The Fabric Story

June 6, 2011

By Sarah Dion-Marquis

Photos provided courtesy of Stanley Carroll, Joanne Boivin and Christianne Brunelle

The a-lined shape tank top that is at the front of most stores in the summer is mostly made of cotton. There is some polyester in most capris and wedding dresses, along with China-produced silk. Luon is the “ingredient” that makes lululemon pants different from average gym pants.

A model walks down the catwalk in Stanley Carroll clothing.

But all these fabrics haven’t been easy on designers’ wallet over the last few years. In fact, they cost more than ever before and their price has increased by 20 to 30 per cent since the recession.

Along with creativity and the ability to work countless hours to bring an idea to life, fabric is without a doubt the designers’ most important tool. Unfortunately, it’s not something they can discard all together or buy for less to bring their costs down.

For Edmonton designer Stanley Carroll, choosing fabrics is nothing less than a “sort of God-instinct thing.” When he walks through the aisles of a high-end European fabric store, the veteran designer can feel what will work, what may work and what doesn’t have the slimmest chance of ending up in one of his creations.

The same applies to Laval-based handbag designer Joanne Boivin. Her collection – Joannel – sells across the world. She simply can’t order samples over the Internet from her living room on a Sunday afternoon. To be successful, she has to follow the trends closely in both the shoe and the handbag business.

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That means her suitcase is never far. She travels to textile salons in Paris and Italy to find out what the colours of the season are, and takes part in many exhibitions in New York.

Like any other entrepreneur, designers have to cut costs somewhere, however. Looking for fabrics over the Internet is not as exotic as flying to Europe or Asia but, for some of them, it does the job. Even veteran designer Caroll is often content with buying his fabrics from a north-American distributor.

He says it’s relatively easy and cheap for designers, who have a clear idea of what they need, to go online to source fabrics.

Christianne Brunelle’s bridal wear is made of high-quality silk and polyester.

Montrealer Christianne Brunelle, who started her wedding dress design business three years ago, does the same. She orders samples of silk, polyester and decorative pieces for her trimmings via the Internet on a regular basis.

She says it isn’t easy to keep up with the increasing prices. “I think some people are tempted to cut down on the fabrics,” she observes, but adds that she simply cannot do that because of the nature of her business.

A designer wedding dress is usually made of high-quality polyester and some silk, in a 70-30 proportion. Moreover, the price of silk – a natural fiber – fluctuates with market conditions and depends on factors such as how many cultivators produce it in a giver year. Therefore, it’s not easy for Brunelle to predict the cost of silk from one year to the other and make room for it in her budget.

But Brunelle, Carroll and Boivin say that by investing in fabrics, they save up money on labour.

A major cost for these exclusive designers is, indeed, labour and overhead, as their designs are often unique, and made by the designers themselves or their closed associates.

To a certain extent, it is financially wise to get high quality and pricy fabrics. Using a cheap fabric and having to put a lot of details and shapes would just make it more expensive to produce.

Carroll’s collections are made of fabric carefully selected by the designer himself.

“That’s why we don’t cut corners in fabrics,” says Carroll.

This is not true for high volume stores, however. They save up on labour and overhead by outsourcing the work and producing huge quantities that are sold across the world.

The “fabric issue” is not just a challenge for designers, but also for the textile business itself.

Fabric mills often owned by families and small-scaled fabric producers are disappearing.

Textile is like any other businesses where money rules: bigger distributors take over smaller ones. Not only does this result in less variety, but it gives the big players the power to impose quotas on designers. To acquire the fabrics for a good price, designers are forced to purchase hundreds of metres of the material.

A model in a Christianne Brunelle dress.

Carroll and Brunelle simply can’t meet this requirement.

“The nature of my business is a few dresses at a time,” says Brunelle. “I just don’t buy in bulk.”

Therefore, she sometimes pays two or three times the cost for her fabrics.

But Boivin doesn’t face the same challenge because she distributes about one quarter of a million handbags each year. She says that quotas for leather usually average between 500 and 800 metres. That’s enough to produce 10,000 handbags. Still, she has to find a way to deal with the price of fabrics that is constantly increasing. Boivin can’t pass on the bill to her customers. To remain competitive, she has increased her price by 10 per cent in stores, and her business tries to make up for the remaining 15 per cent by reducing other production and distribution costs.

Despite the high costs to produce their clothing and accessories, designers remain competitive on the Canadian and international market because of the high quality and unique personal touch to their work, both of which are highly valued at home and abroad.


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