After seven years of brainstorming, Montreal’s fashion sector is banking on the industrial cluster Mmode to reboot its ailing local industry and rebrand its global image.

The newly unveiled fashion cluster, which represents a private-public partnership between local industry and metropolitan, provincial and federal levels of government, began with a series of discussions in 2008 on what designers felt the industry needed to move forward in a global market.

“That, more than anything, was collaboration,” said Elliot Lifson, vice president of men’s wear maker Peerless Clothing Inc. and a steering committee member for Mmode.

“Montreal’s fashion industry had come to a critical juncture,” he added. “Businesses were facing tremendous competition, both locally and globally. New technologies were redefining the industry. We had to meet these challenges from a united front or suffer the consequences.”

As retailers, manufacturers and other industry players joined in the dialogue, the government of Quebec approached Lifson and Groupe Dynamite president Anna Martini in 2012 to co-chair a study on the state of the province’s fashion business. The results of their report released in 2013 “were all too clear,” Martini said. “It became very apparent that Montreal had lost its way as a capital of fashion.

“We could see certain gaps, such as the lack of e-commerce courses on the current curriculums for fashion students at the college and university level. Frankly, they were not being prepped with the tools the market needs now,” Martini explained. “If we as an industry did not rectify this situation and try to attract the best graduates to our sector, we would fail.”

The study also emphasized the need for greater economic development and export, job creation and investment in infrastructure, all of which would strengthen Montreal’s industry.

“The very core of this project was to create a platform for discussion so that we could enhance our ability to compete in a global market,” said Mmode president François Roberge.

“We’ve seen many friends in this industry fall to the wayside over the last decade. But some 3,000 fashion companies in Montreal are still standing,” said Roberge, the chief executive officer and president of La Vie en Rose. “If they want to be here 20 years from now, we’ve got to rebuild Montreal into a city that’s good for fashion. That’s our business now.”

Mmode is Montreal’s ninth industrial cluster, joining those that support the aerospace, technology, life sciences and financial service sectors, among others.

“Using the cluster has been a very successful tool in a variety of sectors,” said Pierre Desrochers, the vice president of the economic development and finance commission for the metropolitan community of greater Montreal. “It’s a way to compete and grow an industry to a new level. However, the real hurdle is to bring people together to share their vision and leadership. That’s what the fashion sector needs now.”

In its heyday in the Seventies, Montreal’s apparel industry employed more than 70,000 people and was home to many top brands. Today, Quebec’s fashion sector is less than half that size.

“Montreal’s fashion industry has not seen good days of late, mainly because it has not been able to keep up with global giants like H&M and Uniqlo,” said John Williams, a senior partner at the retail consulting firm J.C. Williams in Toronto.

There are exceptions, as Williams pointed out.

Shoe company Aldo is one of Montreal’s biggest success stories, with locations in 95 countries and an estimated 1.8 billion Canadian dollars, or $1.39 billion at current exchange, in sales in 2013. Gildan, Logistik Unicorp, Peerless Clothing and Groupe Dynamite are also performing well in the tough market.

“These bigger players are doing OK because they excel at what they do. But smaller companies are struggling,” said Williams. “They haven’t been able to transform to compete with the big, fast-fashion houses.”

These struggles, according to designer Marie Saint Pierre, have only escalated over the last two decades.

“We were hit with this tsunami, starting with the rise of the internet,” said Saint Pierre. “We saw production go to China between 1995 and 2005, moving the luxury end of the business away from Montreal. Then came e-commerce and mobile, which we completely underestimated. It’s been tough, but I still believe we have many assets here. We’re just are not using them to sell Montreal’s fashion industry in a positive way.”

Despite these challenges, Montreal’s industry still accounts for 30,000 jobs in Quebec and 45 percent of all employment in the Canadian fashion sector.

Montreal is also the third-largest center for clothing manufacturing in North America behind New York and Los Angeles, posting sales of 7.6 billion Canadian dollars, or $5.86 billion, a year.

“Montreal has what it takes to make a comeback. But Mmode has been a reality check,” said designer Évik Asatoorian, founder of Rudsak Inc. “It’s reminded us all that we as an industry have to keep learning from past mistakes, take advantage of our strengths and move on.”

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