BC Business: Schooling Italia: Vancouver’s Fashion Industry

Oct 19, 2011

Visiting fashion students learn a thing or two 
about la dolce vita in Vancouver.

Fashion is born from a region’s distinctive character. That’s the take-away message from a group of Italian students who came to Vancouver for a lesson in fashion management.

Last July, 31 undergraduate business students from Milan’s Bocconi University travelled here for the Management of Fashion Companies course offered jointly by Bocconi and SFU’s Beedie School of Business. Six SFU students also took part in the one-month class.

Along with lessons in global fashion, the students took field trips to Lululemon Athletica, Holt Renfrew and the Main Street cluster of independent clothing boutiques in search of organizational, strategic and managerial models unique to Canada and B.C. Lesson learned? Vancouver’s unique identity could place our grassroots industry alongside established markets like Italy’s. How? Be true to what we are, which is more Main Street than mainstream.

On a typical Thursday afternoon, Main is full of life. Tiny storefronts attract local designers hoping to showcase their wares, ranging from Cinderella-style skirts to comfortable made-in-Canada hemp pants. It’s here, among the hipster cafes and bike shops that many fashionistas come to peruse independent stores such as Twigg&Hottie and Eugene Choo.

Of course, staying local is a tenuous strategy if what you want is to be big, but Lululemon – Vancouver’s largest fashion success – grew by marketing our local lifestyle. Today the multimillion-dollar company stands apart from multinational chain stores because each retail outlet indulges its customers by becoming local to that area while holding true to the Vancouver lifestyle that was founder Chip Wilson’s original inspiration.

Stephania Saviolo, director of Bocconi’s master of fashion program, accompanied her students to Vancouver to take part as a lecturer in the course. “My personal idea is that you have to be open with the world but still maintain your own identity,” she says. “You want to turn being from Vancouver into an internationally appealing proposition,” she notes. That’s what the Italians did by translating Italy’s dolce vita into a globally recognized look that has been institutionalized by giants such as Versace, Dolce & Gabbana and Prada.

Saviolo was impressed by the tours of local retailers and says these small businesses embody a distinct character that gives Vancouver a leg up in the world of fashion. “We are not interested anymore in the standard American model of chains of big businesses,” Saviolo says. “The small scale, the idea of community and then the multicultural environment – for me it’s fantastic.”

Vancouver has so far retained a healthy independent retail fashion scene, but beating the odds in a game that’s notoriously stacked against independents is a tough long-term proposition, says Jamal Abdourahman, co-creator of Vancouver’s Fashion Week. He notes that over the past 10 years he’s seen our independent designers scurry to their clique-like corners, pushed aside by big-box chains. And the statistics bear him out: according to the 2010 Industry Canada “State of Retail” report, the Canadian retail market has been increasingly dominated by chain stores, from 39 per cent of all stores in 1999 to 47 per cent in 2008.

Convincing Vancouver’s loose-knit community of independent designers and retailers to come together in support of a unified strategy is one area where this fashion management course might help. “This course is bringing focus to an industry that maybe doesn’t get enough focus,” explains Rebecca Rytir, international coordinator at the Beedie School of Business.

The question remains: How exactly does Vancouver’s version of the good life translate onto the runway? Lycra ball gowns trimmed in seaweed, anybody?

Click here to read the complete article on the BC Business website.

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