In September, Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Mary of Denmark made a brief but event-filled visit to Canada. They attended luncheons and dinners, participated in seminars on Danish design and posed at product showcases in Ottawa and Toronto. In addition to strengthening existing Canadian business relationships, the purpose of their trip, as stated in their delegation document, was to increase current Danish exports to Canada. Some 80 companies in the fields of green building, health, style and taste took part in the mission, according to consulate reports.
Contrast the vigour and enthusiasm of the Danish trade trip with Adrienne Clarkson's 2003 circumpolar tour designed to promote Canadian culture among our northern neighbours. The first leg, to Russia, Finland and Iceland, saw the then-Governor General squire 51 prominent Canucks around those countries at an ultimate cost of $5.3-million, a sum that prompted howls of outrage from opposition parties. "It's another example of excessive spending on the part of government departments," Conservative MP Peter MacKay said at the time, despite the fact that his own party would go on to highlight the importance of Canada's role in the North. The second instalment of the vice-regal trip, to Norway, Sweden and Denmark, was abruptly cancelled a couple of months later.
In the years before and since, Canada has sponsored international trade missions to important emerging markets such as China. (Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is planning a week-long one to that country starting Oct. 25.) But almost all of these Team Canada sorties have been entirely commercial in nature, not related to promoting a national design identity, as Denmark's was. So how else does Canada actively promote its viable design exports – from contemporary clothing labels such as Smythe to classic furniture designs like Solair chairs – elsewhere? It doesn't, really. Not as a country, anyway. Non-governmental Montreal and Toronto Fashion Week organizations have in the past worked with local and provincial agencies to fly in and host foreign journalists and buyers, part of the funding provided by tourism and economic-development grants. Over all, though, the Canadian government doesn't organize or sponsor trade-show presence or delegations for fashion and design.
On its website, Canada's Trade Commissioner Service (TCS) lists the many sectors it helps promote and develop, categories such as "chemicals and plastics," "wine, beer and spirits" and "arts and cultural." Apparel, textiles and furniture, however, fall under the broad "consumer goods" sector, where there is but one upcoming event listed on the site: an ExpoCuba trade fair in Cuba in November.
Clearly, Canada could take a few promotional lessons from other design-minded countries. Here are just a few of the things some nations are doing.
Plying them with wine as they shop
You would think that welcoming the world's top journalists and stylists to Paris Fashion Week (plus Premiere Vision, the seasonal textile market) twice a year would be enough, but UBIFRANCE, the government arm charged with promoting French companies abroad, also carves out space at North American trade shows to directly promote home-decor and fashion companies to showrooms and retail buyers. (In 2013, for instance, it installed a French pavilion at IDS in Toronto.) This year, there have been three different French pavilions subsidized or sponsored by UBIFRANCE at key New York trade shows: International Vision Expo (to which it brought 17 eyewear designers), Accessorie Circuit (11 fashion companies, mainly jewellery) and two editions of NY NOW (where primarily home designers were featured), according to information supplied by the senior trade advisor in UBIFRANCE's New York office. Last year, the organization also produced a special event, called l'Art de vivre à la française, in Los Angeles.
In Canada, two regional offices, in Montreal and Toronto, further support these efforts by organizing group events or preparing market reports, programs and visits based on individual needs. The next of these is a fashion event in Toronto on Oct.
27 and 28, when the fashion brands Jayko, Lancaster, Max, Jean Rousseau and Banen will be brought in for familiarization with the Canadian retail landscape and business-to-business meetings tailored according to their profile and export strategy.
For the most part, the French design delegations are treated as seriously as other categories, such as film or wine (the latter always abundant at these mixers). This should come as no surprise considering that haute couture is a controlled appellation (like Champagne) that the French consider as much a part of their heritage as commerce. Bottom line: French design is a cultural export.
Taking an artful route
A division of the Italian Ministry for Economic Development, Italtrade sometimes brings together the cultural and consumer sectors in its promotions, as it did when it incorporated choreography by former National Ballet of Canada soloist Roberto Campanella, who was born and raised in Rome, in one of its events. Recently, Italtrade sponsored Holt Renfrew's Italian Immersion experience, flying in industry players such as Canali president Giorgio Canali and rising talents like Stella Jean for Canadian press events (it also sent top Canadian buyers and press to the latter's runway presentation in Rome this summer). In its promotion of Italian textiles, Italtrade even indirectly helps Canadian fashion designers: Steven Tai, a London-based Canadian known for his experimention with fabrics, was recently sent on a visit to the Filo trade show in Milan to explore creative partnerships with Italian textile factories, ideally with a view to using their wares in future collections. He most likely will.
The dynamic British Fashion Council, London Fashion Week's organizing body, does the usual things during its sartorial showcases: It brings foreign journalists and buyers to the shows, arranges showroom visits, even helps place orders. Not content to merely promote its own domestic industry, however, the Council has also been known to engage with foreign embassies and delegations to showcase designers from other jurisdictions on The Strand and at satellite locations. The gesture is a mark, of course, of a confident market and a mature nation, but it creates considerable good will among participants and a sense of occasion around such events. Canada's sole official presence during London Fashion Week last February was spearheaded by la belle province, which is much more pro-active in the promotion of its cultural industries than the federal government tends to be. For the duration of LFW, the Quebec Government Office in London hosted a contingent of the province's most promising designers (UNTTLD, Melissa Nepton and five others) in a promotion called Montreal: The White Winter Fashion City. The event came about as result of collaboration between the Office, Export-Quebec and the Fashion Designers' Council of Quebec (because they have one) and ensured the attention of the international press, buyers and the public at least for that one week.
Bringing out the big guns
There is no doubt that the star power of Prince Frederik and Princess Mary was integral to the recent Danish trade trip to Canada, a key element of which was the opening of Danish Design Obsessed, a pop-up-shop partnership with Hudson's Bay featuring the sleek tableware and accessories of the heritage silversmith brand Georg Jensen among its 30 brands. Princess Mary, an Australian who married Frederik in 2004, made small talk with design press, chatted up her country's talent and even handled the goods, holding bracelets and dresses aloft like one of Barker's Beauties from The Price is Right. And it wasn't at all vulgar. Not even when she inadvertently posed, as one observer pointed out, near a display of men's briefs.
Of course, Canada has no royals to deploy in any sector and an often fractious federal-provincial system. But we do have many homegrown stars who are popular abroad, from Rachel McAdams (her penchant is for green design solutions, something our designers have many of) to Nickelback (hey, Montreal is the largest manufacturer of denim after Los Angeles), who could be deputized to do more than occasionally wear Canadian labels and formally talk up our industrial-design talent. Celebrity ambassadors relevant to mass culture (and commerce) are the next best thing to royalty. They would certainly have a lot to promote.