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the challenge

Ballerina Tina Pereira has started a ballet fashion line called Ballerina Couture.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

Ballerina Tina Pereira has played a bee, a fairy and a naughty peasant girl, among other parts, onstage. But the real-life role of businesswoman might just be her most challenging yet.

The National Ballet of Canada's first soloist added "company executive" to her résumé when she launched Ballerina Couture, a dancewear fashion brand, last year in Toronto. Since then she has been balancing manufacturing timelines on top of a busy performance schedule that is to include Le Petit Prince in June.

"I've always been an entrepreneur," says Ms. Pereira, a Trinidadian by birth who joined the country's largest classical dance company in 2001. "I've long been fascinated by the relationship between ballet and fashion, and was curious to see what I could add to the conversation."

A serious ankle injury that kept her out of her pointe shoes for the entirety of the 2014-15 ballet season gave her plenty of time to think about what she might contribute. While recuperating from surgery, she purchased a sewing machine and taught herself how to use it. Her first efforts were "admittedly awful looking," she says. "I felt bad even asking my friends to try them on."

She needn't have worried. Once back in the studio and dressed in one of her own studio-to-street creations, Ms. Pereira was besieged by fellow dancers begging to be her models.

Her Ballerina Couture leotards, with their low-cut backs, sheer panelling, removable bow-ties, gold clasp embellishments and distinctive crown logo, are seen as a vast improvement over the pink-tights-with-leg-warmers look that dancers have been wearing to ballet class since the 1970s.

"I wanted to make something I would wear myself," the 33-year-old dancer says.

Ms. Pereira designs the collection and has used her own money to launch the business. Her items are priced from $40 to $90 and are available on her Etsy site and the Ballerina Couture website. She has sold 200 leotards since starting Ballerina Couture in November.

To promote her business, the ballerina has appeared in do-it-yourself promotional videos. She also shares news and images to Snapchat and Instagram, where she now has close to 10,000 followers.

"My market is not limited to just dancers," says Ms. Pereira, who designs for girls as well as women. "I want to appeal to those who would want to wear one of my leotards with pants or a skirt on a Friday night."

Her one frustration is production quality. She outsources manufacturing, but she often finds herself placed last on the maker's list of priorities. "My biggest order is 500 leotards at a time, which is nothing to them. I often have to wait my turn."

Delays in production recently caused her to miss a deadline for an order. An additional problem is quality control. Some of the leotards have had ragged stitching that she, a ballerina for whom striving after perfection is a way of life, has had to reject. She plans to donate the botched order to schools in Cuba.

"What I need is a manufacturer who can perform to my high standard," she says.

The Challenge: How can Ballerina Couture improve the manufacture of its small-batch products?


Bob Kirke, executive director, Canadian Apparel Federation, Ottawa

Ms. Pereira needs to find some way to build greater predictability and oversight into the production process. Given her schedule, she will not be able to do this on her own. Failing to do so will ultimately distract her from what she does best, that which really defines her company.

Can she find an experienced production manager who can perform the factory monitoring? Possibly. Another option is to partner with a stable manufacturing firm in her product category. An example would be Mondor, a Quebec-based dancewear manufacturer. Her product may complement their offerings and allow Mondor to expand the range of products they offer to their retailers. Designer partnerships with either retailers or brands are more common than ever, thanks to stores such as H&M.

Another option, and one with its own set of risks, is to partner with another firm in the same space. Surprisingly enough, there is a business in Canada with precisely the same origin. Vancouver-based Ainsliewear was founded by a retired ballerina from the National Ballet, and distribution is across Canada. Since Ainsliewear has already developed a local production base and national distribution network, there may be synergies Ballerina Couture could explore, provided their products are complementary.

Avi Raphael, partner, Slavin Raphael, a wholesale multifashion brand agency, and co-owner of the Tiger of Sweden Toronto flagship boutique, Toronto

Turning your passion and dreams into reality is part of the bedrock of fashion. But to think you can tackle the fashion industry part-time is, unfortunately, a little naive. To attempt to launch a new brand "on the side" is next to impossible. There are just not enough hours in the day to do it all. Unless you are extremely well-financed and able to surround yourself with a top-notch, dedicated team, your chance of lasting success is minimal.

Timing and quality production trumps everything. It is one thing to sell to family, friends and co-workers. But it's a completely different animal to enter the crazy zoo of brick and mortar retailers. If the quality isn't there, faith is lost. If you miss delivery deadlines you are hit with discounts and cancellations, something traditionally very difficult for a startup to swallow.

I would keep things very small to start, and would grow organically. Stick to limited high-quality runs and maintain tight distribution until you perfect your formula and model. Once you establish your supply chain, costing structure, quality and shipping, you can start to develop a proper wholesale rollout strategy. Stick to the key independent retailers, learn the ropes, take your lumps, mitigate risk and build the brand. Only then can you look to expand to strategic major retailers and department-store businesses.

Audrey Hyams Romoff, president, OverCat Communications, a national public relations agency specializing in lifestyle brands, Toronto

I trained and danced for 15 years and so I applaud your ingenuity. We have worked with a number of extremely talented Canadian designers who have faced the same production and distribution issues. I would suggest trying to connect with designers who have faced the same challenges and may have suggestions, or even manufacturers they have used, who are more used to dealing with smaller orders. Or look for other local designers who have similar needs in terms of materials and production – you may be able to bundle your orders to improve clout with suppliers and manufacturers.

There are also local third-party resources available, most notably the Toronto Fashion Incubator, a not-for-profit organization that works to support and nurture Canadian designers.

Selling on a site like Etsy allows you to keep building a profile, while giving you a bit more leeway in terms of delivery times. Most importantly, leveraging your social platforms is a great strategy, especially because you can drive to your e-commerce platforms. Selling on Etsy gives you the potential to reach the massive global network of dancers, both professional and aspiring, as well as recreational, so having the capabilities to ship internationally is essential.

Tanya Taylor, Canadian fashion designer, Tanya Taylor, New York

At the beginning of my career, having an issue like this could have been devastating. You pour your energy and resources into something you believe in, but oftentimes the results seem to be out of your hands.

Manufacturing is a process that can make or break an entire collection. When it comes to quality control, absolutely no corners can be cut. Make your expectations clear to the manufacturer. Production is a mutual agreement, and partners need to be 100 per cent accountable.

It sounds like you need a new partner that values your business and is willing to make you a priority no matter the size of your order. It takes some searching and may take a few tries to get it right.


Look for partners

Consider joining forces with a designer or another firm in the same space.

Third-party help

Check out the Toronto Fashion Incubator, a not-for-profit that nurtures Canadian designers.

Grow organically

Perfect all the aspects of your business before you start to develop a wholesale rollout strategy.

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Interviews have been edited and condensed.