Striking the right balance

As the fashion industry struggles in the face of online shopping and the lightning speed of Asian manufacturers, some designers are taking matters into their own hands.

The audience fidgets. Someone laughs too loud and the volume of conversation rises. Figuratively and literally well-heeled women lean forward and peer down the runway, impatiently tapping their cellphones.

The lights dim, music swells and the first of Halifax designer Lisa Drader-Murphy’s epic 350-piece runway show covering 14 collections gets underway.

Countless models and a bum-numbing hour later, the show ends and the 400-strong audience heads to a showroom in Halifax where racks of clothes and store clerks armed with hand-held debit machines await them.

Just 15 minutes later, the fashionistas have set down $15,000 buying up everything they saw just a few minutes earlier.

And yet, amid the laughing, shopping women, there are some very conspicuous absences: there are no retail buyers, few fashion media and no bitchy bloggers waiting to sit judgment on the designer’s creative effort.

Just the clothes, the people and their credit cards.

Groundbreaking? Yes. Dynamic? Absolutely. One way to save an industry gasping for breath? It just may be.

Such “just-in-time” shows (in which a collection is produced one week and available the next) may upend the fashion industry’s traditional six-month lag approach between when a collection is shown and when it’s available.

Halifax fashion designer Lisa Drader-Murphy has found success producing collections and holding a major fashion show and sale shortly afterward.

“For the past 15 years, I haven’t looked at the status quo. I look at what makes sense for my business and my clients,” says Drader-Murphy, who owns two stores in Halifax’s Bishop’s Landing and Historic Properties and stages two “just-in-time” shows a year.

“I produce styles one week and they’re on the showroom floor the next. I don’t make a collection for wholesale that won’t see sales for another season. I send my distributors a lookbook, that’s it,” she says, firmly. “As for my clients, they wouldn’t miss one of my shows. It annoys them to have to wait six months to buy from a collection. They spend big because they don’t know if these pieces will ever be available again.”

That is music to the ears of industry insiders such as Chantal Durivage, co-president of Sensation Mode, the company behind Montreal’s fashion week. Faced with slackening public interest, bullish online shopping and heightened production costs, the company announced in November that it would shutter its traditional mid-winter show in favour of a multi-disciplinary Fashion & Design Festival in August 2014, which will combine fashion, art and design. Yet, while the decision drew gasps of dismay from within the industry, the public was largely indifferent to its plight — perhaps because it is the public causing its downfall.

Chantal Durivage is co-president of Sensation Mode, the company behind Montreal’s fashion week.

Once the only way for independent European designers to band together and get noticed, fashion weeks are increasingly anachronistic in an era where consumers want what they want, when they want it. In the past, designers have needed six months to turn designs into patterns, patterns into templates and templates into clothes in a range of sizes. But the immediacy of e-commerce and the impact of quick-moving, underselling Chinese manufacturers have changed the game for designers, some of whom are embracing the Internet, too. Where retailers traditionally ask for a 50- to 72- per-cent markup on clothes, and so undercut the designer’s profit margin, many labels are taking the hint and selling through online crowdsourced platforms, like France’s meetmydesigner.com, which often ask for a mere four-per-cent markup, says Durivage.

“Because of the Internet, the consumer is back to what we had with the mail-order catalogue days, with Sears and La Redoute in France,” observes Durivage, who notes that clothing and accessories account for 36 per cent of Internet sales, according to Statistics Canada.

“It’s a very strong experience for them. They don’t want to wait six months for something they see online or in the media. Because of this, fashion week has changed in its existence, size and purpose. Usually, the point of fashion week is to show a collection that would be in the stores the next season. So now, the whole cycle of the industry is affected and we need to reinvent ourselves.”

And Montreal is not alone. Major shows are also faced with tough decisions — designers such as Oscar de la Renta, are cutting down how many shows they stage in New York this year — while Berlin’s renowned industry-only Bread & Butter urban and streetwear international trade show has now opened its doors to the public. Ottawa continues to stage a show, but it too is facing real pressure, says creative director, Bruno Racine.

For its mid-winter event, OFW has decided to cut the number of designers offered by a third, add a glamorous black tie fundraising gala in support of the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation and include a new, free event on Sunday night that will showcase art, architecture and fashion at the Canadian Museum of History.

“I find it shocking that Montreal Fashion Week shut down, you’d think it’d be easy for them with all the support they give each other in Quebec and how many designers there are,” says Racine. “Here, the designers want to participate in something where they can make money. Most are broke, they’re all struggling. It’s inexpensive to show here, but we still struggle to get a lineup. They come here to make a name for themselves, for publicity. We are still able to offer a fashion week in Ottawa, but we’re having to offer something new and different.”

And that’s smart business for both fashion weeks, designers and retailers alike, says Drader-Murphy.

“If you can’t compete on price, you’d better be doing something unique,” she says. “People pay a premium for innovative before it is emulated. Then a few others notice it, make it cheaper and more people sell the same thing. By the time it’s mass produced overseas, if you’re really a designer, you’re already emulated again. That’s what spurs on creativity.”

Even so, creativity can be knocked off and replicated cheaply. In some cases, garments seen on awards shows or the catwalk one night can be in shop windows two days later, thanks to the ingenuity of sweatshop pattern makers and the fact that clothing can’t be patented. In other situations, local designers and jobs are also compromised by the reportedly 170-plus oil-rig-sized Chinese factory ships anchored 350 kilometres offshore, just outside territorial U.S., Canadian and South American waters. More or less self-sufficient, they house village-sized populations that churn out thousands of garments, all just a boat ride away from market. On land, the impact can be undeniable. Five years after Peru signed a free-trade agreement with China, factory ships anchored off Callao, the country’s chief seaside port, Chinese imports replaced 237 million locally produced garments, at a cost of 30,000 jobs in Lima alone.

“The Chinese are very aggressive,” says Durivage. “It happened here, too. Within the first 15 years of free trade, we went from 60,000 garment workers in Quebec to 20,000. That is the portrait of the future.”

And yet, there is hope. As consumers embrace locally made, locally sourced as a way of life, even in clothing, Durivage foretells a time when the fashion industry will be re-invigorated and see a return of jobs. Already, some designers in Europe are taking transparency in manufacturing to a whole new level. Belgian Bruno Pieters, who worked for Hugo Boss, repeatedly proves his label’s value and provenance to consumers by posting detailed information on everything from how his textiles are made to the salaries of its workers.

“The market will return to balance. We’re working very hard to create employment to build know-how, to interest young people in the industry and to show consumers what’s behind the product. Whether high-end or hand-crafted, if designers have a story behind their product, it’s full of opportunity. But they still have to inform the consumers,” she says.

“In the end, people identify themselves with their clothing. So if you buy a $5 T-shirt from China that someone made and was paid next to nothing, what does that say?”

Ottawa Fashion Week
When & where: Feb. 6 to Feb. 8,Hilton Lac Leamy, Gatineau.
What: About 14 designers showcase their Fall/Winter 2014 lines. Entertainment, bar services and market shopping vendors.

Saturday, Feb. 8, 6 p.m.
Gala fundraising dinner: Stepping Out in Her Shoes. Cocktail reception, entertainment, two fashion shows featuring designs by Elena Hinke and Tadashi Shoji, four-course meal. $185.
Tickets: Ticketpro.ca. Attend one block of shows for $20 or a full evening pass for $48.

Sunday, Feb. 9
When & where: The public is invited to attend a free runway and art show at the Canadian Museum of History. Designer Duy Nguyen will unveil recent and new pieces at 7 p.m.
Website: ottawafashionweek.ca

Connect with Julie Beun |life@ottawacitizen.com