Made in Montreal
What is it about Canada's second-largest city that continues to make it a hub for style startups? As it prepares for its annual Fashion and Design Festival, Janna Zittrer Appleby asks local designers about the secrets to the their – and Montreal's – success
Montreal is known for being a city with relatively cheap rent, multiculturalism and old-world charm. But it's also famed for its steep taxes, brutally cold winters, identity politics and seemingly endless road construction, all of which can make the Quebec metropolis a challenge for even the proudest local to love at times. Still, most Montrealers will tell you, with the certainty of a Turcot Interchange detour, that it is the best city in the world – and that it is Canada's preeminent city of style.
Montreal is indeed home to many of Canada's most successful fashion companies. You needn't look further than such global brands as Aldo, Frank And Oak and Mackage to appreciate the fertile fashion ground that is Canada's second largest city. While Toronto can claim the economic upper hand and triple the number of fashion weeks, Montreal breeds a creative freedom that is hard for other Canadian cities to beat thanks to a combination of education, community and support.
"I strongly believe Montreal provides an incredible backdrop for the Canadian fashion industry," says Aldo Group founder Aldo Bensadoun. "It's a mix of the can-do entrepreneurship of the United States, with the flair and style of Europe, all while celebrating diversity."
"Montreal is a city that is thriving with art and culture, making it the ideal place to explore one's creativity and, essentially, launch a fashion business," says Ethan Song, CEO and co-founder of Frank And Oak. "The city [has] an eclectic but approachable aesthetic that resonates globally."
The city further benefits from its distinctly tight-knit design community, a particular boon to brands coming up on the scene. "When it comes to the circle of creators here, I've never experienced any ego issues," says Jordan Lajoie, founder of leather accessories brand Lajoie. "We invite brands to our studio all the time," he adds. "Likewise, we recently met Brandon [Svarc] of Naked & Famous Denim. He invited us to his head office, gave us a full tour and talked with us for hours. It was very humble of him, considering we had just met."
Molly Spittal, founder of leather goods brand The Stowe also values the tight-knit community. "We all help one another with photo shoots, loaning clothing and handbags, and sharing tips on the best suppliers in the industry," she says. "Because of this transparency, we have created an even playing field that lacks the intense competition and guarded behaviour that is very common in the fashion industry."
Song felt similarly welcome in the start-up stage. "When Hicham [Ratnani] and I launched Frank And Oak five years ago, the response from the community was immediate," he says. "There is an appetite in Montreal to support local talent and to cement Montreal's place on the world stage."
With reputable fashion schools, including LaSalle College, Université du Quebec à Montréal and Cégep Marie-Victorin, producing nearly 500 graduates each year in disciplines ranging from fashion design to marketing, the city also provides a steady stream of talent favourable to local companies. "We're seeing a new wave of designers and artists who are bringing fresh new ideas to the table – ideas that not only evoke their individuality, but also capture Montreal's cultural vibrancy," says Sushant Saini, director of online retail at MADE Eyewear.
Still, there are challenges. Montreal is no longer the thriving textile-manufacturing hub it once was. "Finding qualified, precise and efficient labour is quite a challenge for us," says Sofia Sokoloff, founder of Sokoloff Lingerie. Operating out of a 4,000-square-foot converted garage in north-central Montreal, Sokoloff Lingerie manufactures all of its products locally. "The textile industry has been outsourcing in Asia for years now, and we're suffering the consequences. It's a true challenge for us to maintain local production, but it is also something that we are extremely stubborn about," she says.
There's the language barrier, too. Lajoie, born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., decided to launch his brand in Montreal after his Australian working visa expired. "At first, the language was a bit of a challenge, but that shouldn't surprise you when moving here," he says, adding, "The language helps keeps you on your toes."
And Calgary-born Spittal says, "I get some side-eye once in a while about my poor French skills, which I totally understand."
Competitive operating costs go a long way to balancing those challenges, however. "Montreal gives so much room for creatives to breathe and experiment," says women's wear designer Brittany Wacher. Last year, Wacher moved her eponymous label to Toronto after receiving a start-up grant from the city toward a one-year residency at the Toronto Fashion Incubator. "Montreal's lower costs of living and commercial space are so helpful for surviving as a creative person," she says. "There is less risk and stress from a financial perspective, allowing more time and energy to spend on experimentation and development of ideas and practice."
Spittal agrees that having the luxury to focus is key to success. "It was so easy in Vancouver to fall back on other things to make ends meet," she says. "I truly believe that The Stowe would be nowhere near where it is now if I hadn't made the move to Montreal."
The greatest perk for many of Montreal's fashion players is the availability of government funding. "There are so many programs and grants dedicated to aiding residential artisans in their beginning stages, Jeunes Volontaires and SAJE being two great examples," says Jade Boutilier, founder of Captve jewellery. In addition to numerous arts and entrepreneurial grants at the municipal and provincial levels, the city has also increased its funding for programs that improve the visibility and competitiveness of the Quebec fashion industry. Each year, for instance, the City of Montreal commits $135,000 to support the Montreal Fashion and Design Festival, an eight-day event series that draws more than 500,000 visitors. The 2017 edition runs from Aug. 21 to 26.
"Montreal is a place that truly understands the mind of an artist and helps nurture this type of person into the world," says now-Toronto-based Wacher. "That is the aspect I miss most."
Must-see events at the Montreal Fashion and Design Festival Must-See Events
An inspiring glimpse into the industry's creative minds, this year's conference series which runs from Aug. 21 to 24, includes such acclaimed speakers as famed photographer and publicist Jean-Paul Goude, luxury consultant Luca Marchetti, and fashion designers Olivier Theyskens, Zaldy Goco and Montreal's own Marie Saint Pierre.
On Aug. 23 at 9:30 pm, more than 100 looks will hit the festival's runway as designers, manufacturers and costumers mark the city's 375th anniversary with a view into the past, present and future of Montreal style.
EXPO_NOW Fashion Show presented by Lasalle College
Fifty years after the visionary event put Montreal on the map, LaSalle College recalls Expo '67 to reimagine how the iconic exhibition can inspire fashion today. The presentation takes place Aug. 25 at 9:30 pm.
Made In: Canada 150
The festival's closing catwalk show on Aug. 26 at 9:30 pm, celebrates Canada's 150th birthday with a touching tribute to the country's fashion industry.
FMD Shopping Space
Enjoy a one-stop shopping experience on the festival grounds as emerging local designers present their wares across 40 pop-up stores and fashion trucks. Look out for performances and live activities at the festival's first-ever "Pop-Up Residences," featuring boutique talent agency Teamm and buzzy Montreal label Coolkoala.
The Festival Design & Mode runs from Aug. 21 to 26 at Quartier des Spectacles. For tickets and more information, visit www.festivalmodedesign.com.
Visit tgam.ca/newsletters to sign up for the Globe Style e-newsletter, your weekly digital guide to the players and trends influencing fashion, design and entertaining, plus shopping tips and inspiration for living well. And follow Globe Style on Instagram @globestyle.