For Malorie Urbanovitch, the fifth time was the charm. Last March, the Alberta-based designer made her fifth appearance at World MasterCard Fashion Week in Toronto with a fall collection inspired by a three-week trip she took to Morocco in late 2014. It featured vibrant, tapestry-inspired intarsia knits, tassel trims, shearling accents and structured bags in bold shades of suede. The combination of classic silhouettes and unexpected detailing not only wowed the audience, it prompted Quebec-based retailer La Maison Simons to pick up the line for its Edmonton store, where it arrived earlier this month.
Urbanovitch is no stranger to such success. On the Toronto runway, she won the Mercedes-Benz Start Up award in 2013, and, since then, the 28-year-old has consistently debuted beautiful clothing and accessories to a packed runway room. She will do so again on Oct. 22 with a spring collection that explores a more painterly approach to design, created in collaboration with Edmonton artist Bernadette Paetz.
For anyone who understands the challenges of operating an independent fashion business in Canada – mainly how to reach a limited audience across a vast country – Urbanovitch’s patience and steady growth since launching three years ago is remarkable. “A lot of the time, you feel like you’re treading water, trying to get ahead,” says Urbanovitch via Skype from her Edmonton studio, a few weeks before her show. “Slow growth. That’s kind of the plan. I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew.”
Urbanovitch is pragmatic in both business and design. “I don’t think I’m a conceptual designer. I don’t really make wearable art. Everything is pretty functional,” explains the University of Alberta film studies grad. That approach is exactly what attracted a big department store like Simons to her work. “What we liked about the line was its general simplicity, the timelessness of the pieces, the subtle seventies vibe, and her use of materials and attention to detail,” says Richard Simons, vice-president of merchandising at La Maison Simons. “It is important to us to support local designers throughout Canada. As we expand, I believe it will be more and more important to integrate local designers into our assortment.”
For any independent brand, especially one working with large retailers with high expectations, keeping the cash flowing, ensuring quality and meeting deadlines is essential. Urbanovitch and her business partner, Michael Meneghetti, have established a cost-effective manufacturing plan that allows the brand to grow without being financially overwhelmed. As she was starting to become recognized for her luxurious knit pieces, it was crucial to source them from an ethical manufacturer that could deliver a top-notch product and be willing to take smaller orders.
While at a trade show in Paris, Urbanovitch and Meneghetti met a woman who runs a women’s knitting collective in Craiova, Romania. After seeing the collective’s work, the duo jumped at the opportunity to work with them. “They have a cottage industry there, which is something that’s died in most other places,” she says. “It’s a tradition that’s kept going.” Each knitter is assigned one garment from the collection, which she sees through from start to finish. “They take a lot of pride in their work,” says Urbanovitch. Her other clothing pieces are now also produced in Romania, while leather handbags are made in Italy.
Even though the brand is gaining momentum with high-profile retailers such as Simons, as well as Edmonton-based Gravity Pope, Urbanovitch and Meneghetti also work additional jobs to ease the financial pressure on the small business. Meneghetti is the director of Mode Models in Edmonton, an agency that also represents Urbanovitch as a stylist, a role she’s had for a decade. She works on styling editorials, fashion shows and commercial work, sometimes even bartering her expertise for someone else’s. “If a photographer needs a stylist, I would do it for free and then they can shoot my lookbook for free,” says the ever-resourceful Urbanovitch, adding that a tight-knit creative community is one of the perks of being based outside of Eastern Canada’s fashion bubble.
“It would be nice not to have to worry about financials, then I could just focus on being a designer, getting new accounts and perfecting my craft,” she says. “But I tend to work really well under pressure.” Some of that pressure was recently eased when the company hired a third staff member to work on marketing and sales.
Her hard work is paying off. Earlier this year, Urbanovitch was recognized by the Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards as a nominee in the emerging designer category. Top model Heather Marks was at her side at the gala wearing a chic emerald-green Malorie Urbanovitch column gown in a sea of over-inflated ball skirts. Urbanovitch was also invited to exhibit at the prestigious Paris– based trade show Tranoï, which coincides with Paris Fashion Week. She hopes that kind of international platform will bring visibility and new accounts to the brand.
For now, her partnership with Simons is promising to keep her very busy, especially as the retailer expands across Canada. “Malorie has shown that she can design and compete in the big leagues,” says Simons. “We would like to expand the distribution to our other stores going forward.”
Her fashion week in Toronto will be hectic. As soon as the team lands, they jump into models casting, fittings, meeting with potential buyers and catching up with mentors, including Robin Kay, whom she met through the Mercedes competition. As the brand continues to grow, Urbanovitch understands she will face the inevitable need to relocate from her hometown, not yet knowing when or where that will be, but that she will know when the time is right. “There is a long haul of investment before you see the payback,” she says, recognizing there is still a great deal of hustling still to do. “This is what I love to do. I’m glad I get to do it.”