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Local fashion designers are building successful brands in Alberta

Fashion designers Nicole Campre and Malorie Urbanovitch have made their mark on the national scene. Now what?

Mar 1, 2013

by Caroline Gault

Barely an hour after their Boeing 737 hit the tarmac at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport this past October, Nicole Campre and Malorie Urbanovitch found themselves right smack in the middle of World MasterCard Fashion Week in a scene that must have felt like it was pulled directly from their wildest dreams. But the two Edmonton-based designers didn’t have the luxury of taking it all in – indeed, they barely had enough time to catch their breath. Instead, they feverishly unpacked their suitcases that were filled with months’ worth of work and prepared for their national runway debuts. There was no time to steam out the creases, no opportunity to make any last-minute alterations or adjustments and no chance to brief the lineup of tall, thin models who would be wearing their garments. Oh, and FashionTelevision icon and eTalk contributor Jeanne Beker, famous for interviewing greats like Jean Paul Gaultier, Valentino, Karl Lagerfeld and the late Alexander McQueen, wanted a one-on-one with each of them.

  • The Young and the Restless The Young and the Restless
  • Malorie Urbanovitch Spring/Summer 2013 Collection Malorie Urbanovitch Spring/Summer 2013 Collection
  • Nicole Campre Fall/Winter 2013Collection Nicole Campre Fall/Winter 2013Collection
  • Saskatchewan-born designer and couturier Paul Hardy Saskatchewan-born designer and couturier Paul Hardy
Photographs Pedersen

At the time, Campre, 23, and Urbanovitch, 26, weren’t used to the spotlight. But after their performance in Toronto (one that was made possible thanks to the Mercedes-Benz Start Up program, a national competition launched in 2011 to nurture Canada’s next generation of fashion designers), that’s no longer the case. While DUY, a ready-to-wear line from Montreal, took the 2012 title, the two Albertans managed to attract the attention of Canada’s fashion industry elite with their fresh collections. Urbanovitch, who was virtually unheard of in Toronto’s fashion community prior to the competition, was named “The Newcomer” and “One to Watch” by the Globe and Mail’s style editors, while Barbara Atkin, VP of fashion direction at Holt Renfrew, cited the Nicole Campre line as “sellable, beautiful and well beyond [the designer’s] years.” Not bad for two girls from Alberta, a place that isn’t exactly known for its habit of producing sartorial superstars.

The fashion tents at Toronto’s David Pecaut Square, where the two designers presented their Spring 2013 collections along with two dozen others from across the country (including Calgary’s Lauren Bagliore and Caitlin Power), might be a shade under 3,500 kilometres from their hometown, but in terms of how far they’ve come professionally, they might as well have been on another planet. It was just last April that Campre, a 2011 graduate from the fashion design program at Edmonton’s Marvel College, and Urbanovitch, a 2011 film studies and fine art graduate from the University of Alberta, set their sights on Toronto after advancing through the semi-final round of the competition at David Morris Fine Cars, an Edmonton Mercedes-Benz dealership (Urbanovitch was crowned the winner, while Campre was notified a few months later that she’d been named one of the four wildcards).

“If you’re getting your production done and sourcing your materials overseas, I don’t really see why it would make much of a difference if you’re here in Edmonton or in Calgary or in Toronto.” – Malorie Urbanovitch

Before the initiative was established, designers like Campre and Urbanovitch worked to establish their labels (and their reputations) by selling small amounts at local farmers’ markets, craft fairs, pop-up shops and independent boutiques. The possibility of expanding into the national market, let alone the international one, had always been reserved for dreamers with a trust fund or a full bank account. “Without the Mercedes-Benz Start Up program, it was kind of a catch-22,” Urbanovitch says. “In order to sell to stores and for people to really think that you’re something special, you have to get media exposure, and Toronto is the best place to do it in Canada. But in order to buy a show you need to be making money, and in order to make enough money you need to be producing and selling large quantities of your clothing to stores. It’s really hard, strategically, to know which path to take.”

The Mercedes-Benz Start Up program changed the equation for Urbanovitch and Campre, who can now get their much-needed media exposure and industry attention without borrowing themselves into penury. But now that they don’t have to move to a place like Toronto, both Urbanovitch and Campre find themselves asking a different question: do they want to?

Campre first made her mark in the fashion industry in the fall of 2011, when she presented her graduating collection at Western Canada Fashion Week (formerly Edmonton Fashion Week) as part of the Marvel College showcase. It caught the eye of Min Kang, the owner of successful local boutiques Oak + Fort and Loft 82, who was impressed with her quality construction and whimsical esthetic. Kang hired Campre to design pieces for Loft 82’s romantic in-house label, but after two seasons there, and the Western Canada Fashion Week Emerging Designer title in 2012, Campre decided to part ways with the boutique and launch her own eponymous line. In the seven months between the Start Up semifinals in Edmonton and finals in Toronto, Campre rented a shared studio space in the Great West Saddlery Building on Edmonton’s 104th Street Promenade with Urbanovitch – talk about a small world – and set out to grow her reputation. She designed and produced a full spring collection, shot a glossy campaign and even designed her own company website.

Urbanovitch fell for fashion design when she was 17 and working as an entry-level stylist for Mode Models Edmonton. Every Sunday, she would bring clothing from home, peruse the racks at Value Village, and where possible borrow garments from local clothing stores to dress new models for the agency’s test shoots. Frustrated with the limited selection, she started making her own pieces, learning to sew and draft patterns through human ecology courses at the U of A. Since September 2010, she has shown four collections at Western Canada Fashion Week.

But if the two have taken different paths to success, they’re now both stuck at the same professional crossroads. “Making it” in the fashion industry in Alberta is no longer limited to selling product at a farmers’ market kiosk, although it’s still a viable option for those dreaming of operating a small business. “Making it” means going international, as 39-year-old Saskatchewan-born designer and couturier Paul Hardy has done from Calgary. He celebrated his 10th anniversary last fall as one of the most renowned names in Canadian fashion, and he’s dressed celebrities ranging from Bette Midler to Diane Kruger and Sarah McLachlan. Part of his success is that he found his own path, making his sales private and commission-based instead of selling full collections to retailers. But, Campre says, it’s also a reflection of his roots in Calgary, a city that, like Edmonton, is on the periphery of the North American fashion scene. “I think what makes Paul Hardy so successful is that he built such a strong foundation in Calgary and that’s allowed him to go international,” she says. “That’s what I look up to in Paul Hardy, and that’s what I’m trying to do in Edmonton.”

Thanks to the rise of the Internet and the effect globalization has had on supply chains, she and Urbanovitch can do it, too, and at a cheaper overall cost than producing locally. Campre’s business strategy involves investing her time and energy with local retailers initially and spending time marketing and selling online. “The Internet is the future of fashion,” she says. That global view of fashion is reflected both in her design choices – she works mostly with synthetic fibres to keep prices down – and in where she sources her materials. Right now she has set her sights on Vietnam, where her father lives and where she spent two weeks in January. Urbanovitch, who opts to design with more expensive, natural fibres, like silk, also has a global view of fashion and how it’s put together. “If you’re getting your production done and sourcing your materials overseas, I don’t really see why it would make much of a difference if you’re here in Edmonton or in Calgary or in Toronto,” she says. “You’re not sourcing everything locally anyways.”

Both are open to potential internships or short-term design positions in other cities, such as New York or London, but are exploring the once-unthinkable possibility that they could build a global reputation in the fashion industry from right here in Alberta. Urbanovitch, who sold her Fall 2012 collection at Coup, one of Edmonton’s newer high-end boutiques, is hoping to see the contemporary and sleek Malorie Urbanovitch Ready-to-Wear label picked up by upscale Edmonton retailer Gravitypope Tailored Goods, which also has locations in Vancouver and Toronto. Campre has secured her Spring 2013 collection at Edmonton’s 124th Street boutique, Shades of Grey.

Both plan to compete again for the Mercedes-Benz Start Up title this spring (participants may enter up to four times) when the next cycle rolls through Calgary in search of Canada’s next hot, young designer. But for now they plan to stay in Alberta. “I definitely think it would be easier if I moved to Toronto because there are resources there that we simply don’t have here,” Urbanovitch says. “But, then again, affording a studio space in Toronto would be impossible for me right now. I think it’ll be a challenge to stay in Edmonton, but I’m trying.”


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