothered me the most. It “seems” we work so hard on environmental issues here in the West , cognizant of the future generations that will need clean air and water while in parts of Asia, especially China, they are turning their country into a gigantic cesspool.And it gets worse every month.

    Last word from me on Charney. Definitely give him credit for taking a T-shirt company to where it is today. Did a good job on branding. He really should give Mexico and Honduras credit for making much of his product , and not claim everything is made in Downtown LA. And his behaviour at work is in my opinion lewd,lascivious. A real creep.

  11. Danielle, I’m totally with you on this one. I think that there are so many supports for Canadian designers, that it’s shameful for them to accuse anyone but themselves for failure.

    Here’s how it is guys-

    make a good product, deliver it on time for the right price = make $.

    Get caught up in your ego / don’t take care of business = lose money.

    Also, I agree that there are great Canadian apparel success stories that just aren’t celebrated the way they should be. Are overalls uncool? Who gives a crap if they are or not. That’s the joy of fashion, if you think it’s cool, it is! Plus overalls, hiking hats, beautiful leather winter boots….they are all part of the story of Canadian apparel success. We should be showing appreciation for the manufactures of these products because clearly there are lots of people out there who love this stuff. Hello….It’s selling….without any pity money from the government!!! Furthermore, we should love it because it’s Canadian. So is fur, to all you PETA people. It’s a big part of why Canada exists! ATTN Canada: Let’s accept and promote who we are already.

    Lastly, a word on globalization….
    Most companies out there are scrambling to make sure they are producing overseas which allows them to make the most margin. By having all the world’s factory jobs in China, the Chinese standard of living is improving. Its just a matter of time before the Chinese need wages comparable to what it would cost to pay someone in North America. That leaves us in a situation where Chinese/ third world countries have the jobs, the infrastructure and the capital to manage production, whereas we do not. End result = we’re at their mercy.

    Thanks, Danielle for starting a real discussion on the Canadian Apparel and Manufacturing industry.

  12. I have currently launched a line called “Lewd”, http://www.lewdclothing.com And the idea behind this line is exactly what this discussion seems to be about. We are producing all our apparel in Canada. (and let me tell u just trying to find suppliers in this city has become a struggle on top of the struggles that already exhist)but just like anything else you always have the option of taking it where u wish and whats the bullshit about canadians dont appreciate style and that we shouldn’t even bother trying to compete with the ppl that do it the better anyways. Pay attention to whats going on around u dear, just a few years ago the canadian music scene was considered to be nothing to pay attention to and look at it now its all about whats comin out to these creating melting pot (im referring to montreal). Pay attention to this, Lewd is a brand thats is launching its first season this spring with limited edition pcs being sold directly to the people and it will develop further season after season and it is a brand and it is coming out of montreal and it will stay. So whoever wrote the bullshit about not bothering to try to create a brand out of canada i’d love to hear your response to this.

    veekee

  13. Veekee,

    Congrats on the new line. Production is always challenging, wherever it is done, and I agree that value for money needs to match up.

    Bullshit that Canadians don’t appreciate style? I’m not saying all Canadians don’t care about fashion – just that most of them could care less. The market here for exciting clothes is small but just as adamant as your comment here.

    I do think that most canadians do have a sartorial sense – just one that is not a fashionable one. The non-appreciation of style goes both ways in this country between the stylish urbanistas and the rest of us

    Perhaps I don’t pay attention to everything, only what interests me. Fashion does nod the Canadian way every now and then, with Montreal indie music as you point out, or Canada Goose jackets and Dickies as we were discussing on finalfashion a few weeks ago.

    So whoever wrote the bullshit about not bothering to try to create a brand out of canada i’d love to hear your response to this. – Veekee

    I have no idea what you are referring to here, or I’d love to respond. Most of what I’m attempting to talk about here is embracing and building a Canadian brand in general, and speculating about what makes Canadian Labels successful, or not.  I’m not saying my word is the last word on any of this – just trying to generate discussion and ideas.
    Thanks for reading or commenting. I look forward to following Lewd’s progress, and commenting on that =)

  14. “The issue has little to do with government funds and more to do with the fact that the clothing lines are not running sustainable businesses to begin with, as well to create a “brand” that can be competitive in an international market.”

    that could have been the comment i was referring to danielle. My comments weren’t to any particular comment that was up, it was just a response to the sum of the comments that were up. i appologize if it came across in an offensive manner, but when i’m really passionate about something i tend to be quite blunt. Its nice to find somewhere where we can exchange opinions of the state of our industry. My biggest frustration lies in the greed opressing the love in the clothing industry, at least in Canada. But that is because we have let it and the consumer doesn’t have a choice anymore. It has become quite disgusting its all about squeezing costs as tight as possible, and quality has become difficult to maintain, and theres no attempt at creating something tantelizing its more about creating something that will sell. so is the death of the highpayed designer, instead its just rotating entry level positions. but there is definetally a shift coming, to the demand for quality apparel, ethical apparel and apparel that is sustainable in style as well as quality. That is definetally the outlook and the direction that “lewd” will be taking. I do hope you will follow our progress and i do hope you will make an effort to come support us at our brand launch and limited edition shopping event at end of march. Check out http://www.lewdclothing.com for location and times.

    thanks for your response
    veekee @ lewd

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