Friday, March 31, 2017

Reset, Reborn, Renewed: Toronto Fashion 2017

Sid Neigum (centre right) and models, on stage at Re\Set Fashion in Toronto, February 6.

If fashion is about reinvention then Toronto is right on trend. Over the past few months several new initiatives – five and counting – have risen from the ashes of Toronto Fashion Week, which died a sudden death when its New York owner, sports and entertainment marketing conglomerate IMG, abruptly pulled the plug last July, citing a loss of local sponsorship necessary for keeping the biennial event alive. One door closes and another one opens.

Enter Re\Set Fashion, an installation-style fashion event which unfolded in the recently renovated Great Hall on Queen Street West in Toronto in early February. A designer-focused alternative to the frenetic runway show, the concept was developed by Dwayne Kennedy, co-founder and fashion director of The Collections among other local fashion events, in collaboration with Toronto Fashion Week founder Robin Kay. Taking place on Feb. 6 and 7, the two-day experiential fashion event took the form of Instagram-friendly static presentations which, besides being a more flexible and intimate model than the traditional catwalk show, is also more cost-effective to produce. Models looking like human mannequins simply walked out onto a dais and posed under strategically placed lights, a refreshing and dynamic alternative to the usual hype and freneticism. Tapping into the see-now-buy-now, Re\Set also offered up a pop-up retail component aimed at encouraging members of the paying public to get up close and personal with the latest in Canadian style. The strategy worked. Re\Set packed them in, leaving everyone feeling they were part of something new. Designer participants ranged from newcomers like Elle AyoubZadeh, creator of fledgling Toronto-based fashion footwear brand, Zvelle, to rising stars like the award-winning Alberta-born womenswear designer Sid Neigum, who soon after showed his monochromatic 3-D silhouettes at London Fashion Week, garnering a rave review in Vogue and a multi-million dollar deal with the international luxury online retailer, Net-a-Porter. Canadian fashion lives!

Nurturing it is the Toronto Fashion Incubator, an award-winning non-profit founded by the City of Toronto in 1987 with a mandate of supporting Canadian fashion entrepreneurs and designers. The first of its kind in the world, TFI has since inspired the creation of other fashion incubators in 30 major cities across the globe, including London, Paris, New York, Dublin, Milan and Stockholm. Susan Langdon has mentored many of Canada's leading designers in her capacity as executive director. Neigum is the latest in a long list. Given her reputation as a tireless champion of the country's design talent it is little wonder that TFI's 30th anniversary celebration on the night of March 9 was a sold-out affair.

Miriam Baker (centre) on stage at Toronto Women's Fashion Week 2017. (Photo: Shayne Gray)

The gala dinner and runway show took place at Waterworks, a repurposed historic water filtration plant in the city's garment district. Toronto's most style-conscious denizens came out in force, the women wearing transparent dresses and the men in tight-fitting suits with trousers cut above the ankle and worn without socks (even in the dead of winter) to show a flash of leg. Skin is back in. The crowd was equally gawk-worthy, studded with such local celebrities as Mayor John Tory, fashion TV pioneer Jeanne Beker, patron Suzanne Rogers, the force behind the new $1-million Suzanne Rogers Fashion Institute at Ryerson University, and the creative team from Sentaler, the Canadian outerwear brand worn by Sophie Grégoire Trudeau and Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, on the world stage.

Besides feting Langdon, whose support of homegrown designers is now legendary, the TFI 30th party provided an opportunity to cheer on this year's contestants in the annual New Labels show, a national design competition which has launched many a Canadian fashion career since its inception in 2002. Previous winners include the above-mentioned Neigum, who took the title in 2012, as well as the Nova Scotia-born, Italian-trained Matthew Gallagher in 2015 (mamma mia, his gowns!) and Toronto native Miriam Baker (more on her later) in 2014. The participants were over-the-top talented, giving the five judges, among them Flare magazine editor-in chief Cameron Williamson and The Hudson Bay Company's senior vice-president and fashion director Suzanne Timmins, some difficulty in deciding just who should walk away with this year's $90,000 prize package.

In the end, the panel selected Mississauga resident Michael Zoffranieri, who showed 10 jaw-dropping looks from the fall 2016 collection created for his ZOFF label. The see-through lace dresses, hugging and revealing a woman's curves to maximum effect, demonstrated an adroit handling of opulent materials and an ability to blend classical and modern forms into a seamless whole. Some of Zoffranieri's pieces, among them a floor-sweeping black evening coat with sleekly tailored bell sleeves and a simple bow tie waist, recalled the magnificent minimalism of the late Gianfranco Ferré, a designer whose sensual but elegant sophistication the 22-year old Canadian looks ready to adopt.

TOM fashion consultant Roger Gingerich, Jason Priestley, and TWFW founder Jeff Rustia, at Toronto Women's Fashion Week 2017.
(Photo: Nick Merzetti)

Steps ahead of Zoffranieri in terms of experience were the Canadian designers who showed at Toronto Women's Fashion Week, an extension of the highly successful TOM Toronto Men's Fashion Week, which opened at Waterworks the day after the TFI gala. The brainchild of Jeff Rustia, a former TV fashion producer, broadcaster and host with experience in Canada and Asia, TWFW got off to an auspicious start when L'Oréal Canada signed on as the official sponsor after years supporting Toronto Fashion Week. Call it a passing of the torch. Certainly it was a sign that the industry was confident that Rustia would keep the indomitable spirit of Toronto fashion moving forward.

The three-day event showcased current Canadian fashion but also made room for international guest designer Roch Matuszek from Berlin. His edgy black and white Valkyrie womenswear collection, inspired by the Wagnerian opera of the same name, fused horse hides, latex and lace into overtly feminine and androgynous silhouettes, sounding a high note of drama. The image of a strong, sexy and independent woman united the TWFW shows as a whole.

The line-up included newbie designer Miriam Baker, whose fall 2017 ready-to-wear collection of figure-flattering dresses and separates, including hand-painted floral blouses, blush-coloured duster coats and fishnet bra-tops paired with cigarette-cut black trousers, confirmed her status as one to watch. More prominent and experienced designers included David Dixon and Stephan Caras, the latter presenting a series of bold and beautiful evening looks characterized by plunging necklines, asymmetrical cut-outs, maxi-sized floral prints, boudoir-inspired bodices, and transparent fabrics on one-shoulder dresses. The collection was a triumph, jointly designed with son Kyriako Caras for the duo's Toronto-based CARAS label. The presentation on March 11 was taped for future broadcast on Private Eyes, the Global television drama series fronted by Jason Priestley. The Canadian actor was in the house, watching the fashion show from a reserved seat but remaining barely detectable behind a grizzled beard.

Looks from designer Evan Biddell's recycled chic runway collaboration with thrift store chain Value Village. (Photo: Shayne Gray)

If celebrities lined the 100-foot-long catwalk at the Dixon show on March 10, no one noticed. Attention was more lavished on clothes which the designer, who has dressed Nicole Kidman, Alanis Morissette and Nelly Furtado, among other celebrities, created in collaboration with Picadilly, the Canadian apparel manufacturer known for its casual and comfortable women's clothing. Dixon kicked the 40-year-old brand up a few notches with a career wear collection both pretty and practical.

More understated and accessibly priced than his own high-end David Dixon label, the garments designed for Picadilly were no less discerning. Featuring novel mixes of textures and patterns and such eye-catching details as large-scale grommets on a slender side-slit navy skirt paired with a white chiffon v-neck blouse, the garments as a whole exuded strength, confidence and sex appeal-- the working woman as every woman, dusted with a patina of chic. It wasn't the only partnership distinguishing TWFW as a showcase of Canadian fashion innovation.

The next night, March 11, Project Runway Canada winner Evan Biddell paired up with national thrift store chain Value Village to create new looks out of old clothing. The impetus was the 81 Pound Challenge, an initiative of Vancouver's sustainability-minded Eco Fashion Week, whose presence at TWFW this season was most welcome. According to a statistic provided by Value Village, 81 pounds is the weight of textile material which the average North American tosses in a single year. Out of garbage Biddell unearthed sartorial treasure.

The slashed and fringed leather coats, the red-and-black-check lumberjack shirt reimagined as a pair of zip-front men's trousers, the purse made from two vinyl records stitched together with cord were fresh, fun and furtively subversive. Biddell's recycled chic had captured the moment, vividly signalling that Toronto fashion had found new ground in which to regenerate. The ultimate make-over.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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