Emily's Style Notes: Danier's Design Challenge Is A Model Worth Following

The Ryerson School of Fashion’s design competition lifts my fashion-loving heart

In her new weekly column, Emily Ramshaw, Assistant Fashion News Editor, starts a conversation inspired by the insiders and newsmakers shaping the fashion world now.

Danier’s Jeffrey Wortsman & Ryerson’s Robert Ott with winner designers; Photo by Sonia Recchia for George Pimentel Photography

Last week I was lucky enough to attend an event that, sadly, is a rare occurrence in our self-promoting, running-to-catch-up fashion industry. Happily, however, I left feeling so positive – about fashion, about Toronto’s creative community, about future design talent – that I might as well have been coming from a pep rally. (Let’s go Canadian fashion, let’s go!). Alas, it was the Ryerson School of Fashion’s 2012 Danier Design Challenge that I went to last Thursday evening. A student event, the night was made up of a prize-giving ceremony that culminated a semester-long competition made mandatory for the school’s third year students. Beginning in September, 30 students submitted sketch video entries of leather jackets (hence, Danier) – by Thursday, the list had been narrowed to 11. And although Danier was front-and-center, the event was really about the students, and it was that focus that made the evening so unusually uplifting.

I’m hardly a fashion veteran – I am young and still learning about all the complicated ins and outs and rules that our fickle industry decrees. But there is one thing I do know to be true, as does anyone who works in the cultural-creative workforce in our home-and-native land: compared to our powerful, loud, and all-consuming neighbour to the south, it is very, very hard to differentiate and exist independently. One thing we can learn from the States, however, is regarding the incredible support young American designers are given by the CFDA, fashion magazines, and larger labels. Programs like Danier’s sponsorship of the Ryerson students is a model our whole industry can follow: a major brand supporting special, yet under-the-radar talent.

Held in a small space at the Ted Rogers School of Management, the event had the eleven finalists – able to actually create jackets with Danier’s premium leather – presenting their garments on models of their choice. The students enjoyed an enthusiastic introduction by Robert Ott, the Chair of the school, and were than greeted by Jeffrey Wortsman, Danier’s CEO, who announced the runner-ups and winner. The judges names and positions say enough about the seriousness of the competition and included Zoomer Fashion Director Derick Cherry, Globe and Mail Fashion Editor Tiyana Grulovic, Peter Papapetrou, and Sarah Francis, as well as Danier’s Chief Merchandising officer Olga Koel and Ott himself. This year, the designs were so exceptional that there was a thee-way tie for third place, with each recipient winning $2000 – they were Amy Tahmizian, Diana Li, and Kamra Khalid. Som Kong came in second place, receiving $3000 and a summer internship with Danier; his garment was a narrow lapelled, draped jacket in buttery black. The winner, Ostwald Au-Yeung, was gifted with $5000 and the opportunity to have his design showcased online and in select Danier stores. Wortsman had come equipped with one of those giant cheques that are typically seen in the clutches of lottery winners and was disappointed. The prodigal student is currently studying in Hong Kong as part of an exchange program and couldn’t be in Toronto to accept the appropriately oversized token.

Ostwald Au-Yeung’s Winning Design; Photo by Kitty Chan

Elizabeth Gill, Danier’s VP Marketing, told me that previously (the competition is now in its fourth year), students were told to focus on the marketability of their designs on Danier’s sales floor. In other words, they were asked keep their designs mainstream and mass. This year, however, Gill says the competitors were encouraged to use their imagination and be as high concept as they pleased. Thus the winning design was a truly beautiful leather jacket that I’m sure will prove to be totally new for Danier – the rich brown leather had been manipulated into intricate three-dimensional braids, crossing the bodice like a high fashion breastplate.

Historically, Canada has been great about supporting young design talent. The Toronto Fashion Incubator (TFI) was the first of its kind and celebrated its 25th anniversary last year by awarding wunderkind designer Sid Neigum $25,000, along with studio space and coverage in FLARE. Programs like TFI and the Danier Design Challenge should be a lesson to all of us (myself included). In order to enjoy and grow a rich fashion community, we must nourish its very beginnings. “I am so impressed with the creativity and talent among the students” was a refrain I heard over and over again in the audience last week. Truth be told, it was exciting for me to see designers who are brimming with enthusiasm and creativity. It’s those qualities that should be encouraged and helped along, and they’re the same qualities that those of us with industry power should continue to support.

Ostwald Au-Yeung