When Lil Huddy posted a photo of himself wearing a pair of Unknown Articles black suede Chelsea boots on Instagram, showing them to his 12 million followers, the founders of the small Canadian shoe company were somewhat shocked. “We don’t really know how he found them,” says Cameron James, who co-created Unknown Articles in Toronto with David Brown in 2019.
James and Brown say the 19-year-old singer and TikTok star must have discovered his rock-inspired leather shoes through a friend or stylist because they certainly didn’t have a marketing strategy. influence in their budget.
Instead, the duo rely on enthusiastic Reddit forums, word of mouth and a modest Instagram account to sell their boots. To further reduce their overhead, James and Brown do much of the photography and coding for the brand’s website themselves. “We want to be as lean as possible and keep a little more cash on hand,” says James.
This frugality helped their business survive the pandemic when nearly 60,000 Canadian businesses closed their storefronts. Unknown Articles is one of many Canadian fashion start-ups using a recipe of low-cost, mostly virtual, marketing and sales strategies to hedge against the country’s long underfunded fashion industry, which has been particularly pilloried by recent supply chain issues, inflation, and the expiration of some government grants for pandemic relief. For many brands, social media and e-commerce are lifelines in a notoriously difficult landscape.
The underfunded fashion industry in Canada
James and Brown, both 25, work full-time in other businesses, in sales and finance respectively, to fund their business in hopes that it will one day become their main source of income. They have their work cut out for them: Canadian designers have long been asking for more support and funding, and outside of Quebec they still struggle to get provincial grants allocated to other creative industries like music, the arts and cinema.
Lack of support has made it difficult to promote local talent and has made it common practice for top Canadian-born designers of this generation, like Erdem Moralioglu or Aurora James, to relocate and hone their craft in places where the music scene mode is more developed, like London, Los Angeles or New York.
But it has not always been so. In the 1970s and 1980s, Canada had a vibrant fashion and manufacturing scene, and many of the clothes worn by Canadians came from Toronto’s Spadina Avenue or Winnipeg’s denim factories. While the bulk of textile jobs were located in Quebec and Ontario, the industry grew steadily through the 1970s and early 1980s on par with the country’s manufacturing sector.
In 1974, the Fashion Designers Association of Canada was founded to promote local designers and raise awareness of the industry’s contributions to the Canadian economy. Designers like Alfred Sung, Linda Lundström, Simon Chang, Hilary Radley and Wayne Clark were household names.
But the researchers’ recommendations to the Canadian ministry to phase out the domestic textile and apparel industries from the late 1970s pricked. The logic was that Canada could not compete with the largest textile mills abroad that regularly captured the market, and funding would be better directed to less competitive industries. In 2003, Canada removed all tariffs from 48 developing countries, including Bangladesh and Cambodia, increasing the amount of cheaper imported clothing. In 2010, approximately 19,000 Canadians were making clothing, a huge drop from 94,260 workers in 2001. The loss of national jobs has had ripple effects: government data shows apparel manufacturing sales totaled $2.3 billion in 2010, down from $8 billion in 2002. According to government data, approximately 95% of clothing purchased in Canada is now imported.
Toronto Fashion Week, a biannual event and perhaps the biggest recurring fashion show in the country, has been canceled indefinitely in 2020 after years of struggling to retain sponsors. At the same time, more and more designers were realizing, as they had been in recent years, that a strong online presence is much more effective in driving sales. “The goal is to get our business to a point where we don’t have to spend too much money marketing our boots for them to sell,” says James.
How social media and e-commerce help designers
Social media has played a huge role in putting Canadian designers on the map and changing the way celebrities and consumers discover brands. Toronto designer Kathryn Bowen was thrilled when she was recently contacted by a member of Kim Kardashian’s team after the beauty mogul saw Bowen’s mesh dresses on Instagram. Bowen was asked to make three custom dresses for Kardashian’s latest fragrance campaign — which the reality star recently teased to her 285 million Instagram followers — and she’s since signed deals with Nordstrom and Ssense. Another Canadian designer, Sid Neigum, reportedly sold his purple laminated trench coat after Kylie Jenner posted it on Instagram and was photographed wearing it in public.
While Lil Huddy’s endorsement has helped Unknown Items, James and Brown say they’re still feeling the pressures of Canada’s tight market as they expand their business. Unknown Articles’ boots are priced high – a pair of lace-ups from its first collection cost $625 – limiting its customer base. But their digital-focused business model, coupled with a growing appetite for local designers, is a formula they hope pays off. Indeed, research from McKinsey & Company’s State of Fashion 2022 report shows that more and more consumers around the world are interested in sustainability and know where their clothes are made, and want to move away from known fast fashion retailers. for their practices harmful to the environment. Many of these conscious consumers also use “digital environments,” like social media and online storefronts, to shop.
“People wanted something that represented Ontario and Canada”
Toronto designer Warren Steven Scott knows this firsthand. Scott’s colorful acrylic earrings, contemporary Indigenous designs inspired by Salish patterns, have become catnip on social media since he started making the accessories four years ago. Scott, who is a member of the Nlaka’pamux Nation whose territory is in present-day British Columbia, went to Ryerson University for fashion design. But he soon realized that designing, producing and selling entire collections of clothing was too much overhead for a new designer. So he pivoted.
He first showed off his earrings at Toronto Indigenous Fashion Week in 2018 and then held a pop-up sale at Comrags’ Toronto storefront. He realized he was onto something when his first batch of products sold out within days. Scott began selling his designs online and promoting them on social media. Because they were easier and less time-consuming to produce than clothing, he could make more earrings as needed and ship them quickly by mail.
“What I’ve learned since launch is that the earrings really resonate with customers and it created this community of people both online and offline,” he says, giving the example of two people who started talking in a coffee shop in Vancouver because they were both wearing their recognizable creations. “And if someone posts a selfie wearing the earrings on Instagram, we [often] DM you and I ask if I can repost the image… Something that has really been key to my success is how I’ve stayed with an accessible core product.
During the pandemic, when many people turned even more to supporting local businesses, Scott’s designs “really took off,” as vogue he says, thanks to the power of the internet: US Interior Secretary Deb Haaland wore a pair and tons of everyday fans took to Instagram to also share snaps of them in their accessories . Through word of mouth, social media exposure and profiles in international magazines like Cosmopolitan and New York magazinesales increased, mainly online.
Scott estimates that his business is now 70% e-commerce and 30% wholesale; his creations are stocked in selected boutiques, museum souvenir shops and even at Simons. Of its online sales, around a quarter comes from social media alone. Now that his business is growing, he has moved to a bigger working studio and recently branched out into making clothes.
Shelby Johnston has also experienced the impact of social media in increasing her brand awareness. She was still a student at the University of Windsor when she and her business partner Mallory Martin listened to Alex MacLean, the founder of East Coast Lifestyle, give a presentation on his line of comfortable Maritime-themed clothing in the one of their classes in 2016. When they noticed that their home province had no equivalent, the duo designed a black and white crest, decorated it with six trees and five waves, wrote on it “Best Case Ontario” and printed it on 25 hoodies. They sold out within days. “People wanted something that represented Ontario and Canada,” says Johnston.
Best Case Ontario recently celebrated its fifth anniversary, and Johnston says its business strategy has changed significantly since 2016 to adapt to the times. Previously, they mainly relied on pop-up shops, consignment contracts and in-person delivery to sell their clothes. When the pandemic complicated these companies, they created an online storefront which Johnston said has boosted overall sales since comfortable sweats and online shopping were prepared for the pandemic.
Johnston says being digitally savvy is what has helped his business thrive over the past 22 months, and thinks it will help them carry them post-COVID. “You also have to be smart with money,” she adds, “and hone your brand.”