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Vicky Milner addresses the crowd at last year’s Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards ceremony in Toronto.

GEORGE PIMENTEL/CAFA

Since co-founding the Canadian Arts & Fashion Awards event eight years ago, Vicky Milner has worked to turn it into one of the hottest tickets of the year, attracting designers, stylists, models and image makers from across the country to celebrate each other’s accomplishments at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York Hotel.

Like countless other live events, the CAFA Awards Gala was canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic. This year, it’s going ahead on May 19 as a virtual event that Milner hopes will accomplish two things: give the thousands who work in fashion something to celebrate and get them out of their sweats and into some fabulous Canadian-made clothes.

In a conversation with The Globe and Mail, Milner talks about the hurdles her industry has faced over the past 12 months, some of the initiatives CAFA has launched to support its members through these trying times and her hopes that the next generation will demand – and support – a more sustainable industry.

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What will a virtual gala awards show look like?

We hope to shoot the one-hour broadcast in a studio, but given the most recent lockdown, it could all take place in our producer’s living room. Actor Amanda Brugel, known for her work on The Handmaid’s Tale and Kim’s Convenience, is our host and we will be celebrating previously announced honourees such as model Maye Musk, the global lifestyle brand October’s Very Own (OVO) and women’s-wear designer Tanya Taylor. We’re also excited about some special guests including artist and designer Sage Paul [artistic director of Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto] and George Sully, the creator of the Black Designers of Canada database.

You have said the digital format will ‘democratize’ the gala. What do you mean by that?

At the live gala, we host about 700 people, plus another 1,000 who come to the after party. We hope the virtual gala will attract far greater numbers because it will be accessible to more people, including family and friends of people who work in the industry, fashion students and all the creatives who simply love fashion from Winnipeg to Halifax to Calgary. We want people to have fun, dress up in their favourite Canadian brands and share their look on social media with the hashtag #CAFA2021. We want to honour our community at a time when so many people have been isolated and to remind them that there is support and resiliency to this industry.

Can you describe what the past year has been like for people who work in fashion?

Like many industries, it’s been super tough. Apparel is so tied to lifestyle, and for the past 12 months, everyone has been stuck at home. Designers of eveningwear or business/casual – pretty much everything except leisurewear – have seen sales drop precipitously. The spending is just not there. The designers and creatives I’ve been speaking to want to work, but their hands are tied. In normal times, the creative artists in fashion and beauty work in isolation from one another. During COVID, it’s been made that much worse. Now, more than ever, it’s important to uplift and acknowledge our homegrown talent and give them hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

What are some of the initiatives CAFA has undertaken to support the sector?

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When COVID hit, we started doing a series, twice a week, on Facebook Live called Live with CAFA to help ease some of the confusion and panic. For example, we invited a financial expert to explain the stimulus package and how to access it. We asked e-commerce savvy brands to share their strategies for building out digital platforms for online sales. It was beautiful to see how the community came together to help one another. Last fall, CAFA also created a digital platform for sales, called Shop Local Labels (shoplocallabels.com). It is a shopping guide to rally people around shopping local with more than 100 labels and over 350 products in fashion, accessories, jewellery, beauty products and wellness. If there is a silver lining to COVID, it’s that shopping local has been on people’s minds more and more. They have come to realize how amazing these businesses are – but more important – how fragile they are. I think more Canadian shoppers realize that every dollar they spend on homegrown talent counts.

At the start of the pandemic, the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the British Fashion Council said it was time for all brands, designers and retailers to reset and rethink the way in which the industry works – to slow it down. Do you agree?

The modus operandi for fashion was like being on a hamster wheel with everything moving forward at such a frenzied pace there was no time for reflection. For years, there has been too much waste and changes are needed at every level. There are too many deliveries. There has been too much merchandise generated and too much left unsold, most of which ends up in landfills. We all need to be more strategic about the collections cycle. Do we need collections for spring, summer, winter, fall, cruise wear etc.? Waste has been rampant.

Are you hopeful change will come?

The pandemic has made everyone – in every industry – stop and think. COVID has definitely taught us that anything can happen in the world, at any moment. I have twin girls who are 18 and the fashion labels that they stand behind are the one with a good social conscience. This generation wants to feel good about what they purchase. They are more educated, more informed and willing to make choices that are more sustainable. Science doesn’t lie and they are the ones listening to it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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