When the collections roll out next week at David Pecaut Square, it will be the manifestation of untold hopes and dreams for many. While some seasoned designers have learned to take the fickle fashion business in stride, there are those passionate, novice talents who are still testing the waters, hoping they may be the ones to help catapult Canada into the global spotlight (or at least establish a brand strong enough to shine on the international stage). At 29, Toronto's Jennifer Torosian remains optimistic that her eponymous, made-in-Canada label has the stuff it takes to succeed. Three years into her efforts, she and her partner, Raed Ali, will make their runway debut at Toronto Fashion Week on March 16. Torosian and Ali met four years ago when they were both working at Holt Renfrew. As their romance blossomed, Torosian left her job to continue her fashion studies. With stints at illustrious fashion schools Parsons, Central Saint Martins and George Brown College under her belt, and with Ali's business savvy as a resource, the duo felt ready to take the plunge and launch their own label. Now, six seasons later, it's time to strut their self-financed vision on the runway, and Torosian is both excited and understandably nervous. I caught up with the charming young designer, who grew up in Vaughan, Ont., to talk about hard work, pacing herself, and the marathon of running a fashion business.
You're six seasons into the business – is it all you thought it was cracked up to be? What's been the biggest reality check?
Just how much effort it takes to develop a brand. It's one thing to have an idea, but it's another to build a brand. It's a lot of work to have a consistent vision, working that each season and building on your foundation. It's challenging to keep your values from when you started. Obviously it's about maturing and developing and refining.
What do you hope that your brand stands for ultimately?
I always think of a sense of ease when I'm designing, but we have a sport luxe aesthetic, so we're working with techno fabrics, utilitarian details, and incorporating that into a wardrobe we think a woman wants to wear during the day.
There are a lot of interesting labels popping up in the Canadian market. When you think what we're up against globally, how optimistic are you that they – and you – will survive?
I'm optimistic. What you're saying is true; I think it's just that you have to pace yourself. It's not going to happen in one season, but you need the stamina to keep going and to keep driving your vision. I hope things will change. I hope the Canadian market will support Canadians, and people will start to recognize the talent that is here.
I know there are a lot of international role models that you look at when it comes to developing your business, but are there any Canadians who have gone before you in this business that you look up to and think, "They did it from here."
Can we talk about Erdem [Moralioglu]?
He's one of the most talented and celebrated designers right now. He's got Canadian roots and was educated here, but he had to get out. Do you and your partner talk about that?
We've talked about the fact that there are so many talented Canadians that have had to leave Canada to get more recognition. Right now we're not planning on a move, but I think there are always possibilities, with being able to show overseas or in other cities. And with the Internet and social media, there are always ways to reach new people.
What about distribution? That's a whole other problem in itself.
Well, we sell things online, and we sell direct to customer, and we're selling in a few boutiques in Canada.
How receptive is the online customer? Is that an easy business to get going?
We're working on it. It's building the brand and that also helps with sales and recognition. If the customer has seen the product [online] and they love it, then they're very receptive and excited. Sometimes there are pieces that they want to try, so we reroute them to our studio if they're local.
What's your strategy when it comes to building the brand?
We have a strong team of people who have had experience in the industry for many years. We work with talented photographers and stylists, driving a very specific image. I'm sourcing my fabrics from Europe, so I have the chance to travel and see what's happening, not just in the Canadian market but internationally – the trends and the craftsmanship. I bring it all home with me and say, "Okay how can I add this to my brand? What have I seen? What relates back to it?"
Your product is manufactured here in Canada. How long will you continue that?
As long as we can. First of all, we like it because we have the manufacturing close by so we're able to do quality control and maintain our standards. It's an easy trip to the factory to oversee that. It works right now and we have no intention of moving overseas at this point. It's nice to be able to say we're a Canadian brand and we're made in Canada as well.
You met your business and life partner, Raed Ali, when you were both working at Holt Renfrew. What made you decide to start a label with someone you're personally involved with?
He has such experience in terms of manufacturing. He also did fashion design himself and has experience with luxury sales. And then with my side, the art and the design, we just completed each other. It was an exciting process starting the brand. I really wanted to do something creative and we wanted to have our own brand so that's how it started. After multiple conversations, we took the plunge.
What are you hoping to bring to the fashion landscape that you think is lacking?
There's newness to our use of fabrics, like using techno fabric in pieces you could wear to the office or out in the evening. We're interpreting the sport element and putting it into daywear. It's the fabrics and how we're mixing them together. There's also a graphic element to our aesthetic – whether it's traced and trimmed lines or the graphic prints we use.
Realistically, where would you like to see your business in the next five years?
We'd love to have more international representation. We'd love to be in some really great stores and have a customer base and have a following and sales to back up the vision. You just have to be able to grow as a brand. I'd also like to be able to do some cool collaborations.
You're having your first runway show at Toronto Fashion Week. What do you think a show does for the spirit of a brand, or for your spirit as a designer?
I think it brings everything to life. You're creating the mood and the atmosphere, and it's a different way of showing your audience the clothes and the movement, and what you do.
What's your biggest hope for your first runway experience?
That I can come back next season! That's all I can ever hope for. We just want to keep growing. It's like a marathon, right? This is not the finish line. We want to keep getting stronger, getting better each season. It's all about digging into yourself to look for something new and looking at things a different way and exploring. We want to create more and more intelligent design.
This interview has been condensed and edited.