Picture this: You move to New York with the hope of making a name for yourself, and pretty soon magazines like Fashion, Flare and YM are featuring your metallic leather "Chickbags;" and your sequined ballet flats, "Chickshoes," are making their way into the guest gift-bags for the fifth annual Latin Grammy awards. What's the next step? If you're Kafi Dublin, you move back to Montreal to try to revive your hometown's moribund fashion scene.
Intent on developing a stronger presence for local fashion, Dublin recently opened Le Marché Mtl in a grungy building on the increasingly gentrified Saint-Laurent Boulevard. Visitors to Le Marché will first pass through a dimly lit hallway lined with diner stools, hang a sharp right at the L Corridor (a Caribbean restaurant, situated literally in the corridor), and emerge beneath the bright lights of Le Marché Mtl's treasure trove of fashion.
As the name suggests, Le Marché Mtl operates like a farmer's market, with local designers setting up booths to peddle their wares. Dublin curates her bazaar with a strict hand, favouring lines by perennial favourites such as Peekaboo Wilcox, Roadkill and In Nate. "It's the only way to keep the garbage and mass-manufactured stuff from infiltrating our sacred walls," she says.
Dublin thrives on boldness, dazzle and uniqueness, and is convinced that Montreal can transcend its oft-tacky reputation (which makes the city a staple of Vice magazine's "Don'ts" fashion section). The city's fashion, she says, "is definitely evolving. It's like a mini-New York. People are starting to mix vintage with mainstream frocks-but I'd still like to see people taking more risks with colour and bold accessories."
Montreal might be widely touted as Canada's fashion mecca-indeed, the city teems with graduates fresh out of fashion school, fine arts alumni finding their calling screenprinting bags and people who just happen to have a knack for making trinkets-but the local fashion industry is still finding its legs. According to Dublin, there doesn't seem to be much of a community for young and aspiring types to foster their craft and, while there are many potential fashion visionaries in town, they lack the means and incentives to communicate with each other. "This is why Le Marché Mtl was created," she says. "I wanted to give a common meeting place where emerging designers can network with other designers."
Preloved is a Toronto-based clothing line that opened a Montreal outlet six blocks north of Le Marché Mtl. Store manager Erin Mahoney sheds some light on this city's predicament: "There's a different shopping culture and mentality here. People in Montreal go for uniqueness through different, personal, expressive clothes." Having observed people's penchant for wearing handmade things she notes, "They get inspired from people on the streets and from finding things at the Salvation Army."
The city's creative atmosphere makes it the perfect place for independent, small-batch designers to nurture the artistry in their craft. Their growth, however, is stunted by a dearth of outlets through which they might share their creations. No starving designer wants to stay a starving designer.
Montreal wasn't always like this. Internationally renowned local fashion designer Renata Morales, whose boutique is up the street from Preloved, recalls a Montreal that once lived up to its reputation: "I remember the days when tons of manufacturing was being done in Montreal," she says, "and tons of product was being exported from Montreal to all around the world."
Morales claims that it is Montreal's inability to match China's cheap labour that has decimated local small-to-mid-sized fashion service businesses (i.e., pleaters and dyers)-businesses which local designers rely on. This anxiety over having to mass-produce goods weighs on the creative drive needed to inspire new local fashion. More importantly, it appears that with the import of Chinese labour to Montreal, a sense of community has been crushed-those small-to-mid-sized labour services were owned by local families who had run their businesses for generation upon generation.
However, supporting the creative endeavours of young Montreal designers may lead to a revitalized infrastructure, and the city may once again earn its title as fashion industry capital. "It would take a real leader, not only with great experience," says Morales, "but a great vision and great direction to whip it. It seems that most people here think of each other as either egomaniac buck-makers or egomaniac flaky artists."
Call it coincidence, or call it great fashion minds thinking alike-something is well underway towards the rehabilitation of the industry. This year, Montreal Fashion Week breaks from their standard runway fare by letting Dublin hold "f+art." Armed with a mannequin, a display case and a 10' x 10' space, local designers are being challenged to flex their quirky, DIY muscles by animating a static environment. This acknowledgement of local independent fashion may very well be the first step towards establishing that lost link between Montreal's established designers and its up-and-coming ones, and will thus help forge a stronger fashion community. "I want Le Marché Mtl to become a permanent worldwide shopping destination," says Dublin, "as well as a place where emerging local designers can flourish and expand their fashion careers."
This intertwining of Dublin's vision for local style and the city's current trend towards developing a sense of community amongst designers could repave the way for Montreal to fully reclaim its moniker as a fashion hotspot. And, as long as you proudly display your bed-head conviction and pants-turned-jean-jacket dedication, you too are helping in the movement to recondition the Montreal style. Welcome to the fashion mecca, at last.