It sucks to have to write this letter. I have an intense feeling that I am forgetting something every morning when I wake up and start my day - that thing being Toronto Fashion Week. I see casting emails from agencies, reaching out to share photos of models that will be in town. I get invitations to shows, from designers I admire and have presented alongside for multiple seasons. I have conversations with friends and past collaborators who casually inquire about my plans for this season’s runway show. Toronto Fashion Week is a week away as I type this. Normally by now, we would have opened our doors to scores of hopeful models, all smiling nervously as they talk about what a great opportunity it is to be able to be considered for a runway show. We would have put out the open call to any and all people who felt they wanted a place at the table, to be part of the conversation. We would have reached out to models that have become friends and are always down to help us out with a last-minute photoshoot or runway walk. We would have gotten our samples in at the last possible minute, and I would have hunkered down over my sewing machine anxiously making adjustments while Connor, my brother and business manager, goes over the run of show and makes suggestions regarding casting and styling, while not-so-subtly telling me I need to start my design process earlier so we don’t have to be so last minute. I would have swiped through hundreds of photos, a blur of different faces – all heights, shapes, sizes, races, and gender identities represented. Not to tick a box or make a point, but because we put out an open call, and this is who came. Everyone. Not diversity for the sake of it, but rather representation – a microcosm of our customer base and a visual metaphor for why I do what I do.

In 2018, Gucci was criticized for cultural appropriation for having white and non-practicing models wearing turbans on their runway. We’ve worked with multiple Sikh models, and last season had two models wearing turbans, because that is what they wear every day. You might think, “So what? Canada is a very ethnically diverse country and has been for years, it’s not news”. That may be true, but that didn’t stop a random photographer in the press pit from assuming one Sikh model was the other, and telling black models to make ‘gang signs’ in a photo.

This past season, YouTube star and trans rights activist Stef Sanjati appeared on our runway with the words ‘Fuck Doug Ford’ written across her stomach, in protest of his rollback on sexual education curriculum in Ontario, including important information regarding consent, gender identity, and sexual orientation. You might think, “So what? There is plenty of liberal media coverage of LGBTQ issues.” That may be true, but that didn’t stop transgender sex worker Sisi Thibert from being stabbed to death in the lobby of her Montreal apartment in 2017. I was anxious about the potential backlash of Stef’s statement, but I knew it was an important statement to make, and wanted Stef to feel like she could express herself. Unfortunately, there was zero attention surrounding this statement on the runway, positive or negative.

We’ve showcased models from 5’0” to 6’7”. Women’s sizes 2-20 and men’s sizes XS-XXL. We’ve had models ranging from 18-72 and everything in between. Initially I had to be secretive about casting non-agency models, but over the years the team at Toronto Fashion Week has become more and more welcoming of our ‘fun’ runway show. We tell models to be themselves and show their personality because I want them to light up my clothes. Models are not coat hangers, like the old guard would have you believe. It’s often a difficult task to get agency models we work with to allow themselves freedom of movement and expression, but for the ones that have been in more than one of our shows, you can see them relish the moment when they get to strut their stuff. I live for the 5 minutes right after the show when I can come backstage and see my team and all of the models looking so happy and excited. I live for the opportunity to showcase people who would never get an opportunity otherwise. You might think, “So what? Body positivity is a trend now. Plus size models are everywhere.” Tell that to the stunning Bebe Rexha, who is a very conventionally attractive size 8 and couldn’t get a designer to dress her for the Grammys. Better yet, tell that to the commenters who angrily tore into me for not being a real runner, when I was featured on Nike Toronto’s page after starting my run club and trying to get back into shape after years of neglecting my health to push my business forward.

So why am I writing this letter instead of preparing for Toronto Fashion Week? Why am I venting as if I don’t have complete control over where and when I show my clothing?  I am privileged to have walked out of university and onto the runway at Melbourne Fashion Festival, followed by Sydney Fashion Week before returning home to Canada. I am exceptionally lucky to have been treated with amazing kindness and generosity by the team at Toronto Fashion Week for multiple seasons. I’m beyond thrilled to have partnered with Hasbro on a standalone New York show in 2017 at Milk Studios in support of my “My Little Pony”-inspired collection. I am lucky to have a committed team, a supportive family, and the ability to live my dream every day.

So why? Because every single day I strive to push our brand forward, support my community, and shed light on social and political issues that I think are important and relevant in an industry that is still very much propped up by exclusionary practices, elitism, and corruption. Every day I try to put out clothing that is as ethically sourced as I possibly can. That isn’t designed to be consumed and thrown out. That isn’t built on exploitation and unhealthy body and beauty ideals. Every day I work with my team and try to think of new and more exciting ways to get our content, our photos, our art, and my clothing in front of people so they can support our brand. Every day, I try to put money back into our local economy and to partner with local brands, so we can push our city forward. Every day, I try to engage positively and professionally with my peers, and to be proactive in generating interest around Canadian fashion and Canadian industry. And every single day, I am let down.

As a country we don’t care about supporting the Canadian fashion industry. We look to international fashion weeks for inspiration, and look to fast fashion retailers for a quick consumption fix. We covet designer brands like Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, and Christian Dior without realizing they are all part of the same massive corporate conglomerate along with Hennessy and Moët & Chandon, selling us an unattainable and unsustainable dream of opulence and luxury. We drool over the same glossy campaign photos over and over again, with the same models with different hair, or different accessories, or a different logo in the corner of the advertisement. Gucci, YSL, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen – what do they have in common aside from being merely aspirational for the vast majority of the population? You guessed it, they are all part of the same luxury empire, Kering. We buy into the hype of brands like Supreme, dreaming of the resale value, lauding them for effortless street-level coolness, while failing to acknowledge that they were apparently recently partially acquired by The Carlyle Group, known for opportunistic international lending, weapons manufacturing and corporate real estate – all decidedly not ‘street level’ endeavours.

I’ve done countless interviews with Canadian fashion magazines, always trying to talk about the messaging behind my collection, and usually they choose a soundbite that makes me seem like the fun, kooky designer my clothes and coloured hair would have you believe I am. We fight for inclusion and representation, like this past season featuring model Rachel Romu who uses a mobility aid as both our show opener and show closer, and this is seen as a playful, non-offensive, fun thing we did because I am a female designer who isn’t taken seriously, just known for making crazy prints. People attend TIFF in droves, all hoping to catch a real live celebrity in the wild. We have Canadian content laws, and a thriving public broadcast company, the CBC. Canadian actors and musicians are known the world over, but go ahead and name 5 Canadian fashion designers. This is next to impossible for the average citizen.

So why am I not participating in Toronto Fashion Week? Because I am tired of trying my absolute hardest to push an agenda of progressive acceptance and inclusion. I am tired of spending thousands and working nonstop to put on a show that gets barely a fizzle of national attention. I am tired of people thinking I’ve ‘made it’ because they see me in a Starbucks ad, or being interviewed in a crazy jacket on CTV twice a year. I am tired of working around the clock and not seeing it result in more sales, more recognition, or more support from mainstream media. Until we cover Toronto Fashion Week like we cover a mundane Wednesday night game 38 in an 82 game season of the Toronto Maple Leafs, our industry will suffer. Until we care about the success of our designers, and brands like we do about the new box logo hoodie that looks exactly like the last one, our industry will suffer. We could work towards having a thriving clothing manufacturing industry. We could lead the global fashion industry towards more sustainable practices, and away from fast fashion. We could try to lead by example instead of falling in line with international fashion weeks and designer labels that trade in wealth and inequality. We could support each other. But we don’t. And I’m tired of it.

I am the first to admit I support international brands and idolize American, French, and Italian brands. I wear Supreme. I love when a new pair of Nikes drops. I have worked with multinational corporations and I will continue to do so because they support me and my dream. What I will never do is compromise my message or my opinions on what is beautiful. Arguably, if I played by the rules a bit more, and featured only conventional agency models, and styled my shoots to look luxurious and opulent, I would find more success. I am not going to do that. I am going to continue trying my hardest to build a company I can feel proud of. To support models who wouldn’t otherwise get an opportunity. To make clothes that are affordable for most people. I’m honestly just trying to make the world a brighter place, one printed denim jacket at a time. But for now, I am tired of burning money, and I need to focus on trying to sell some clothes so that hopefully my brand still exists a year from now.

What I will continue to do is support the Canadian fashion industry. I’ll be attending all the shows I can next week, and keeping an eye on my model friends as a sincere fan of Canadian fashion. I’m not giving up on the industry, and if I can continue to support it in the eye of the hurricane, you can too.

----Hayley Elsaesser----