By Hannah Yakobi
Photos by Paul Toogood Photography, Donna Santos, Verve Photography and Angela Y. Martin
The Toronto Fashion Incubator was born in 1987. An innovative and highly respected non-profit organization, TFI has over 300 members, who range from starting designers to experienced professionals. The first official “fashion incubator” in the world, TFI plays a central role in the growth and promotion of the Canadian fashion community, by providing support to fashion entrepreneurs. Other cities that have followed the TFI “fashion incubator” model include London, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Melbourne, Auckland and Dunedin.
Susan Langdon has been with TFI for 16 years and is currently its executive director. A graduate of Ryerson’s fashion design program, she has extensive experience in the fashion industry, with an exceptionally successful clothing line at Holt Renfrew and a fulfilling 17-year career in fashion design. Langdon has won many prestigious awards, including the Concours Design Award, the Woolmark Award of Distinction, the City of Toronto’s Excellence in Fashion Industry Achievement Award and the JoAnna Townsend Award.
In this Exclusive, Langdon speaks with FAJO Magazine about fashion finance, promotion, creativity and what the future holds for the Canadian fashion industry.
HANNAH YAKOBI: How would you describe the Canadian fashion industry today?
SUSAN LANGDON: The fashion industry has always been a very challenging one. I have been working in it for over 30 years and I would say that it is not one of those industries where you can come up with an idea and sell it for a million dollars. Fashion schools prepare students, but students need to work hard to earn their place in the fashion world. That means starting out at the bottom and working your way up, gaining as much industry experience as possible, and developing a good reputation and credibility.
What are the consumers looking for?
Today’s consumer is very price-conscious. With Zara, H&M and Mango infiltrating the Canadian retail market, Canadian designers are facing increasing competition. When the international community opened doors to the imports from Asia, it really had a huge impact on price points. The quality of our product is fantastic but if the average consumer had to choose between a Canadian black blazer for $450 versus the exact same thing made in China that was selling for $199, what would they buy? Although those two black jackets might look exactly the same on the outside – their construction, fit and structural components are probably quite different. But the average consumer won’t really pay much attention to this and it will, in turn, really impact designers and retailers. As a result, today, all the big designers are coming up with “diffusion lines,” which are slightly lower-priced lines.
What five tips would you give to designers who want to launch their own business?
First of all, I think it is very valuable to gain industry experience right after you graduate. School, as fabulous as it is, can’t prepare you for the real world. It is a really good idea to try out a few companies; see how different people do different things. Along the way you are going to garner some very important contacts in the media, as well as retail buyers.
Secondly, I think it is important to remember that there are no six degrees of separation in the fashion industry; there is really only one degree. So you have to be mindful and respectful of everyone you meet, because the person who you speak to today may alter your fate tomorrow.
New fashion entrepreneurs also have to be willing to work and not expect everything to fall into their lap. It is a competitive industry, a competitive world. There will always be someone willing to give that extra 10 per cent. So you have to be aware of that competition.
My tip number four would be that you have to be a smart business person. I have seen the most talented designers fall by the wayside, because they couldn’t sell their line. Their collections were absolutely stunning but nobody would buy them because they were either too avant-garde, way too expensive or the designer was too afraid of rejection and did not approach retailers.
And, finally, the smart designer has to do research. Not just look at what the trends are for this season, but to really look at their own collection and strategize it. For example, when I had my own collection, I knew that I wanted to sell it to Holt Renfrew. So I went into the store and looked at the brands that my label would hang beside. I looked at how much those brands were selling for. Then I went back to my desk and started coming up with designs and ideas, looking at fabrics and doing a cost sheet, right then and there, before the garments were even made. And if I knew that my prices were going to be too high for the market, I had to compromise – I had to use less expensive material or change features of a piece.
It is important to look at it from a business perspective and know where to position yourself in retail. That is what will help you build a truly successful career.
To find out more about the Toronto Fashion Incubator and Susan Langdon, please visit http://www.fashionincubator.com/