Here’s to the ladies who lunch: socialites are saving Canada’s fashion industry, one soirée at a time

Socialites, fashionistas, ladies who lunch — whatever you want to call them, wealthy women who take an interest in fashion and style are easy targets for snarky takedowns.

Their lavish outfits make them hard to miss on any city’s social circuit, and all too easy to dismiss as little more than one-percenters with an expensive hobby. (Just think of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics to “The Ladies Who Lunch” from the musical Company: “Off to the gym, then to a fitting / Claiming they’re fat and looking grim / Cause they’ve been sitting choosing a hat / Does anyone still wear a hat? / I’ll drink to that.”)

While we praise moneyed men who drop fortunes on artwork as esteemed “patrons of the arts” and “cultured” members of society — David Mirvish, for instance, who has invested untold millions on hundreds of paintings — women who support the fashion world are cast as vain, self-important and spoiled. With galas now in high gear leading up to the holidays, they’re also squarely in the spotlight. Last month, Toronto Life alleged that Suzanne Rogers, wife of Rogers scion Edward, has a million-dollar-a-year clothing budget; naturally, the magazine’s online comment section was riddled with posts declaring Rogers had “too much money, too few brains and way too many silly dresses.” This sort of dated thinking categorizes women as stylish or brainy — never both. It infantilizes women and seeks to strip fashion, a historic tool for female self-expression, of its power. We might as well put on our stodgy aprons and get back in the kitchen.

‘The label ‘socialite,’ as most people envision it, is much too narrow a term’

“I hate the words ‘fashionista’ and ‘socialite,’ ” says Sylvia Mantella, chief marketing officer for the real estate giant Mantella Corporation, and wife of the company’s president, Robert. “They immediately brand people in a way that’s not accurate now that women have more opportunities.” Mantella regularly dons extravagant Greta Constantine and Mikael D gowns with trains that rival the square footage of some bachelor pads, and backs such high-profile events as the Toronto Fashion Incubator’s (TFI) New Labels competition, the Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards and the Suzanne Rogers Presents fashion fundraisers. The events increase the public’s awareness of homegrown fashion as a culture and give young designers the tools they need to succeed, such as exposure, mentorship opportunities and, most importantly, funding.

“The label ‘socialite,’ as most people envision it, is much too narrow a term,” says Mary Symons, a Dior-model-cum-luxury-publicist who has volunteered for leadership roles at such organizations as Fashion Group International Toronto, TFI and Ryerson’s School of Fashion Program Advisory Council. “I may be out all the time and lucky enough to go to a lot of events, but I don’t think of myself as a socialite. I think of myself as someone who works hard and gives back as much as I can.” Adds Mantella: “I have a deep, genuine interest in fashion that’s no different from an art collector, or a collector of any sort. Unfortunately fashion is often viewed in a very one-dimensional way, but it’s more than that … it’s an art.”

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It’s also a huge industry that employs more than 50,000 people in Ontario alone. But unlike visual artists, musicians, publishers, filmmakers and those who work on stage productions, fashion designers don’t qualify for grants from the governments of Ontario or Canada. Without government support for the industry — something that’s commonplace in such European nations as Italy, France and Britain — our fashion designers have been hung out to dry. It’s largely because of women like Mantella, Symons and Rogers — who donate time, expertise and, yes, money — that Canada’s fashion scene is where it is today. Without them, there would be far fewer designers in business, less retail support and certainly little public awareness of the industry and talent within our borders.

Sylvia Mantella and Coco Rocha attend the Mulberry Autumn Winter 2014 Preview and Cocktail at the Mulberry flagship on Bloor on June 3, 2014(George Pimentel)

These women pony up cash prizes for design competitions, buy tables at fundraisers, purchase homegrown garments at full price and, critically, travel the world as the country’s unofficial style ambassadors when no one else will (for the most part, Canada doesn’t fund or organize international trade missions for fashion or design, either). “It’s frustrating that there’s no help from the government … thankfully there are socialites who do so much for our local fashion industry,” says upcoming textile and clothing designer Sarah Stevenson, past winner of TFI New Labels and the CAFA Emerging Talent Award.

The impact of simply wearing Canadian fashion beyond our borders cannot be underestimated. Catherine Nugent, the “Glitter Girl” queen bee of the ’80s and ’90s, helped put Wayne Clark on the map by wearing his designs all over the globe. Mantella attends international fashion weeks with suitcases full of Canadian designers like Mikhael Kale and Rad Hourani in tow. Hilary Weston, the deputy chair of Holt Renfrew before she was lieutenant-governor of Ontario, used her prominence to champion homegrown styles and paved the way for department stores to — albeit slowly — carry labels like Jeremy Laing, Smythe and Greta Constantine. “It’s very important for countries to have visible women with innate style on an international level,” Symons says. “Foreigners associate Weston with Canada and fashion, and that bodes well for our industry.”

‘What we wear and how we wear it affects society; it affects politics and creates politics’

Museums now ask for loans and donations from these collectors’ massive wardrobes because of their garments’ historical and cultural significance. Some of these women are even running the museums. Sonja Bata, who married a shoe-factory owner back in 1946, is the founding chairman of the Bata Shoe Museum. Mantella sponsors the Design Exchange’s current Politics of Fashion exhibit and the Fashion Blows exhibit at Hudson’s Bay. Weston led the $300-million fundraising campaign for the Royal Ontario Museum’s most recent expansion and renovation.

Beyond increased visibility, these women understand the importance of financing young emerging talent like Sarah Stevenson, Miriam Baker and Sid Neigum. “Look at the British Fashion Awards or the Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund, both with major cash prizes,” Mantella says. “It’s very difficult for us to compete with other countries when we have no support from the government.”

Susan Langdon, TFI’s executive director and a former fashion designer, knows this firsthand. For almost three decades, her non-profit organization has fostered the likes of David Dixon, Joeffer Caoc, Sunny Fong, Arthur Mendonça and Line Knitwear. It hasn’t been easy — and would be even more difficult without the help of deep-pocketed benefactors like Mantella and Rogers. “What we wear and how we wear it affects society; it affects politics and creates politics,” Langdon says. “It’s certainly an aspect of our culture, but when I apply for Ontario or federal funds, they don’t think of fashion as culture. It’s a shame.”

She adds that corporations hesitate to sponsor TFI because it isn’t “sexy” enough: “People think of fashion and they want the glitz and glam — which lasts five minutes a season — the rest is just blood, sweat and tears. The behind-the-scenes grind doesn’t attract a lot of corporate sponsorship, so we’re very grateful for individuals like Mary, Suzanne and Sylvia.” When Rogers, for instance, pledged a $25,000 cash prize for TFI’s New Labels in 2012, it was a game-changer. “New Labels has existed since 1992, but suddenly with that big cash prize, a lot of people took notice. No one else in Canada was offering a grant like that,” Langdon says. “With Suzanne’s name associated, it was easier for me to secure high-level sponsorship, ticket sales went up and more buyers attended. It was a stamp of credibility.”

If the Mantellas of the world didn’t support Canadian fashion, likely no one else would

Other fashion competitions felt pressure to follow suit. Mercedes-Benz Start Up now boasts a $30,000 bursary and CAFA’s Emerging Talent Competition offers $10,000, a figure Mantella says they hope to grow as the event matures.

These women have injected hundreds of thousands of dollars into Canada’s fashion industry, but the idea that they don’t use “their own” money — that they often inherited or married into it — is used to undermine the integrity of their contributions. Yet society is still more accepting of men who inherit their businesses and fortunes, such as Mirvish, or David Daniels, son of mega-successful developer John H. Daniels and champion of Acting Up Stage Company, the Glenn Gould lectures and various stage and film projects. Another prime example is Mantella’s own husband, who inherited the corporation from his father and boasts a collection of fossils and dinosaur bones worth millions.

If the Mantellas of the world didn’t support Canadian fashion, likely no one else would — the government can’t be bothered and consumers are only just beginning to value local labels over cheap brands manufactured in Bangladesh. This leaves the industry at a standstill, because even the so-called ladies who lunch can’t do it alone. The only way forward is for others to finally recognize that designers need more support — and more money. As Langdon says, “There are a lot of people who don’t give anything at all.”

This article was originally published in the National Post

Sabrina Maddeaux