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December 9, 2019
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Sussex Drive (Photograph by Stephanie Vizi).

It's a windy day on Albert St., a main thoroughfare in downtown Ottawa. A young bureaucrat's oversized, grey suit jacket hangs off his slight frame. A city councillor's frumpy, black, pleated skirt in a length from another era is wrinkled in the back. A female lawyer's charcoal, shoulder-padded, double-breasted, synthetic, two-piece suit is tight in the wrong places.

Canada's capital city is known for being a city of suits - or more accurately, bad suits. This impression was confirmed when MSN Travel placed Ottawa eighth in its ranking of the world's worst-dressed cities. Ottawa fashion insiders acknowledge the city's lack of fashion sense, but argue that a vibrant fashion scene is ready to explode in the Ottawa market. But first, some changes need to be made.

Travis Taddeo Ottawa Fashion Week S/S
2012.  Photograph by Stephanie Vizi

"[Government workers] are so dressed up, they just want to be casual when they're not working," said Christopher Massardo, fashion editor of PRESS The Fashion Magazine. Massardo said he agrees with the MSN Travel ranking, but added that there is a demand for unique fashion in Ottawa which would draw many civil servants out of their conservative shells. "Everyday they have to wear really generic clothing. You're telling me after work they don't want to try something edgy?... I think back to my friends in high school who had to go to private school where they had to wear uniforms...when there was a casual Friday, kids went crazy," he said.

Recently, international fashion retailers have been moving into downtown Ottawa. Forever 21 and Michael Kors stores have opened in the Rideau Centre. Over the next two years, Target is expected to open on Sparks St., Topshop and Topman are coming to The Bay, and H&M representatives are scouting for locations, said Barry Nabatian, a retail analyst. According to Nabatian, 140,000 people work in downtown Ottawa, 60,000 of whom pass through the Rideau Centre each day, often to get to the bus station located behind the mall on the Mackenzie King Bridge. The sizeable foot-traffic is a strong incentive for international retailers to purchase a chunk of Ottawa's fashion real estate. International retailers are only arriving in Ottawa now because of the conservative nature of the city, according to Nabatian. He added that these stores are already in Toronto and Montreal, so it is only natural that they would expand to other large Canadian cities.

According to Nabatian, the average Ottawa family spends nearly $16,000 on retail purchases every year, and of this total, fashion retail constitutes almost $600 per family member, suggesting a strong market for fashion retail in Ottawa. He noted that one in every five jobs in Ottawa is in the civil service and the average annual civil servant income is $70,000, which means that a decent portion of disposable income is available to be spent on clothes in Ottawa.

"I think what has been difficult for Canadians who are interested in fashion is buying accessibly priced brands and there is an influx of them...I think there is an opportunity there to reach a new customer," said Bronwyn Cosgrave, a fashion expert and expatriate living in London. Cosgrave believes that large, commercial brands legitimise a city.

Massardo agreed that these retailers justify the fashion market in Ottawa. "I think it will help us show up on the radar... It might entice people to come and shop, but it's not what will decide if Ottawa is a shopping destination - the designers will decide."

...give us a couple more seasons and we're going to be a big competitor for [Toronto] Fashion Week.

PRESS The Fashion Magazine is Ottawa's sole, strictly fashion-content magazine. Massardo said the first issue sold out, implying a demand for fashion in Ottawa, and the third issue is currently on newsstands at various Ottawa locations. "PRESS is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise 'town that fashion forgot.' It's a magazine that will always support local businesses and artists, which is fantastic," said Bree Powell, the beauty editor at PRESS.

Canadian fashion eyes are on the capital city as it prepares for subsequent seasons of Ottawa Fashion Week (OFW). OFW S/S 2012 was held from September 29 to October 1, 2011. Local insiders believe it raised the bar for fashion in Ottawa because of the caliber of the designers involved, such as Montreal's Travis Taddeo and international fashion reporter and designer, Jeanne Beker.

"[OFW] looked just as good as [World MasterCard Fashion Week, in Toronto]...It's worth putting the time and the money into it. I think give us a couple more seasons and we're going to be a big competitor for [World MasterCard] Fashion Week," said Erica Wark, local fashion stylist and expert. 

The most recent season of OFW was held on February 17 to 19 at the Westin Hotel, marking the event's seventh anniversary. In the past, OFW has been held in March, but this year, organisers switched gears to include the event on the 2012 Winterlude Festival calendar. "Sixty-five per cent of our guests are from out of town. Apart from fashion, we want to be able to expose our guests to the beauty of Ottawa," said Christine Achampong, OFW public relations director. She believes the move to encourage fashion-related tourism will establish Ottawa as a fashion destination city.

Frank Sukhoo, an Ottawa-based designer, is showing at OFW for the first time this season. He said he was waiting for the event to reach a certain level of quality. He said OFW has opened up the market for designers, but he questioned the validity of the event since the audience and designers involved are so young. "I know the young [audience members] have the money, but I don't know if they are going to invest in [local designer] pieces. They'd probably rather go to BCBG," he said.

Travis Taddeo Ottawa Fashion Week S/S 2012 
(Photograph by Stephanie Vizi).

According to Sukhoo, when he graduated from the Richard Robinson Academy of Fashion Design in 1989, there wasn't a fashion industry in Ottawa. Today, he is its pioneer, designing custom-made garments at his boutique on Dalhousie St. for clients. Sukhoo also teaches fashion design at Algonquin College, prior to which, he taught at Richard Robinson for 13 years. He said neither program sets young designers up for success in Ottawa's market. Richard Robinson's is a full-time, two-year program; Algonquin's is part-time and can be completed over six years.

Sukhoo said Algonquin's program needs to be full-time and both programs need to provide real-life experience for their students. "Students coming out of the program think they are a fashion designer. You're not yet! You need to work it."

Sukhoo said young designers need a fashion incubator - a place where they would be able to receive funding for their collections, mentorship from experienced designers, and rent machines needed for their work. Massardo and Wark agreed with Sukhoo, adding that the federal government needs to get involved and consider fashion as art, which is currently not the case. "Even if it was just an extra $5,000 to help start someone's collection, I think it would go leaps and bounds," said Wark.

Massardo said major fashion cities stand behind their young talents. He gave the example of New York City's so-called favourite designer, Alexander Wang. "It's not just him doing a good job, it's people acknowledging the good job. The only way people outside of the city will hear about you, is if people in the city start talking about you," he said.

Massardo said the goal of PRESS is to educate and promote fashion in Ottawa. He encourages Ottawans to look past the St. Laurent Centre and shop on Sussex Dr., Dalhousie St. and York St. and venture out to Westboro and the Glebe. This is where fashion lives in Ottawa.

Designer Adrian Wu 
(Photograph courtesy
of Adrian Wu).

Young designers often leave Ottawa for Toronto, New York City or Europe because they believe a successful career here simply isn't possible. Adrian Wu, a 21-year-old designer, chose not to show at OFW last season, opting instead to go to the city he considers the centre of the Canadian fashion industry: Toronto.

Cosgrave said this trend will continue. "Because there isn't a market. There isn't a big enough market for their work. Canadians like fashion. Are they as consumer driven and trend conscious as the Brits or the Americans? No." 

Many designers, like Sukhoo, do make a living in Ottawa, but it is not easy. "They've educated themselves to who their client is and how to sell to their client... You have to go out there and you have to hustle. If you expect that because you've got some two-year diploma in fashion design...that means the doors will open and you're going to be the next Miuccia Prada? No, it's not going to happen," said Massardo.

Changes are needed in the Ottawa fashion industry if it is to grow, said Wark. Local designers need to receive financial and community support in order to be successful and the level of professionalism must be raised at OFW in order to lift Ottawa from the trenches of bad fashion and transform it into a bona fide fashion city.

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