There are many things that people don’t know about Robin Kay.
It’s important to preface this statement with the fact that, as a public figure, she has played an essential role in the Canadian fashion industry, especially in the last 13 years. Kay founded Toronto Fashion Week, launched the careers of many incredible designers who are now world-renowned, and put Canada on the fashion map. She gained friends, she earned enemies, but no matter where she went, people were always interested in what she had to say and what she wore.
Particularly striking is the fact that Kay rarely spoke to the media. Most of the articles written about her were either based on hearsay, a quote from someone who knew her (or often was “a friend of a friend”), a clearly subjective observation, or basic, surface facts.
In this issue, Kay shares her story and tracks her fashion career — from its start to today.
HANNAH YAKOBI: When would you say your love for fashion really began? Was there a certain moment when it just came to you and you thought, ‘This is what I want to do’?
ROBIN KAY: Probably when I opened my first store — I realized this was really my niche. It was in the ’70s, and I was more excited about the location and opening than thinking about what to put in it. So I searched for products that I thought would be interesting, and that’s when I started a trend with army clothes, uniforms and then slowly began to design my own collection.
It made such a big impression on the community; the feedback was really good. That was a big signal for me. Not too long after that, I met a woman who came into my store with a cotton sweater, and I just fell in love with this cotton sweater completely.
What was it like? Was it a certain colour?
Well, first of all, this was in the late ’70s or early ’80s, so there weren’t cotton sweaters then at all, everything was synthetic. So, I met this woman from Switzerland, and she had asked me if I wanted to sell her sweaters in the store. She was making them on a little hand machine, and I just thought this was fantastic. That really kick-started my career as a knitwear designer and from then on I had a knitting mill, a very large factory, 18 stores and 600 wholesale accounts across North America. The business really, really grew — I turned it into an environmental business. In the late-’80s I renamed it to Robin Kay Home and Style. Then everything about the store, from the flooring to the reworked furniture to body care, which was called Robin Care, was all created with an environmental angle.
And originally the store was called Robin, and was in Yorkville, Toronto I believe?
Yes, there was one on Hazelton Avenue, Eaton Centre, Forest Hill Village, Eglinton, Bayview. There were several in the city.
What was the name of the woman from Switzerland?
Do you still keep in touch?
I don’t, but I think about her a lot. We were very close, and I would say that we are still very close even though we don’t see each other. We worked together for several years and then I opened up my own knitting mill and factory, while she carried on doing her own line.
What was the best thing about having your own business?
For me, it was just fantastic because I had a knitting mill and a factory; many, many, people working for me in the stores.
Meeting the customer in the store is the best. The shift into environment movement was fantastic too because not a lot of people were doing that. And I found a yarn that grew coloured from the earth, called Fox Fibre. It grew in shades of green and purple, it’s quite normal in southern countries but was quite a phenomenon here. Levi’s was making jeans, Esprit was making T-shirts and I was making sweaters because knitwear was really my thing. I love knitwear.
Where was your factory?
On Mowat, where Liberty Village in Toronto is now. We were the only people there. I had 100,000 square feet. It was really, really interesting to learn everything live, not through school because I didn’t really go to school, but to learn it live, bringing in a technician from Germany and having these massive knitting machines. You know, the full circle, making sure the product would go to the customer. So I had these stores and a factory, and then I took on a partner for the first time.
What kind of industry was your partner in?
He was a manufacturer. He wanted to invest in the business and go through kind of a rebirth. It was quite good for a little while, then it didn’t go very well at all and it ended really abruptly. It was really quite shocking. Very shocking. So, suddenly I didn’t have this business after having it for almost 25 years.
So he took over, is that what happened?
He took over.
You just gave it to him?
Yes. I relinquished. It was complicated as these things are, and I think the details are really not important, but it did end and he actually carried on the business under RK label for three or four years, I think.
So he abbreviated your name?
Yes, but it didn’t last for him. And, at that time when I had stopped running my own business, I had been asked if I would chair a fashion association, which has been recently renamed the Fashion Design Council of Canada. And I thought, ‘How much time can that take?’ because they didn’t have anyone. So I agreed and finally, with not having the burden of that very large business, I started thinking about what other designers do.
This was just in 1999, when the Internet was starting. It wasn’t as popular and rampant then as it is now. I mean, there was a time when we didn’t have cellphones and computers and photographs came on contact sheets. It was a totally different world.
So I was thinking about what to do. I was trekking, travelling in the Himalayas and it hit me: I realized there was a fashion week in New York, London, Paris and Milan but why didn’t we have one? It was really a eureka moment for me to think, you know, that there are designers, there’s a whole country, an industry. Fashion Television was gaining tremendous popularity, as were fashion videos.
So I came back and I spoke to the board. I had been a volunteer, and gave them my idea and my proposal for a job, and they said: ‘Go for it.’ I started building fashion week in 2001.
How did it feel to take on such a big task?
I began with the end in mind, of what the product should be. For me it was fine, but for many people it wasn’t because I was quite determined and very clear that it should be a national show. And that it should involve designers globally, especially because of the Internet and what was going on: everything was global and became global, nothing was provincial anymore.
Fashion is a global language and it was very important for me to build it that way. In the beginning, I went to New York, London, Paris, Milan and met with the organizers of those fashion weeks. I also met with the Canadian consulates in all those cities. I wanted to know where our tax dollars were going, if there were any tax dollars to build this event. I was used to a lot of inventory and sales, and had inherited an association that had no money at all, so I knew it would be very costly to build this.
I was very interested where my and everyone else’s tax dollars were going. I knew they were going to roads and education, but were there tax dollars and was there interest in fashion? There wasn’t, and there certainly weren’t a lot of dollars.
I was able to get government funding for a while through the federal government through export, but only for export. So I had to go to corporate sponsors, which I did — more and more every year.
And the rest is history as they say?
Well, yes. But you know what they say about an overnight success — it takes many years.
I don’t think I ever read a magazine until I stopped working on this. Or had a meal! (laughs)
You said you had a plan from the beginning, of what you wanted to happen.
I did. I also had a plan that IMG would own it one day, because at that time I met Fern Mallis in New York and saw what IMG was starting to do. My passion is, really, the business of fashion, when the designers take their product full circle in a continuous way. I believe they are artists, but we make our living by selling clothing. The business of fashion is very important.
How would you describe the industry?
Building fashion is very difficult. We work in a world where we are on display all the time. You know, everybody’s taking our temperature about what we do, what we wear, what we write, how we react. It’s not like that in other industries, and there have been many interpretations of Robin Kay, I’m sure. I don’t care. I knew what I was doing, and I knew I was doing it for the right reasons. It was very challenging to bring on sponsors and to get people to come on site with building this.
Building it really was for all of us — for the journalists, models, stylists and photographers. And, of course, the designers. I believe it was very worthwhile. Fortunately the new owner, IMG, totally gets it. They now own and operate 28 fashion weeks around the world — their model for building things was based on exactly what I was doing. So we’re very like-minded and that’s very good.
What do you think are some of the challenges that designers currently face? The industry is changing rapidly and, like you said, there’s not a lot of funding. That is often a common industry-related complaint.
Well, I don’t think they should depend on funding. I think fashion design needs to be looked at like a business. Like any other product, it has to be the right product, at the right price, at the right time. The Internet has created a kind of false image of what fashion is and how important it is to pay attention to those things that I mentioned.
Designers are coming out of fashion school trying to sell $900 blouses, and they are wondering why it doesn’t work. They are attempting to create a business without having the principals of business attended to and these are vast, everything from a business plan to a marketing specialist.
You’ve travelled a lot with your work. Do you have favourite places that you like to get away to?
I love the whole idea of travel. I love looking at the product of people who live in the places I visit.
Fashion has changed so much though, because the brands are everywhere, from Chanel to Gap. But I love to go to markets and to be in countries where there are different cultures and different ways of living. I find it fascinating, and it’s something I’ve always tried to keep as part of my outlook. I think we are so lucky, so fortunate in Canada.
So, is there a favourite place? I love hot countries, I like to be lazy and sit in the sun. I love winter too — I’m from Winnipeg, so I have to love it!
I’d like to keep travelling — there are many places I haven’t seen and places I’d like to go back to. Toronto, too, is a new place for me, now that I’m not working in the same way I used to. I’m rediscovering Toronto, art and theatre, and the many things that we have to offer here. And community service — there are a lot of really excellent groups that do important things. Recently, I was at a first inaugural event, called Out of the Shadows. It was for prostitutes — in aid of street workers, creating funds to bring them off the street. I think it’s really important to give back.
I don’t think fashion is one-dimensional. Being in the world of fashion, we have the opportunity to really strike a chord in the most innocuous ways.
Going back to you travels, are you a spontaneous traveler or do you plan ahead?
I’m very spontaneous. I usually travel on my own, sometimes one of my kids would join me. I have three kids.
It’s very rare that I go on a trip where there’s no work, and even when I go on a trip [for leisure] I usually end up meeting designers and connecting with them. When I travel, I can’t help but look for a product and think about it.
Where are your children based?
They’re all here in Toronto. My daughter Brooklyn, 27, is in marketing. Zoe, 22, is graduating from Ryerson this year, she’s an actor. And my son, Jacob, 31, works in solar energy for an American company here. All of my kids are fascinated with business.
Now that you’ve handed over fashion week to IMG, what are some other projects you’re working on?
I’m still a consultant for IMG and I’d like to think that that’s important. We communicate and stay in touch, looking at the temperature of the industry, which is a very delicate matter. I’m also involved with the Italian Chamber of Commerce, working on a project between Rome, Toronto and L.A.
Is your background Italian?
No, Russian. My parents were from Odessa. They came to Canada a long time ago; in fact, they were born here.
I actually just met these incredible people, when I was on a train, called Palace on Wheels, in India, going through Rajasthan. I had never been on a tour before, but it was an amazing way to go and meet these amazing people from Russia. They didn’t speak too much English, but we really communicated easily.
And bringing it all back to home — do you have any favourite Canadian designers?
There are so many and I’m so connected to them! I guess I don’t have favourites, I’m just really engaged with the industry.
I believe the schools and universities are saying this too — there’s a gap between art and commerce. When I began working on fashion week, and I would meet with designers, it was evident that they didn’t receive too much commerce education and that’s really important, how to sell you product. You know: what the dollar means, how to make it work. You need to learn, especially in today’s world where everything is global.
The competition is fierce, and I think it’s very important to know your way around it. This is kind of the hope for future too — that there’s something still bespoke, that your individual participation in your craft will make you excel, absorb the dollar and design, and re-interpret it.