“To be a successful designer, you can’t just be creative. You have to be able to manage the creativity with saleability. If it won’t sell, you are not going to have your next collection,” says Susan Langdon who has devoted her twenty-one years to an industry-leading fashion non-profit organization as the executive director. Down the way in the front row at fashion weeks, we often see her in classic black dresses, looking sophisticatedly chic and influencing the future of Canadian fashion with her ongoing commitment to the community. Her optimistic side sometimes makes her a dream, while the pragmatic side of Susan keeps her down to earth. Here, Susan gives us a peek into her fast-paced fashion executive director life in an award-winning non-profit incubator —plus her insider advice for fashion entrepreneurs.
“Fashion designers have brains! We are not only about pretty things. We can be successful in business as well.”
— Susan Langdon
FANIQUE: Can you introduce yourself to our audience first?
Susan: I am Susan Langdon. I’m a native Torontonian. I went to study fashion design at Ryerson University, worked in the industry for quite a few years, eventually attracting the eye of a financial backer, and had my own collection for many years. So I did that, and then I started teaching Fashion Design part-time at Ryerson. And that, somehow led me to the Toronto Fashion Incubator. So I’ve been here running for our non-profit organization for the last 21 years.
FANIQUE: Most people know you as the Executive Director of Toronto Fashion Incubator. Do you see yourself as a powerful woman entrepreneur, and how do you define yourself?
Susan: I see myself that way. I come from a family of entrepreneurs, and it’s in my blood. I see myself as a creative thinker and a role model too. When I was given and awarded this position at TFI, there were very few women authorities in leadership roles in the fashion industry. So I’m really thankful for City of Toronto and TFI for giving me the chance. I was also the first fashion designer who ever had this position. That’s another thing I like to do —that is to lead and say, “Fashion designers have brains! We are not only about pretty things. We can be successful in business as well.”
FANIQUE: What are the three words or one sentence you use to describe your personality?
Susan: I am a survivor. I look up to my mother mostly as a role model, as a survivor as well. She has gone through so many personal tragedies, but she is always still seeing the rainbows in the blue sky. For me, that’s really encouraging — that’s very hard to overcome such tragedies in life and still have that sense of optimism. So I think that would be the next word, optimistic. Maybe the last word I’d say, pragmatic —I reach for the stars and I’m a bit of a dreamer, but the realistic side of me always think about how to put that into action and whether or not it’s even achievable.
FANIQUE: What is your daily routine like?
Susan: Everyday is different, but a lot of my day is about management —managing, training and guiding staffs. Also, a lot of planning for events —booking venues, show producers and meetings. And, research as well —research about funding sources, like government grants, and try to find sponsors. When it come to grants from government, there is a lot of process and paperwork. Usually at the end of a day, there is an event.
My day is definitely not 9-to-5. I usually give myself 2 hours in the morning —get ready, have a coffee, and answer emails. I also spend a bit more time with my cat, and then I come here. The day starts at 8:30 a.m. and supposes to end at 5:30 p.m., but it doesn’t sometimes. And then, I go to the events, get home at 9 or 10 p.m., look at emails again and response to the urgent ones. On a weekend, I’m still doing works. Because I am the only one here who knows HDML so I’m the one who updates the website. Unfortunately, our website is not always up-to-date because I can only do it on the weekend.
FANIQUE: That sounds like a fully occupied routine.
Susan: Oh yes, it is! And also, when I’m at events, I’m always on social media to update posts —on the two accounts we have, my personal and the TFI one.
FANIQUE: You had your own fashion label many years ago. Do you still run your line?
Susan: No. In my employment agreement here, I’m not allowed to have any other job. This has to be my main focus, so I give up my line. When I had this chance to take this position at a non-profit, I knew what I was getting into. I knew that was going to be something new and different. But I like challenges. For me, it motivates me. I don’t like 9-to-5 jobs. I find that boring.
FANIQUE: What do you find the most challenging for being the Executive Director at TFI?
Susan: I’m always chasing money. Fundraising, sponsorships, and not only targeting companies but how do we bring everything in general to TFI. So we’ve come up with event concepts like we created the New Label’s Fashion Design Competition, which is a very prestigious national competition that I like to call it “the original Project Runway”. We’ve been doing that since 1992, and it’s really the same concept where you have a group of young entrepreneurs who want to make it in fashion, a panel of judges, and a big prize that designers can win. And they meet with the judges every month, competing for a fashion show. Some people get intimidated, some people move forward. So the only difference between Project runway and New Label is that we are not asking them to make garments with garbage bags and paper. Instead, we ask them to come up with their F/W collection. Every time they meet with the judges, they show a few samples from their collections.
FANIQUE: Who is your favourite New Label winner in the past few years?
Susan: I’m a big fan of Sid Neigum. He won our 25th New Label Competition at our 25th-anniversary gala, which was quite a big event. First of all, what impress me about Sid is that —During the competition, he lived in a tiny town outside of Edmonton in Alberta. And he used to drive his van to Toronto from there. You know how far that is?! And he slept in his van and sometimes even when it’s winter time. He had to do that in December, January, February and March…for at least five times —he had to do that. That takes commitment. That’s someone who really wants to win. Plus he is very open to feedbacks. He really listens to the advice from judges. And now he is gone onto a lot of awards in some emerging young designers in North America, which is amazing. And he also showed at London Fashion Week (F/W 16) this season.
And, of course, last year’s winner, Matthew Gallagher. Lady Gaga wore one of his designs from his spring collection. That’s very exciting! You know he is in Toronto and she is in New York. How did that happen?!
FANIQUE: What’s your suggestion for having celebrities wear a designer label?
Susan: There is a company in Toronto called Stylist Box founded by one of our alumni, Gail McInnes. She launched that concept of a celebrity styling studio when she had her own studio here. It’s a great place for young designers to start.
If you live outside of Toronto, you can hire your own publicist. They are the key to getting your collections in magazines and worn by celebrities. I’m pretty sure that most PR companies are a bit flexible on pricing when working with young designers.
“To be a successful designer, you can’t just be creative. You have to be able to manage the creativity with saleability. If it won’t sell, you are not going to have your next collection.”
FANIQUE: The stereotyped mindset is quite different between being a designer and an entrepreneur. How do you balance yourself for being on both sides?
Susan: Creative thinking is a huge part of the fashion business. I find that having a creative mind is such a huge asset to business. Because I am a very out-of-the-box thinker and that really helps me to come up with creative solutions to problems. To be a successful designer, you can’t just be creative. You have to be able to manage the creativity with saleability. If it won’t sell, you are not going to have your next collection. When I used to be a designer and had my line, I had to learn very quickly how to manage those two sides. I had my own business that I was managing a team of 20 people. I also had a financial backer who wanted to see the ROI. I am a creative person and I like to create beautiful things. But, somehow I had to get stores like Holt Renfrew interested in my line. So, that involves researching, going to the stores, speaking with buyers, figuring out what the market actually is than just what it looks like, and the price point, the fit, everything…plus how is my project fit in with that assortment. To be a successful fashion designer, that’s what you have to do —It’s creative problem-solving and a lot of time commitment. It is really a challenge.
FANIQUE: In fashion, a lot of people have to work for free at the very beginning in order to get paid later. What are your thoughts on that?
Susan: I think it’s actually started that way in Universities that schools require students to gain experiences, probably also because of the industry demands it. The industry doesn’t want kids coming out of schools and having never been exposed to what it’s really like in the industry. When I was a student in Ryerson, we had to do a two-week internship replacement for free. Just for being immersed of what a factory looks like. It’s not all glamorous, it’s not about champagnes every day, picking up pins, or wiping a coffee. It is free labour, but you expose to the environment. And obviously, you get some time with the designers whoever you replace with to see what the process is like.
I remembered when I was doing another internship, there was a day, the designer brought in dinner. We weren’t getting paid, but we sit together, ate, and got to know one and the other, and you felt like part of the team! When you’re in a professional studio, you get to see how things are functioning, you learn what a sample maker does, what a pattern maker does, and you get to see everybody’s role. It’s a learning experience! But first of all, you have to open up to learn. You can’t expect to be given everything on a silver platter. You have to understand that this is your entry into the industry. I think that’s a really good thing, though. As long as they are not been exploited. As long as they are learning something along the way.
“For years, I think Canadian fashion wasn’t really on everyone’s radar. So now it’s starting to get its momentum.”
FANIQUE: We notice that there are many other new founded non-profit organizations to support fashion in Canada. Do you see them as competitors?
Susan: First of all, it’s great to see so much interest in fashion. For years, I think Canadian fashion wasn’t really on everyone’s radar. So now it’s starting to get its momentum. I think it’s fantastic to see other people starting these organizations. We are not really competitors. We are all in the Canadian fashion industry. If you look at FAT (Fashion Art Toronto) whose targeting audiences are fashion students and avant-garde artists —that may not be commercial apparel but is more art-to-wear sort of concepts. We (TFI) are more about helping people to get to the market. CAFA (Canadian Arts and Fashion Award) is almost like the Oscars of Canadian fashion industry —They celebrate talents, and It’s an award program, like the academy awards. So they are not necessarily helping to create a business, instead, they are there to honour individuals. FGI (Fashion Group International) is a networking association —they do events and encourage people to come network and share ideas.
FANIQUE: Can you talk more about TFI? What’s the benefit for being its member?
Susan: Toronto Fashion Incubator is an awarding-winning non-profit organization. It was founded in 1987 by the City of Toronto. And, it is the world’s first official fashion incubator. Our success in creating jobs and the stimulating economy has now encouraged over 3 dozens of cities around the world to copy this model —and that’s pretty awesome! We support and promote fashion entrepreneurs who don’t have to be a fashion designer but any kind of fashion entrepreneur. We help launch their labels, help them to market, and watch them grow.