The little show with a big heart

Designer Rachel Sin is formerly an Ottawa-based architect. (Photo by: Wayne Cuddington/Ottawa Citizen)

It’s not as glamorous and commercial as Toronto, nor is it as funky and well-funded as Montreal.

But Ottawa Fashion Week has three things going for it that the big boys don’t: It’s small, intimate and nice — kind of like the city itself.

If that sounds like damning with faint praise, don’t believe it for a second, says designer Rachel Sin, an early OFW advocate and former Ottawa-based architect who now lives in Toronto and sells her line in 15 locations across North America.

Sin, who is returning after a two-season hiatus, says Ottawa’s size uniquely positions it to be an incubator for fresh new talent. Witness the Adrian Wu story: After showing at OFW several years ago, the young Toronto designer went from the pages of Elle and Flare to Toronto and Vancouver’s fashion weeks with his quirky, high-concept work.

These days, Wu does commercial design after recently collaborating with Toms Shoes, the White Cashmere toilet-paper dress campaign and Toronto’s pending Fashion House, where he is designing the third-floor lobby. And it all started in Ottawa.

“As a young designer, you don’t know what to expect from your first show, and OFW is very supportive,” says Sin, who also shows in Montreal and Toronto. “They walk the designer through all the steps. Doing it for a smaller production helped me easily do a larger show and not be overwhelmed by it.

“It’s easier for an emerging designer to have a successful show because it’s intimate and all packaged so nicely,” says Wu.

Part of the attraction for young talent is cost. OFW’s $500 entry fee includes runway models from Angie’s Models & Talent International and Models International Management, hair and makeup, as well as a media package. Meantime, Toronto and Montreal require designers to hire their own models and public relations team. And that can add up. Although the bigger shows have been known to quietly waive fees and even subsidize models, Toronto Fashion Week can cost a designer between $10,000 and $20,000 while Montreal, with a budget this year of $1 million, can range from $6,000 to $10,000. That doesn’t include the cost of fabric, seamstresses, designing and marketing. And the shows rarely translate into sales.

“People don’t immediately go from the runway and buy a dress online,” says Sin. “Fashion week is more about brand awareness. It’s not about sales off the runway and even less about buyers. It’s really about reaching media and building a profile.”

For young designers, “we give them easy access to consumers and the press,” says OFW’s creative director Bruno Racine. “Plus we have established designers like Rachel Sin, Lucian Matis and Jeff Garner returning because they really like the experience we offer.”

That niche — a small, full-service event that showcases an eclectic mix of young designers, some established names and a private buyers’ event — is the only way forward for an Ottawa-based festival, observes Mark Monahan, the man who created Bluesfest and is turning around Ottawa Folk Festival.

“Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver get national and international recognition,” says Monahan. “Ottawa is not seen as a stop, it’s not a destination, so we have to carve out a niche. The ability to create something important, dynamic and meaningful is not attendant upon the population. It’s about the people”

But whether OFW’s low-budget, high-service niche-creating model can grow financially remains to be seen.

After 10 seasons and with a budget of just $75,000, the twice yearly show is run by volunteers and is supported by key sponsors Otto’s BMW, L’Oreal Professional and Pür Minerals. Even so, it only breaks even.

Yet even that is impressive for a town like Ottawa, says Alexander Leslie, a marketing expert and CEO of KickIt Digital.

“For an Ottawa festival to break even and survive on their own without a major government sponsor is really quite remarkable. It shows that what they’re doing, they’re doing quite well. In the first couple of years, it’ll cost more than you generate, because you need momentum,” says Leslie.

And that’s what Racine is hoping to do with the latest season, being held for the first time at the Hilton Lac-Leamy this weekend. Having met with focus groups of diplomats and public servants, OFW now offers inexpensive tickets for blocks of three shows, rather than weekend passes. The idea, he says, is to make a night of it: “Dress for dinner, come for a glass of wine, buy some things in the marketplace, see a few fashion shows, gamble a little and off you go. People think they can’t go in jeans, they don’t know what to wear and they don’t want to go all night. So we’re offering a different experience.”

Ideally, he adds, he’d love to get enough financial backing — possibly from the city — to inject another $70,000 into the event, to boost production values and push the event up and over its current plateau.

“Do I think of tossing in the towel? Oh my God, we all have,” says Racine, who co-owns The Loft and Le Spa with partner, Paul Valetta. “You get frustrated and think, ‘I could be making more money by focusing on the salon.’ But then we get together with the other organizers and we get excited all over again.

“Maybe we’re just stupid,” he chuckles, “or passionate, but we’re definitely not quitters.”

Connect with Julie Beun |life@ottawacitizen.com