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Accessory designer Erin Fitzpatrick moved into the Toronto Fashion Incubator recently.

Trends come and go, but the Toronto Fashion Incubator shows no signs of going the way of bell bottoms and big shoulder pads.

The business incubator, founded during turbulent economic times in 1987 to groom fashion entrepreneurs, provides everything from inexpensive office space and shared production equipment to mentoring with industry professionals and marketing resources. The first fashion incubator in the world has proved so successful that its model has been adopted by Chicago, New York, Milan, London, Melbourne and Auckland.

Funded largely by corporate sponsors and the City of Toronto with some provincial backing, the non-profit organization and its volunteers have "worked really hard to survive 25 years, and have been successful at creating jobs, and helping keep our fashion industry alive and retaining all the talent," says Susan Langdon, its executive director since 1994.

A former fashion designer with 30 years of experience, Ms. Langdon says the incubator's strong "sense of community" helps it thrive.

"You don't find a lot of that spirit in fashion – it is competitive," she says. "But I still believe you can have time for community and friendship and business all at the same time, because people helping people is what really makes things work."

Toronto is home to more than 550 apparel manufacturers with wholesale shipments totalling nearly $1.4-billion annually, or 16 per cent of the $9-billion Canadian market, according to the City of Toronto. Among the designers who got their start in Toronto are Lida Baday, Brian Bailey, Joeffer Caoc, David Dixon, Arthur Mendonca, Franco Mirabelli and Sunny Choi.

But around the time of the 1987 Black Monday stock market crash, Toronto apparel companies were beginning to close their in-house manufacturing, leading to a loss of skilled labour such as sample makers, sewing-machine operators and pressers as work was more commonly contracted out.

To help retain local talent and boost job prospects, the city's economic development committee created the incubator. It was housed in two locations before moving to a heritage building on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition in 2007.

Members come from all areas of fashion including design, marketing, communications and production. In its initial years, the centre tended to attract designers, including Mr. Dixon, who rented office space from 1996 to 2000 after graduating from Ryerson's fashion school. He later became a TFI volunteer.

"There was this great energy among all of us. Being in an environment where other people were also starting their businesses, you get to learn by observation," recalls Mr. Dixon, whose designs include women's evening wear. "When stylists or photographers would come in to see one of the other designers, for instance, that became a great networking opportunity. You get to meet new retailers you wouldn't necessarily have the chance to meet."

Mr. Dixon says that because of the low rent, he saved about $20,000 that he later put toward his own production equipment when he opened his own studio. Now 40, he works out of a 3,000-square-foot facility in Mississauga and sells in Canada as well as the United States, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, Germany, Hong Kong and Tokyo. Despite his busy schedule, he serves as president of the incubator's board of directors and is one of about a dozen mentors for members – his way of giving back to the organization that helped his career.

The organization has been providing office space for 10 residents at any one time since its inception. Today, they pay rent for private studios. Some use a shared production area that includes sewing machines and fabric-cutting equipment. Other facilities include a kitchen, lounge, meeting room and resource centre. The number of outreach members – who pay $130 annually for consultation services, use of the resource centre and meeting room, and advice and guidance from mentors – has risen to about 650 from 35 since Ms. Langdon became executive director.

Genevieve Pearson, a women's outerwear designer, and accessory designer Erin Fitzpatrick moved into the incubator in recent months and say they are already reaping the benefits.

Ms. Pearson calls the organization a "fairy godmother for anyone like us trying to get into this industry."

"I always wanted to start my own business, but it's a very hard industry to break into if you don't have the right resources, know the right people or and have the right space," says Ms. Pearson. "And the costs for making samples, getting the fabric, the time involved – it's not a cheap industry at all."

Ms. Fitzpatrick, 27, graduated with a biology degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., and a Toronto homeopathic school, but turned to the incubator for help in building her Bel Ami accessory business.

"Before I moved into the incubator in July, I was working out of my basement, but it wasn't a professional place to be," says Ms. Fitzpatrick, who sells custom-made headbands and other accessories to private schools in Canada, and recently expanded her business to the United States. "Now I have a professional business address and a room to meet clients, and another room for photo shoots."

With an operating budget of $522,000 in 2010 (final figures for 2011 aren't yet available). the centre gets about 40 per cent of its funding from governments, mostly from the City of Toronto and some from Ontario, and about 60 per cent from fund-raising and corporate sponsors. The proportion of government backing has dropped from 83 per cent of the total operating costs since Ms. Langdon became executive director, but she says it has served to make the centre "more entrepreneurial."

The incubator also has created guidebooks, seminars and other ventures that generate revenue, says Ms. Langdon.

"It is highly competitive and everyone wants to be part of this so-called glamorous industry, but there is a lot of hard work involved," says Ms. Langdon. "We encourage members to create their niche and take baby steps while trying to take over the world."

Fashion facts

From the City of Toronto's economic development committee:

  • About 50,000 people work in Toronto’s fashion and apparel industry, including designers, suppliers, manufacturers and sales people. (The figure excludes retail store workers.)
  • More than 4,600 Toronto fashion retail stores generate annual sales of $2.6-billion.
  • Global modelling agencies such as Elite, Ford and Elmer Olsen have offices in Toronto, while local fashion photographers including George Whiteside, Chris Chapman and Shin Sugino have won international reputations.
  • Besides the Toronto Fashion Incubator for new entrepreneurs, other fashion initiatives include Toronto Fashion Week, a twice-yearly event that includes runway shows that attract international media and buyers.

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