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Hats Off to CAFA
Written by Liberty Craig   

With the third annual Canadian Arts & Fashion Awards, CAFA has hit its stride.

Vicky & BrittneyPhotographed by Paul Alexander
Produced & Styled by Crystal Carson

Makeup & Hair Team: David Allan Jones and Brodine Naugle for Judy Inc.
Stylist Assistant: Melanie Hayes
Location: Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto

This past April, Vicky Milnerand Brittney Kuczynski pulled it off: the third annual CAFA awards show, which cemented the event as the Canadian fashion industry’s ultimate gathering ground—and soon to be its pinnacle of achievement.

The Canadian Arts & Fashion Awards (CAFA) was brought to life by Vicky (president), Brittney (founding director) and their partners to “recognize, celebrate, and promote established and emerging talent within Canada’s fashion community.” The duo didn’t understand why the established but fractured Canadian fashion community had no overarching support system—and worse, no celebratory awards program.

At the moment they are only three years old, but be prepared: that CAFA award is poised to become the most coveted item in Canadian fashion.

The Canadian Fashion Industry: Before

Vicky: Before CAFA, the Canadian fashion industry had all kinds of different initiatives, everybody doing their own thing provincially, without a broader national community to bring everyone together. There was no cohesive organization whose sole purpose was to bridge all existing initiatives, but also seek out new opportunities to elevate the industry and create a larger international spotlight. There was also nothing to celebrate the industry —similar to the Juno Awards for music, or the Canadian Screen Awards for film and TV. The fashion community is comprised of amazing artists. If we want others to pay attention, we need to make some noise. We need to celebrate our creative talent and create a platform for that global attention.

Brittney: The Canadian fashion industry has always been a hidden gem, not widely recognized or celebrated by a mainstream audience. There was nothing connecting regional initiatives coast to coast; nothing to generate discussion about the future of the Canadian fashion industry, and how we can really take it to that next level.

The Canadian Fashion Industry: After

Vicky: CAFA provides a collective voice that can represent the industry globally. With an awards show, we get a lot of media attention. This enables us to generate interest, and to build relationships year over year with sponsors, stylists, designers and bloggers, and leverage those relationships to create more opportunities for the fashion community.

Brittney: CAFA is more than a celebratory dinner for the fashion industry: it’s a high-profile platform that connects regional markets to the broader Canadian and global marketplaces. It indicates a paradigm shift in how we’re thinking about the growth of businesses—not just celebrating but growing.

Highlights from the Third Annual CAFA

Vicky: Having Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau be part of the event was a huge highlight for me. She’s been a great advocate for Canadian fashion designers, and her support garners so much attention. To have her be part of CAFA, recognizing the importance of CAFA by presenting an award, is a huge deal for us. We hope to continue that relationship in years to come. Having Elle Macpherson there was great, and Kim Cattrall—every year we have more and more amazing people. CAFA has cemented itself as the fashion event for the country. Each year we’ve surpassed the last. This is the Canadian fashion award show—if you’re in the industry, you need to be at this event.

But, to me, the best part is when people find out that they’ve won an award. It’s such a powerful moment—in a room full of peers, business owners and leaders, being acknowledged in such an important way. It’s very meaningful and inspirational – I get goosebumps just talking about it.

Brittney: When Lucian Matis dressed Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau for the US State Dinner, everyone was gawking about this Canadian designer and it was so exciting for the industry. At the CAFA awards, it was the same thing: so many influential people in the room, and everyone wearing Canadian. My favourite part of the evening was watching the red carpet, seeing everyone come dressed in Canadian fashion to show their support. I think that has an enormous stimulating effect, especially for emerging businesses!

Haute Technology

Brittney: On the morning of the event, we co-hosted the CAFA Tech Talk with OMERS Ventures, a top venture capital fund in Canada, in collaboration with Qasim Mohammad, an aficionado in the digital retail space.

The industry has changed so much. It’s not about making a little black dress and shopping it around to brick-and-mortar retailers anymore. There’s so much capability online. The talk included topics like innovation in technology-enabled shopping, merchant infrastructure, retail optimization and enhancement, and payment platforms. It was a great opportunity for designers and industry enthusiasts to hear coveted insights from senior management in some of the fastest-growing companies in Canada: Shopify, BRIKA, Knixwear and Hubba. It was very exciting. What’s the point of celebrating Canadian talent if labels can’t monetize all the buzz they receive?

Outside the Box

Vicky: We’re launching a contest this summer in which two designers will have the opportunity to design a men’s and women’s capsule collection that will be sold at Real Sport Apparel to mark the 100th anniversary of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2017. We’re doing this amazing initiative in partnership with the Leafs organization. Our goal is to create more traditional and untraditional partnerships in other sectors, to spread awareness of Canadian designers.

Brittney: We don’t just want to market fashion; we’re looking at forming unconventional relationships. Last summer, we collaborated with a group of women in mining called Women Who Rock. We were able to expose Canadian labels to female professionals in this industry—and market our organization to a broader group than is traditionally done in Canada.

The Style of Altruism

Vicky: What really motivates me is a huge respect for this artistic, creative community; and an interest in people’s stories. I appreciate fashion design and the process behind it, but I’m personally driven to create something long-lasting, a legacy of impact for the industry. So many talented designers struggle to succeed in this highly competitive industry. How do we create a framework to support these people—as a community, but also individually? How do we inspire and support the younger generation of talent? I spent a year doing research, meeting people and holding round-table discussions to find out what they need, so we could offer something truly valuable, and so the award really means something. I want winning a CAFA to symbolize a level of achievement, but also to be a vehicle for business development.

Brittney: My full-time job is in finance, working for a large global financial services institution. I was introduced to the fashion industry through my work as a philanthropist a few years ago. While I very much appreciate and enjoy the aesthetic part of fashion, I am a strong advocate for the business side. Leveraging the knowledge I have acquired from experience in capital markets, in addition to CAFA, I also play an active role in helping designers grow their businesses.

Complementary Opposites

Vicky: I appreciate Brittney’s business acumen. What does it take for fashion designers to grow their brands? She brings the mentality of looking at financial opportunity. Where I come in is connecting people, organizing, researching and planning. I know where CAFA is now and where I want it to be in ten years, and all the steps that need to happen in between.

Brittney: Vicky is the queen of getting things done and always follows through on the ambitious goals she sets out. I’ve watched Vicky turn into such an incredible leader; there’s truly nobody more passionate and well equipped to run such an enormous undertaking. We are fantastic friends, and complement each other professionally. I couldn’t be more proud of what she has accomplished running CAFA. We’re really having a blast and leaving an amazing legacy for this country!

CAFA in Ten Years

Vicky: We want to create year-round programming with CAFA to offer increased benefits and opportunity for the fashion community. In ten years, we’ll see the trajectory of great success stories: watching people from start-up to winning CAFA awards. We want to be part of people’s successes, give them that step that gets them to the next stage of their careers. We would also love to see government support. Right now we are privately funded through corporate and other sponsorships. I’d like the government of Canada to see the value in what we’re doing. When you invest in an industry, it comes back tenfold: job creation, manufacturing, consumer awareness.

Another goal is to create more programming for the weekend of the CAFA awards. So many people fly in for the event, so let’s expand the weekend with increased opportunities for people to generate business. We did the Tech Talk this year, and Swarovski did a presentation to emerging designer nominees. We want to do more of that: make CAFA the place to make connections and do business.

Best Canadian Designers for Fresh Readers

Vicky: One of my favourites is Lucian Matis, especially for formal occasions. He dresses women with women in mind: classy, but with a bit of edge and sex appeal. LINE is really cool right now—they have beautiful knit wear and also a leisure wear line. Greta Constantine and Wayne Clark are also big favourites. For emerging designers, Matthew Gallagher, Beaufille and Sid Neigum are all doing so well right now. For accessories, I really like Jenny Bird, Dean Davidson, Rita Tesolin, Alan Anderson. I could go on!

Brittney: We have a good scope of designers who cater to different age groups, a lot of opportunity to be fashionable, comfortable, professional and very feminine at any age. David Dixon has been around for over 20 years—I think he does a really good job of finding that balance between feminine and professional. Judith & Charles is a Canadian company. Also Smythe, to throw in a little edge. They have amazing jackets that last you a lifetime.

Cultural Fabric

Vicky: We’re not only helping the fashion industry; we’re encouraging entrepreneurship, creativity and culture. It’s easy to go to giant chain stores and buy whatever’s mass-marketed; it’s much more special to buy your own country’s products and help small businesses. That’s what supports our economy, creates jobs, puts food on our tables and puts our kids through school. Supporting your own is a philosophical approach that encompasses industry, culture, and the economy as a whole.

Liberty Craig - Editor

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