Get an inside peek into the business philosophies of three up-and-coming creative companies

Fashion: a word synonymous with designer labels, Anna Wintour and cultural hubs such as Paris, Milan and New York.

The Canadian fashion industry is usually not the first thought to come to mind.

Not to say that us Canadians aren’t fashionable. Canada boasts a wealth of trendy retailers offered at a variety of price points, including Joe Fresh, Zara and Holt Renfrew. However, much of the clothing sold in the great white north was designed and manufactured elsewhere.

Bearing that in mind, for local designers within the Canadian industry, finding a successful niche can be a challenge.

A challenge – but not an impossibility, as some Canadian designers have discovered through their own unique approaches to breaking into our country’s apparel industry.

Camp Brand Goods

Connor Gould began this Calgary based outdoor-wear brand in 2011. The company was developed initially as a creative outlet for Gould who was working for a Calgary marketing firm at the time.

Camp was inspired out of a love of graphic design, Gould’s passion for the Canadian outdoors and vintage mountaineer culture. Gould was joined by his now-wife Leslie McNeilly, also a passionate outdoorswoman, who handles the company’s social media and accounts. Two years ago, the couple became business partners.

Husband and wife design team Leslie McNeilley and Connor Gould have had success with their outdoors-inspired brand Camp Brand Goods.

Photo courtesy of Camp Brand GoodsGould said that a year into the company, the collection’s “Happy Camper Sweater” started gaining popularity on a variety of Canadian fashion blogs.

“We had the realization it was a bigger thing,” Gould said, adding that he wanted to avoid being a one-hit-wonder with his designs.

So, the couple decided to diversify the brand.

“We have put a lot of time and effort into creating the brand into what it is today,” Gould said.

“It was always outdoor driven, but at first we didn’t look at it like it does today,” Gould said. Gould and McNeilly still do not have a structured business plan for the company, which they believe allows the collection to develop organically.

“Loosely we follow a bigger goal followed by a bunch of smaller goals,” said Gould.

Last holiday season Camp Brand Goods was picked up by a derivative company of the Urban Outfitters umbrella, Without Walls. Without Walls is an American retailer that focuses on trendy outdoor-wear. Camp is additionally available locally in boutiques such as The Uncommons and Modern Menswear.

The company also celebrated the soft-launch of its first flagship store The Livery Shop with fellow local companies CoutuKitsch and Little Lion Man Leather last month.

Staying Calgary-based, Gould believes, is a double-edged sword.

“If you’re in places like New York, Toronto or Vancouver you are much closer to the action, but you’re in a much bigger pond. There is a huge entrepreneurial spirit here and people like to support local.”

The company is mostly manufactured in Los Angeles, although a few items are produced offshore in countries like the Dominican Republic and Egypt. Gould said that North American manufacturing may be more expensive, but it offers a higher level of control.

“It is easier when it is that much closer, especially for a smaller company like ours.”

Laura Siegel

Laura Siegel is a women’s wear brand focused on manufacturing ethical and sustainable clothing that brings global craft culture to the western world.

Calgary native Carmen Tsang, who works as the director of sales and marketing at Laura Siegel in Toronto, said the brand started about three and a half years ago after Laura Siegel graduated from Parsons The New School of Design and travelled to Southeast Asia.

Originally from Toronto, Siegel was inspired by the craft culture she saw in her travels. Realizing there was a market that wasn’t being utilized by other fashion houses, she began researching how she could incorporate craft culture into her designs.

“Now it is our goal every season to work with a new community of artisans,” Tsang said. “That’s what keeps us going.”

Calgarian Carmen Tsang works as the director of sales and marketing for Laura Siegel in Toronto. 

Photo Courtesy of Laura SiegelPartnering with non-governmental organizations like Qasab Craft, the company works with artisans in India, South America and Africa. The company is also expanding to work with artisans in Bali and Lao.

“Our model is different than a typical designer’s,” Tsang said.

“We are driven by cultural craft, so I think the story drives our success.” She added that there is a movement with people wanting to know where their clothes are made and to feel connected to what they wear.

Before purchasing a Laura Siegel garment, it may have already travelled to three different countries and passed through the hands of three different craft artists prior to being assembled and shipped from Deli, India.

“It’s sad,” said Tsang. “Sometimes you see these crafts practiced by the grandparents and it is not passed down because there is no need for it or there is technology that takes it over.

“That is part of why we do what we do, to make sure that culture is still relevant and still sustained in our world,” Tsang said.

While the brand started in New York, Tsang said that upon moving to Toronto she’s found the community is more supportive.

“It is easier for us to build up our credibility and strengthen our brand in a small pond like Toronto and then have that credibility and confidence to show in New York,” Tsang said.

However, Tsang said that a key aspect of the New York fashion industry, which lacks in Canada, is that New York has the ability to make things happen.

“The impossible can be possible, whereas in Toronto and even more so in Calgary you do not have those resources.”

In Calgary, Laura Siegel is available in Primitive Culture and Holt Renfrew. Additionally, with support from the Toronto film industry, the company also produced their documentary, “Traceable.” The film critically examines the world of fast-fashion and will be showing on MTV in April for the second anniversary of the Rana Plaza Factory collapse.

Sarah Stevenson

While studying in Milan, Toronto-designer Sarah Stevenson received her Master’s Degree in textile and clothing design in 2010. It was during her studies that she realized the textile printing and manipulation techniques she was learning were not being utilized in the Canadian industry. Stevenson took the opportunity to create a market for her line by bringing these techniques back home to Toronto.

After winning the Toronto Fashion Incubator New Labels competition in 2013, she received a $25,000 grant from actress Suzanne Rogers as well as the opportunity to develop a capsule collection with Target for spring 2014.

Stevenson said that she worked very closely with the design team at Target to create a line suited for the chain’s shopper.

Toronto designer Sarah Stevenson’s work was selected to appear in Target’s spring 2014 collection.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Stevenson“All of the fabrics were developed from my own artwork which was really important for me because that is what my brand is all about,” Stevenson said. “We developed the fabrics and the colour story first and then the silhouettes.”

Stevenson said that while all her fabrics are printed in Italy, her collection is manufactured in Canada.

“I chose to keep manufacturing here so that I can work closely with the vendors to ensure excellent quality.” Stevenson added that through having her line manufactured in Canada she also ensures that the production process is ethical.

However, Stevenson said that she feels it can be difficult to start and grow a brand in Canada because local designers do not receive a lot of support from the government and Canadian retailers.

“In other countries there is a lot of support for their local designers and they are very proud to invest in them,” Stevenson said.

She added that in other countries retailers specifically buy local products. “Whereas here they are not very interested in local talent. It’s sad and it’s very difficult to stay in business here.

“I think that you have to sell abroad or move abroad to establish your brand outside of Canada if you want to be successful.”

Aside from her collaboration with Target, Stevenson’s line is available online and in select Toronto retailers. She is currently working on a line of stationary and home products as well as looking for potential investors to grow her business.

scomber@cjournal.ca