Focus On

Insider’s look at legal, business issues faced by Canadian fashion industry

Wednesday, August 19, 2020 @ 8:38 AM | By Vanessa Kiraly

Vanessa Kiraly %>
Vanessa Kiraly
The temporary shutdown of Toronto Fashion Week this January is just one of several signs that the prospects of Canadian fashion are starting to look grim. With the COVID-19 pandemic leading to the cancellation of fashion events and the closure of retail stores, independent fashion businesses and graduates of fashion programs unable to showcase their collections were left in a confounded, unsupported state. The truth, however, is that Canada’s fashion industry has been on a decline and struggling to compete with fashion capitals years beforehand.

Creating a fashion brand in Canada presents several challenges to designers. Showcasing a collection is expensive; there is a lack of government funding, and expensive manufacturing and shipping across the country make survival in the Canadian fashion industry tough. Over the past 10 years, prior to starting law school this fall, I have had the privilege to witness the business practices of several Toronto fashion event companies from the perspective of an independent fashion designer and a fashion event co-ordinator. Through these experiences, I have observed key issues facing independent Canadian designers. In this two-part series, I would like to share my perspective on these legal and business-related issues.

Lack of mandatory business education

Global surveys have been conducted indicating that fashion design students perceive an insufficient level of business education within their degrees. This outcome is consistent with my personal experience working alongside graduates from Toronto fashion schools. I have witnessed designers returning to their previous careers, going back to school for another degree, becoming real estate agents, or giving up on their own brand entirely to work for bigger companies. Frequently, designers graduate with the mindset of a creative but not with the mindset of how they will turn their line into a source of income.

Companies like Startup Fashion Week aim to help designers navigate the business side of fashion post-graduation. However, fixing the root of the problem — a lack of education — is a more efficient solution. Networking events and business of fashion conferences aren’t helpful if designers don’t have a prior understanding of the business of fashion in the first place. I believe that all bachelor of design programs must make business education a mandatory part of the fashion design curriculum because creating understanding of how the fashion industry works in the real world is crucial to the success of graduating designers. Canadian designers need to be as business-savvy as they are innovative to make a living from their fashion lines.

Lack of legal, IP rights knowledge  

New designers are frequently unaware of legal resources and protections that are a necessity to the success of their fashion lines. The unique branding elements and creative works of a fashion design business require legal protection not only to protect a brand against infringement, but also to enhance the value and reputability of a brand in the eyes of consumers, sponsors and investors. For example, trademarking a brand’s logo is important to distinguish a brand and to help generate a dedicated consumer following. It is important to educate future designers about the types of intellectual property (IP) protection they require, how to register for it and the costs of doing so. While working in fashion event co-ordination, I learned that the majority of brands applying to showcase at the Toronto fashion events I worked for had not yet filed for trademarks or other forms of IP protection. When it comes to trademark protection in Canada, one of the barriers newer brands face is the strict process required to register their trademarks. If they are unable to acquire a trademark or alternative forms of IP protection, new designers risk infringement on their work while trying to develop evidence of a reputation in Canada.

Fast fashion brands  

Fast fashion retailers and overseas companies that produce knockoffs of designs, artworks and the products of independent designers not only exploit profit, but also threaten the image, originality and consumer loyalty of smaller brands. The limited protections of IP in fashion and the high cost of pursuing a lawsuit against fast fashion retailers remain an issue for smaller fashion companies. Furthermore, fast fashion retailers continue to copy the designs of other designers because the benefits outweigh the inconveniences of settling cases from a profit standpoint. Legal disincentives for the creation of knockoffs and higher settlement fees could become crucial topics for further discussion in fashion-related IP law.

Alternatively, fast fashion brands could follow Uniqlo’s example by creating collaborations with different artists and designers. One might argue that the reason why these collaborations work is because they are with well-known artists or designers. However, fast fashion companies are known to copy small designers that are not well known nonetheless, in part because fast fashion companies perceive small designers as less likely to have the finances and resources to pursue a lengthy lawsuit. Why can’t we just give credit where it is due and create a culture that allows for the growth of independent designers?

This is the first of two parts.

Since designing her first collection at the age of 16, Vanessa Lisa Kiraly has worked as a designer, fashion event co-ordinator, creative director, photograph retoucher and photographer. She graduated from U of T with an honours bachelor of science and is attending Ryerson Law in the fall. She is the recipient of the Gardiner Roberts LLP scholarship for female law students with a business focus and hopes to continue contributing to the fashion industry as a lawyer, among other future practice areas of interest. Learn more at her LinkedIn profile.

Photo credit / mi_007 ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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