Montreal 'cluster' aims to put city back on fashion track

In 2008, a group of Quebec fashion industry leaders got together to brainstorm on how to compete in the global market, polish the image of Montreal as a fashion capital and get the industry out of the doldrums.

They concluded with a wide-ranging report in 2013 and one clear message: all parties — retail, wholesale, distributors, manufacturing and design — had to work together.

It took seven years, but the message seems to have taken hold: an unprecedented group of 300 fashion insiders — everybody who is anybody in the biz, plus students, school administrators, young designers and established labels — converged on Aldo headquarters in St-Laurent Thursday to learn about the long-awaited cluster, or grappe in French.

A private-public partnership, the cluster is kicking off with a planned operating annual budget of at $600,000 for the first three years and four objectives on a 10-year plan. The goals are to build a brand image for Montreal, train a workforce, offer technology support for businesses and develop export markets.

In place is a brand name: mmode. Next steps: topping up the financing and hiring a director. The first $500,000 is in place: three levels of government are providing two-thirds of operating costs for the first three years, contingent on the private sector pitching in.

The public funding so far is $200,000 from the Montreal Metropolitan Community, $100,000 from the Secretariat for the metropolitan region and, from Quebec, $81,000 from the Economy, Innovation and Exports Department. In 2018, the funding ratio goes to roughly half-half.

Mmode is the ninth industry cluster to be formed in Quebec (eight are in metropolitan Montreal). Others include health care, technology and aerospace. Industry members plan strategies, then apply for government grants, which can be many millions of dollars.

In the great sunlit atrium of Aldo headquarters, presidents of corporations mingled with politicians, functionaries, students and designers before and after bilingual presentations and panel discussions. There was an acknowledgement that Montreal had lost its fashion way.

Our industry must learn from its mistakes if it wants to be here tomorrow, said François Roberge, president and CEO of La Vie en Rose and president of the cluster.

“Montreal is losing its place as a leader in Canada,” he told the crowd.

“But Montreal has what it takes to succeed: an extraordinary cultural and linguistic mix, a qualified workforce, dynamic education system, remarkable geographic situation, and an effervescent design and creative milieu.”

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The fashion industry, though fragile, still accounts for 30,000 jobs in Quebec, and 45 per cent of all employment in the Canadian fashion sector. And Montreal is still the No. 3 centre in North America for clothing manufacture.

The mood in the hall was upbeat, but questions linger. Primary among them is how to move the slow boat of bureaucracy and how to put the design and manufacturing sectors together.

The issue of the big companies working with young creatives has been under discussion for years. There have been baby steps — Simons department store doing collaborations with Philippe Dubuc, for instance.

Designer Mélissa Nepton, who runs a small business in contemporary clothing and won an award that allowed her to design a collection for Target, said she hopes that designers will be integrated into the industry.

“I’m not talking about finances — I’m talking about integrating designers into projects,” she said.

Off the top of her head, she suggested that Aldo could integrate Quebec designs into its website, with looks to match shoes.

Aldo has collaborated with young designers around the world with its Aldo Rise program, but local designers have not been part of the global program.

“Of course, they look further afield, because they go for an international image,” Nepton said.

“But at the same time, they could help us on the international field.”

Said Norman Jaskolka, president of Aldo Group International: “There’s more we could do.”

“We’re proud of our roots. Design is an important aspect of our business. It’s very important for us that there is a strong local design culture,” he said.

Aldo, of course, is one of Montreal’s great success stories, with 2,400 points of sale in 95 countries and an estimated $1.8 billion in sales in 2013. It is one of four major Quebec fashion industries named by organizers — along with Gildan, Logistik Unicorp and Peerless Clothing — and one of eight companies so far that have pitched in $15,000 each to get the cluster going.

Elliot Lifson, vice-president of Peerless Clothing and president of the Canadian Apparel Federation, has been a passionate crusader and key player in the cluster from the start.

Lifson said the start of the discussions in 2008 was a great thing because the government nurtured the group, then sent it on its way. And initiatives were launched, he said: 10 companies got grants of $25,000 for technology projects.

“This is our last opportunity,” he told the crowd. “Look around the room.”

Asked to expand on what would happen if the effort fails, Lifson said, “We go back to where we were. We all paddle our own canoe.

“Peerless doesn’t need the grappe. Aldo doesn’t need the grappe. Louis Bibeau doesn’t need the grappe,” he said. (Bibeau is president of Logistik Unicorp, which makes uniforms.)

“But we have one thing. We all love this sector. And money can’t measure it. You want to leave a legacy.”

Bibeau also noted the slow process. “Considering it’s 2015, we won’t last that long in fashion. We need to do something faster,” he quipped to the crowd during a panel discussion.

Asked later how to speed up the process, he quipped again: “I don’t know. But this time it will go faster. We need the support of everybody to fix it.”

Armando Guadagno, general manager of Mondor, was optimistic.

“Now they have all the necessary levels of government, plus all the industry players left in Montreal,” Guadagno said.

“If everybody supports it as they did today, I think it’s going to work.”

He sees benefits for his company, which manufactures, markets and sells legwear from Japan to Europe. It needs help with logistics and customs regulations, for instance.

Removing duties on certain imported fabrics and yarns would be one step, he said. “We’re not protecting any industry in Canada. Why should we pay duty?”

Designer Mariouche Gagné, who has worked with the group from the start, said all four goals of the cluster would help or could have helped her in the past with her recycled fur business, Harricana.

“The image of Montreal, when you go to places like Japan, is still unclear,” Gagné said.

It is difficult to find top quality producers here, and while manufacturing is starting to come back, she said, there is huge work to do in training.

Roberge, among others, also pointed to the need to train a workforce, and said putting measures in place would be the first step.

He pointed out that LaSalle College, UQAM and Marie-Victorin fashion school representatives were there. “They know very well that they have to work in tandem with the industry,” he said.

Simon Bélanger and his partner, José-Manuel St-Jacques of UNTTLD, have won many awards and critical acclaim. They have collaborated with Éditions de Robes, a small dress shop, creating dresses that will fit and suit women’s lifestyles. But they are still waiting success in business.

“We are ambitious and want to create a brand,” Bélanger said.

The issue they face is production. Sales will follow, Bélanger believes.

“What I hope the group is going to offer us is a structure and a consciousness of what design actually is and what fashion actually is,” he said.

“We would really like to offer our services as designers. And there is always this separation between the manufacturing business and the design aspect.

“This will be bridged slowly — it might be bridged. It’s difficult for designers to be heard and felt by manufacturers because they see us as these creative creatures.”

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