Canada in its fashion

The beginning of the end of ‘colonial status’

Barbara Amiel September 4 1978

Canada in its fashion

The beginning of the end of ‘colonial status’

Barbara Amiel September 4 1978

Canada in its fashion


The beginning of the end of ‘colonial status’

Ever since Eve decided, in a legendary lapse of judgment, that her best features would be improved by the addition of three fig leaves, the rites of fashion have been with us. This month along with automobiles and television programs, the new fall fashions are being presented and Canadian women, regardless of shape, income bracket or fashion persuasion, find themselves playing out a familiar scenario in a thousand dressing rooms in a thousand shops across the country.

She: (anxiously sucking in cheekbones, tummy and whatever this year’s unwanted area happens to be) “But do you think 1 can wear it?”

Saleslady: (optimistically) “How do you feel in it?”

She: “Silly.”

“It” has variously been the mini-skirt, the midi-skirt, the bubble-top, the Big Skirt and so on. Fashion writers begin in midsummer to alert readers that coming up is “The year of the bosom/waist/ hip/knee” or more recently and comprehensively “The Body.” Women described by family and friends as perfectly normal and controlled during polio scares or power failures scan their anatomies with apprehension and may begin spot programs for elbows or midriffs found wanting.

In recent times, North American designers at least have blown some refreshing common sense into the fashion scene. Their French counterparts may announce that the “fanny wrap” is très chic; stunningly attractive mulatto models, six feet tall and 118 pounds skinny, strut along Paris runways with derrières all swathed in knitted triangles resembling diapers for grownups, but North American consumers have simply refused to go along with it all. Instead they turn increasingly to the more wearable fashions of Canadian and American designers whose clothes fit a dual work/play lifestyle. In Canada that means the labels of designers like Simon Chang, Leo Chevalier, Margaret Godfrey, Marilyn Brooks and a dozen other names that are making inroads into Canadian, American and even European stores. It means that while fashion arbiters report rapturously from the French prêt-à-porter showings last spring that this fall’s fashions will include the “divine Gespo look” with black leather being worn.

Barbara Amiel

from trench coats down to undies, Canadian consumers turn instead to the burgundy pigskin unstructured blazers of Montreal’s Margaret Godfrey or the modified and narrowed (17-inch) trousers of Toronto’s Alfred Sung. It means real design choice for consumers and—not coincidentally—clothes within a more accessible price range than the sky-high prices of European imports, blown into never-never land by a falling dollar and rising tariffs.

Still, for Canadian clothes designers this is not simply the year of the padded shoulder or the redefined waist. It’s a year of ulcers for many and of make-or-break for almost everyone. Just when Canadian design talent is coming into its own, the Canadian garment industry is in deep trouble. The federal ministry of industry, trade and commerce is awash with studies recommending the gradual phasing out of the Canadian textile and clothing industries. Consumers trying to make sense of reports about the GATT tariff negotiations or this

year’s policy on import controls for clothing can’t decide whether a Canadian fashion industry means cheaper fashion, more expensive fashion, better fashion or no fashion at all. And caught somewhere in the crossfire of statistics, graphs and government policy papers are the fashion designers themselves. The coming season is going to take all the moxie they’ve got.

She is tough and brittle with a voice that could cut sheet glass, but more importantly she is successful. Toronto’s Norma Lepofsky is successful, moreover, in an area where no Canadian is supposed to be able

to compete: knitwear. Her store in Toronto’s expensive Yorkville district is crammed with hand-knit cardigans, dresses, pullovers and her specialty, knit jackets. Extraordinary textures and colors are the selling point: velours, angora, chenilles and silk tweeds knitted together to produce evening wear of gossamer delicacy or this year’s tweed-and-fur look bomber jacket. She employs 300 women to handknit the 683 patterns she has personally devised. “The women change, they come and go, but I can watch their work,” she

says. “Hong Kong? I’d never send my work to be done there. I’d have no quality control.”

Lepofsky’s exports will come to about half a million dollars this year: stores in the U.S. include Neiman-Marcus, Helga Howie, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Marshall Field. (In Canada there’s Eaton’s and Holt Renfrew.) Knitwear is one of the toughest areas to compete in because of the mar-

ket take-over by (predominantly) Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, where labor costs are low and production of knitted fabrics (so a sweater can

simply be cut and sewn together) is advanced. Lepofsky’s solution seems naively simple: “Quality and originality.” It sounds like a press release but even with her high prices (big tops $250, sports pullovers $95 to $150, jackets $225 to $275 and two-piece dress outfits in the $400 range) her balance sheet looks good.

According to a C.D. Howe Research Institute report this summer on the textile and clothing industry, Lepofsky’s export success is the exception to the rule. “Until quite recently,” it says, “Canadian apparel manufacturers believed they could compete with foreign clothing in fashion lines, if not in the cheaper utilitarian end of the market.” But the upgrading of products by low-cost countries now threatens the fashion market as well. So the solution seen in the report is “a phasing-out program ... to prevent the recruitment of new workers and the investment of new capital into activities that have no competitive future.” The Economic Council of Canada agreed. Its tough-minded 1978 report recommends increased trade liberalization (lowering of tariffs and ending of quotas) and a $4-

billion fund to retrain and relocate workers.

At stake are 200,000 jobs in Canada’s textile and clothing industry. It’s an industry that has had a high degree of protection in the past. When clothing imports to Canada shot up in 1976 by a whopping 46 per cent over 1975 levels, the government took drastic action. Worldwide quotas were put on clothing. These quotas were based on the amount an importer or store brought into Canada in 1975. This caused enormous problems, among them establishment of a flourishing black market in quotas. Import companies and the big department stores often had more “units” of a particular garment than they could use. Trade

papers in Montreal and Toronto would list, like lonely hearts columns, “reliable customer seeking 100,000 pants units.” Between under-the-table money paid for quotas and the 22.5to 27.5-per-cent tariff on imported clothing, prices either shot up or retailers found their profit margins dangerously low.

In the basic area of textiles, the problems were even more complicated. The Canadian government was struggling to help Canada’s textile industry and managing to put it nowhere. An (estimated) $2-million polyester machine installed in a newly established Nova Scotia mill in 1974 managed to begin operations just at a time when the doubleknit polyester heaven ended and the new high-fashion silk-like blends began to steal the clothing market. The mills were obsolete the day they opened. Japanese and American mills cornered the markets on mass-produced cheapto medium-priced fabrics and the Italian, French and English mills had the deluxe fabrics designers loved. And while American mills could afford the short runs (small orders) that Canadian designers needed, Canadian mills claimed they couldn’t afford such economic risks.

The shop is cluttered with heaps of puttyand cinnammon-colored jersey dresses just back from the factory and

award-winning designer Pat McDonagh (six Eedees for design excellence, two Judys for development of the Canadian fashion industry, and the 1973 New York Times design award) sits looking at them with despair. “Contract sewers,” she says. “These dresses were cut on the bias and the factory sewed them the wrong way. My assistant and I had to level off the hems on each one and have them redone. It’ll cost me $3.50 a dress.” McDonagh, Englishborn, Sorbonne-educated, is no newcomer

to the headaches of fashion. Her career began in the Carnaby Street days of Mary Quant and London’s dolly-girls. One of her earliest jobs was to design the clothes for “a dreadful first film by the Beatles called Beat in the Border.” She also designed clothes for Diana Rigg in The Avengers series. Says McDonagh: “All I can remember is the 19-inch crotch she had for all those leather jumpsuits designed for her.

Nineteen inches! We tried to sell the suits after the series was over but we forgot to adjust the crotch length so all we could do was sell them to gay guys on

King’s Road.”

McDonagh arrived in Canada in 1964 and like many other designers (Marilyn Brooks, Marni Grobba, Susan Kosovic Hayward) briefly enjoyed the short sweet life of the way-out boutique designers before the realities of the bottom line in business set in and the boutiques found themselves out of business. McDonagh has even sold to New York’s Bloomingdale’s and Henri Bendel for a while. “I wrote $80,000 worth of orders to Bloomie’s in two days and I didn’t even have a factory or a permanent sewer. I rounded up the whole order in moonlight operations with ladies sewing my dresses on their Spadina Avenue employers’ machines on lunch hours. Now I know too much about the business. I wouldn’t have the nerve.”

In the last four years she has built up a partnership with business and personal companion Jozsef Lenart and the Pat McDonagh label is now in Eaton’s, Simpsons and boutiques across Canada. This fall’s look includes machine-washable chenille tops ($71) paired with abstractprinted crepe skirts and blouses ($54 to $71), pegged all-wool tweed pants and matching single-and double-breasted coats ($230) with (removable) padded shoulders and slouch hats. The emphasis is on coordinated clothes that can be accessorized with only one pair of boots or a scarf.

But problems mount. Claims McDonagh: “In Europe, fall merchandise has a completion date [the day it has to be in the store] of October 10. So the mills and factories go on holiday for two weeks in August. It makes sense. Here it’s ludicrous. Canadian mills and factories close in July or August but we have a completion date of August 25 for most department stores. And I can’t get help in the summer. The ladies go to Portugal or Italy or like to stay home with their children when school’s out.” McDonagh wants to buy Canadian textiles “and make a Canadian fashion statement” but finds herself working more often with American mills. “The Canadian mills go to the New York Ideacomo show (Italian textiles) or the European Interstoff fair and pick up samples from the Italian

mills and show them to me as their samples. I ask if they are going to be able to produce the eight-color pattern they are

showing and they say, well no, and delivery will be several months. The U.S. mills can knock off [copy] an Ideacomo fabric in three weeks and if I want a short run of a special pattern they’ll pick my brains, do the run for me, and take the risk that my design talent will leave them with a fabric they can sell elsewhere. The Canadian mills say it’s navy for spring and brown for fall and go beserk if you want anything else.”

Some Canadian mills are trying. Designer Marilyn Brooks has nothing but praise for Dominion Textile which, she says, “bends over backwards to give'me the designs I want.” But the shimmery “polysilk” fabric that has brought her enormous success in her wholesale business (sold to The Bay, Simpsons and 60 new accounts this fall alone) is made in Japan. Since the quotas the Canadian government has placed on Japanese textiles are based on E quantity and not cost, the Japanese will only sell their most expensive versions to Canadians. Meanwhile the discovery of silken polyesters by leading U.S. designer Halston has made their availability all but impossible for small Canadian designers.

Last July the Canadian government revised its quota system. Beginning in January, global quotas will end on clothing and new import controls will apply to seven so-called “basket” countries: Hong Kong, South Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philip-

pines, Poland and Romania. In textiles the situation remains highly protected through a series of bilateral agreements. Although some Canadian manufacturers are pleased with this continued protectionism, not everyone shares their enthusiasm. Says Bernie Brodkin of Brodkin Industries ($12 million annual sales): “I’d like to see an open market. Let the chips fall where they may. It would open up the 220 million U.S. market and if we have free trade I’ll take my chances.”

Two domestic problems haunt the Canadian fashion market: (1) The reluctance of manufacturers and—until recently—the public to accept a Canadian fashion star system, and (2) the preference of manufacturers, designers and trade associations to fight rather than help one another. The first problem is slowly being tackled. “Would you buy a Halston if it was called a United Textile?” asks Mary Stephenson, executive director of the Fashion Designers’ Association of Canada. Canadian manufacturers have traditionally been loathe to put a designer’s name on their label, afraid they would build up a designer who could then move on to another house or open his own business. But slowly they are coming around. Canadian designer Leo Chevalier has had a label with Brodkin since 1972 and today shoppers in the higher priced dress and sportswear range will look for Chevalier’s innovative Ultra-

suede designs and meticulously finished clothing long before they touch a Halston. Miller-Book and Co. Ltd. worked with designer Marni Grobba for four years and has now given her the label Intuitions by Marni Grobba. Marilyn Brooks promotes her designers—Barbara Semrick and Buzzy Saunders—by putting them on the Marilyn Brooks label and when Diffusion Baccarat of Montreal launched a division for designer Simon Chang’s line there was no hesitation in giving him his own company name and label, Simon Chang for International Tyfoon.

Canadian stores are onto the star syndrome as well. This month Eaton’s launches the designer week of its current “Canadian Celebration” campaign. A slick advertising campaign features the clothes of Pat McDonagh, Leo Chevalier, Margaret Godfrey, Simon Chang and Alfred Sung—with photos of the designers themselves standing in front of their clothes. Explains Eaton’s buyer Marina Gibson: “These designers are stars and the customer looks for their name. We believe in them and we think it’s good for business.”

Still, it’s the in-fighting that may do the Canadian fashion industry in. For instance the Fashion Designers’ Association of Canada (FDAC) was established to promote Canadian fashion designers. But as one industry observer lamented: “It’s the old guard versus the new guard. FDAC is busy protecting old friends as well as not ruffling government feathers.” And last spring when the fashion industry magazine Style launched its first prêt-à-porter showing of European and Canadian fashions in Montreal for American retail buyers, Fashion Canada (a creature of industry, trade and commerce) refused to help finance the project because, said Executive Director Lisa Taylor, “We don’t have the funds and besides helping a show that includes foreign designers goes against our government’s quota policy.” Says Style publisher Jack Daley: “The idea was simply to use the European designers as a drawing card to pull American buyers who couldn’t afford to go to Paris for the prêt-à-porter showings over here and sell them some Canadian fashion at the same time. But even the big Canadian manufacturers have been sitting on their hands taking a waitand-see attitude to our show. No one wants to risk anything.”

Sighs Marilyn Brooks: “If only we could get Canadian mills to sit down with the manufacturers and designers and talk about the possibility of working together and taking some risks for the sake of building up the industry. Have a real think-tank. But everyone is out to protect their own turf.”

Part of the reason for the problems in the textile and clothing business may well be the double whammy government policy has

had on Canadian businessmen. High tariffs and quotas have protected them from competition outside, while ever-increasing government regulations on safety, environmental controls and minimum wages have made doing business in Canada more trouble than it’s worth. The safest and most comfortable approach for business has been to maximize the protectionist situation and not take on the headaches of

exporting and hustling new orders. Still, some entrepreneurs remain and they are being wooed by the United States. Texas and Georgia are offering all sorts of incentives for clothing and textile manufacturers to relocate. Some Canadian companies (Penny Lou Corporation, Tan Jay, Westcott Fashion) have gone or are at least diversifying there. If there is a future for the Canadian fashion industry it may well be in a government policy that removes the cushion as well as the stick and lets go of minimum wage laws and trade protection at the same time. Deregulation and stiff competition, some industry analysts maintain, make an industry healthy. Over-regulation and tariffs are like binding a man’s feet and giving him crutches to hobble on.

Of course poorly paid workers or polluted skies don’t guarantee a healthy industry either. Perhaps what the fashion field really needs is a touch of magic. Designers like Alfred Sung, Pat McDonagh, Simon Chang and Montreal’s John Warden are a first step, but in the short run spelling Toronto P-A-R-l-S might work even better. ^