Open File: Indie fashion designers reject recession

Ian Doig, December 19, 2011

2011 12 19 Openfile

Making it as an independent clothing designer has always been tough says architect and fashion designer Lara Presber, whose namesake professional women’s wear boutique is located in downtown Calgary’s Fashion Central.

Though soggy economic times have taken the pinking shears to the city’s small fashion community, she’s elegantly defiant. “This is my passion,” she says.

Presber, who has studied in Boston and Milan, launched her first clothing collection in 2007 just prior to the global economic downturn. She says her clientele were initially insulated against the recession by Calgary’s relatively good economic situation. She only began to feel the pinch over the last year, as did the boutiques that sell her clothing.

“You’re competing with big, big stores that can discount so much more than something that’s designed and produced in Canada,” she says. On the flip side, she says independent designers can be more nimble and adaptable than big retailers.

Presber says she and fellow designers have been forced to reevaluate their business strategies and become more efficient. “It has pushed everyone to be a whole lot more clever about how you’re approaching your clients and your market, what kind of messaging you’re using.”

For example, she offers designer-direct service, tailoring clients’ off-the-rack purchases in-store. “That’s what’s set me apart from my competition,” she says. Having clients walk out of the store Vogue-ready is great advertising.

The recession, she says, has also made fashion buyers more conscientious, another plus for independent designers. Not only are they looking for a high level of service, they want sustainably produced garments that are built to last.

There are very few established designers in the city, and most are emerging talents. “They’re struggling, but that’s not really indicative of the economy,” says Presber. “It’s always a struggle in the beginning.”

“We just went in head first, and that’s the only thing you can do,” says Jacile Hébert, co-owner of Jalu, a small independent fashion house that produces contemporary casual men’s and women’s clothing.

With business partner Luanne Ronquillo, the two launched their first fashion collection this fall, trusting their instincts and ignoring the odds against making it. If there’s glamour in hard work, the duo is très chic.

Hébert concentrates on marketing and sales and Ronquillo is the principal designer, while both maintain day jobs. While holding trunk sales and selling clothes online, they’re working to get their togs in stores.

The work can drain the gig’s inherent glamour, but Hébert claims the thrill of the challenge motivates like Tim Gunn. “The challenge makes the product more rewarding. It’s just keeping an eye on the prize and the small victories knowing they’ll amount to big victories in the end. That keeps it glamorous.”

Hébert says beating the recession is all about being staying relevant and being intimately acquainted with the fashion desires of her clients. “We need to stay true to our identity and to create a brand and a culture more than anything,” she says.

“It’s a really competitive industry regardless of what the economic times are looking like. But people will always buy based on feeling more than anything.”

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