Show us the money!

Toronto is full of immensely creative designers whose inventions go far beyond the fast fashion wear-and-toss items found at big-box stores. It’s a shame so few of them can stay in business.

They face a unique challenge when it comes to securing funding, in that there is practically none available. There’s no umbrella organization similar to the CFDA in the U.S. for Canadian designers to turn to. (The CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund offers one award of $300,000 and two of $100,000 each year, in addition to the CFDA scholarship program and the Fashion Manufacturing Initiative, which provides grants to facilities that manufacture garments locally.) The few fashion competitions that take place here offer laughably small cash prizes or none at all.

Most surprising is that fashion designers don’t qualify for any grant money from the Ontario Arts Council. Unlike interactive digital media, recorded music, book and magazine publishing, film, television, visual art and theatre, fashion is inexplicably not considered a cultural industry by either the federal or provincial government.

France and Italy both have culture ministries dedicated to promoting and protecting their fashion industry. France’s state-owned banks and investment funds offer streamlined financing for start-up fashion businesses.

Quebec is the only Canadian province to offer grants to fashion designers and events, ponying up over $85 million since 2005, perhaps explaining why so many of Canada’s successful designers hail from the French province and why Montreal is the third-largest fashion exporter in North America, after Los Angeles and New York City.

In Ontario, the pleas of designers and fashion industry insiders for financial help have fallen on deaf ears. Robin Kay, founder of the Fashion Design Council of Canada (FDCC), first lobbied the provincial government for funding when she was in the process of founding Toronto Fashion Week back in 2000.

“There was absolutely no interest,” says Kay. She had to fund the week herself, then rely on corporate sponsors once the event became larger and more established.

Toronto’s other long-standing fashion week, Arts & Fashion Week (FAT), receives government funding only for the “art” portion of the event (small installations, dance performances, short films) even though the bizarre creations on the runway are the main attraction.

“I find it really strange that fashion isn’t considered a cultural industry when it’s such a huge part of contemporary culture,” says FAT founder Vanja Vasic. “Our designers think about fashion as an art form; they explore issues of sexuality, politics and the environment through clothing.”

“It’s absurd,” says Kay. “The fashion industry employs tens of thousands of people. It stimulates the economy. Fashion Week itself boosts the business of hotels, restaurants and bars in the area. Ontario hasn’t recognized the benefits the industry can add to our cultural and economic landscape.”

Kay again tried to lobby the province to open up arts and culture grants to designers in 2010, this time with the bipartisan support of NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo and Conservative MPP Christine Elliott. There was a big press conference and a joint private members’ bill, and Michael Chan, Liberal-appointed culture minister at the time, promised to consider it. The bill lacked Liberal support, however, and never went anywhere.

“The culture minister simply would not sign the bill,” says DiNovo. “I don’t know why. I can’t think of one good reason not to support it.”

“There are over 50,000 people employed by the fashion industry in Ontario, and that number is growing,” says Elliott. “Fashion is big business and is a cultural industry. Designers should have access to funds.”

After their last failed attempt in 2010, Elliott and DiNovo let the issue fall by the wayside, although both remain passionate about supporting the industry.

“We should support local designers rather than imported goods made in conditions that are practically slave labour,” says DiNovo. “But there’s no political will. Instead, we keep losing our best and brightest to financial realities or other countries.”

Culture Minister Michael Coteau, who was appointed by Kathleen Wynne at the end of June, may represent a ray of hope.

“I think the fashion sector can help really define who we are as Ontarians. If our fashion industry feels like it’s not getting the support it needs, then that’s something we need to change,” Coteau tells me over the phone. “Call me back in two months and check on what progress we’ve made with this.”

He sounds genuine, and I will call back.

In the meantime, designers are on their own, which isn’t just bad for them – it’s bad for us. Ontario is missing out on an important mode of cultural expression.

*This post was originally published in NOW Magazine

Sabrina Maddeaux