Stylist Box: Helping Canadian fashion

Beginning Monday, the fashion elite will be converging on downtown Toronto at David Pecaut Square for the twice annual fashion week seeing the newest fall designs from Canada’s top fashion designers. A show can cost a few thousand dollars just for the entry fee according to a few people in the business. (IMG would not confirm the cost when asked). Designers typically aren’t great marketers or business folks – in fact most fail in the first few years.

This is where a new startup called Stylist Box comes in.

Gail McInnes and Christian Dare sit on opposite sides of a large Toronto office calling out the latest in fashion industry gossip to each other. The co-founders are separated by nine racks filled with designer clothing and their walls are highlighted with framed magazine covers.

What type of practical advice does Stylist Box offer? This could include suggestions on website design, how to shot a lookbook – a set of professionally shot photographs that highlight a designer’s collection and is used for marketing purposes, how to create a buyer’s kit and how to sell their lines. It also includes the opportunity for their designers to be discovered and featured in magazines and on celebrities thanks to the team’s showroom.

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McInnes and Dare’s previous business experience taught them one thing when it comes to Canadian fashion. “Fashion designers, especially Canadian fashion designers, need a lot of support to spread the word but they also don’t have the funding to pay for a full public relations and strategy campaign,” says McInnes, explaining that new designers often last a couple years before closing their business.

Gail McInnes. Ted Belton
Christian Dare. Ted Belton
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The Stylist Box began a year ago as an expansion of a previous business owned by McInnes with a business partner. “That was the Style Box,” she said, explaining that it was a rental showroom. “It was strictly for personalities and celebrities to come and rent outfits for the red carpet. We offered styling services and styled people for the Toronto International Film Festival, the Emmy Awards and the Junos.” When the business closed, McInnes formed her own PR company, Magnet Creative Management, which works with well-established designers such as Lucian Matis (a red carpet favourite) and Hilary MacMillan.

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Dare’s expertise is in visual merchandizing with stints at the Gap, Holt Renfrew, Club Monaco and Indigo. “What appealed to me about [Stylist Box] was moving back into fashion,” he says, explaining that he used to teach fine arts and open media at Concordia University while pursuing his doctorate. “What I loved about that was nurturing and developing artistic talent and it felt like a great way to combine the skill set I acquired in retail and the teaching background to nurture Canadian fashion forward.”

The pair offer a variety of services starting from one-hour consultations with designers about branding, how to get into retail stores, how to find buyers, how to update a website and how to make lines more commercial.

“Emerging designers need to take more responsibility for their businesses,” McInnes says. “I think some like to blame outward sources if their businesses are not successful rather than taking the responsibility on themselves, ‘here’s my business plan, here’s what my cash flow is going to be and how I’m going to be paying myself.” She explains that the pair have met with brand new designers who haven’t factored in their own fees into the cost of their garments and haven’t thought about paying themselves a salary.

A lot of designers, especially the younger ones according to McInnes, put a lot of pressure on IMG, the force behind Toronto’s World MasterCard Fashion Week to help their business and generate sales. “You have to be proactive. The shows are great, IMG provides expertise and the public gets access to them but how it is it going to benefit your brand and your company? People are not magically going to come. You need the right tools to get to that level. And be smart about it, it is a business. If you just want to be a designer, go work for somebody else.”

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When a designer contacts McInnes and Dare, the first thing they look for is a presence. “Do they have a website, do they have a social media presence, do they have that lookbook, are they using professional models?” explains Dare, who says they turn away up to 60 per cent of designers who hope to get into Stylist Box.

Those that make it into the Stylist Box can pay as little as $400 a month (if they are members of the Toronto Fashion Incubator) to just have their product in the showroom. They meet with McInnes and Dare at least once a month where they can take advantage of the pair’s experience.  For those who don’t make the cut, they will often get notes and feedback from McInnes and Dare about ways to improve their business and chances of making it into the Stylist Box.

“We try to make it realistic,” says Dare. “Being in Stylist Box isn’t going to increase your sales immediately. We’re getting you exposure in magazines, in television, etc. and yes, eventually that turns into sales but you also have to generate sales by contacting and working with boutiques. A lot of designers will work on that and on their online shop then are ready to move forward with getting editorial exposure.”

Some of the designers in Stylist Box, such as Matis, have had their work featured in international publications and photographed on the red carpet. “We’ve had people pull for Vogue Italia, Marie Claire Russia and Glamour in Russia as well,” says McInnes. “It’s not just Canadian exposure, they’re getting international exposure.”

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The pair have plans for year two of the business, expansion being one of them. They are looking to show more designers, both Canadian and not. “It would be great to discover some new talent,” says Dare. McInnes is a little more coy, “We have other ideas…”

“Some surprises in our back pocket,” laughs Dare.

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