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Stylist Box brings Canadian designers to the red carpet at TIFF

It’s the first day of the Toronto International Film Festival, and the city is experiencing a burst of heat, a reprieve from the unusually mild summer. The weather bodes well for the many red carpets to walk and parties to attend over the course of TIFF’s eleven days, which wrap on the 14th. While the festival is foremost about film, it’s also a time for fashion. The red carpets especially are high-pressure zones—waiting are the onlooking crowds of festivalgoers, photographers, and international media. Getting the right look is paramount.

On Dundas Street West, in a building facing Trinity Bellwoods park, a young actress is trying on bracelets to match her outfit: a form-fitting mustard dress, doubly slit with a black lace overlay. She tries on a wide bracelet and turns to another woman, who is clad entirely in black save for a pair of fuchsia chandelier earrings. The woman shakes her head and tells her it’s too blue. Instead, she says to the actress, how about a tennis bracelet? The actress hesitates, returning to the table with over a dozen pieces laid out. Don’t worry, the woman reassures, we’ll make sure it’s perfect.

The woman is Gail McInnes, co-founder of the Stylist Box, which she opened with business partner Christian Dare in May 2013. Together they built a showroom that brings together dozens of designer collections for stylists to pull for use in commercials, magazine editorials, and at special events. During TIFF, their space becomes a styling lounge. In addition to the racks of dresses—mainly Canadian designers—jewelry, and handbags, another floor is dedicated to makeup, hair, nails, and lashes. 

While showrooms are common in America and across Europe, they are rare in Canada in part because our fashion industry is smaller. Yet McInnes and Dare, fashion industry veterans, saw this as a business opportunity: usually showrooms exist for a single big brand, but why not have a myriad of smaller brands work together? The designers take on a smaller, shared cost burden, while stylists get a wider variety from which to choose for clients.

The emphasis of the business is convenience. For busy stylists, the ability to sort through a multitude of looks available for immediate borrowing is important. Kirsten Reader, a stylist in the city for six years, appreciates the time saved instead of spending half a day travelling between locations. 

“It makes the pulling process easier, because it cuts down on my travelling all over the city. It’s kind of a one-stop shop with the amount of designers and brands that they work with,” she says. 

For designers, who pay Stylist Box a fee to be included, their collections are more easily accessible to stylists and media, with the added bonus of having McInnes and Dare handle the logistics, such as tracking rentals and scheduling viewing appointments. 

“They can focus on designing and selling their clothes,” says McInnes.  

During TIFF, the Stylist Box will show 22 designers, and for many of them, having their pieces worn and photographed on the red carpet will provide a notable boost. 

“It elevates the status and the brand’s level to be able to say so-and-so wore my dress,” says McInnes. Adds Dare: “It also provides a talking point for buyers: that gets you in.” 

One of the designers hoping for a red carpet moment is Masha Ruginets, who began designing professionally in 2012 after graduating from Parsons The New School For Design (a name that should ring familiar to fans of the American reality competition Project Runway). She describes her eponymous line MASHA as a “bit of edge with lots of colour.” For Ruginets, gaining exposure was of importance. “I was a new and emerging designer, and to reach the media in the way that the Stylist Box could was nearly impossible for me, so I jumped at the opportunity have my collection there.” Since showing at the Stylist Box, Ruginets’s work has been featured in an editorial for Dress To Kill magazine and a cover for GLASSbook magazine, and worn by horror actress Amanda Grace Cooper on the red carpet at last year’s TIFF. 

Finding and championing designers like Ruginets is important to the Stylists Box duo. Dare states it as one of the reasons he left his corporate life as a top visual merchandiser—with stints at Indigo, the now-gone Caban, and Holt Renfrew—to co-found the venture. The first part means attending Toronto’s fashion weeks, school showcases, and acting as mentors at the Toronto Fashion Institute in an effort to find talent, while the second has them not only promoting the designers’ works, but also working with them to ensure they avoid beginners’ pitfalls.

“Always remember to pay yourself,” advises Dare, noting that many designers forget to factor their hours working into the cost of a garment. “And then, they wonder why they don’t make any money,” he says. It’s also important that the garments are the same quality as the samples, adds McInnes, and that the designer is prepared to enter production. “Magazines don’t want to pull things that people can’t actually buy,” she notes. 

Providing advice isn’t just altruistic. “We want designers to be able to stay in the game,” says McInnes. 

Luckily, Canada’s fashion scene has become more favourable to designers. McInnes believes a large shift happened with the Internet, which allowed Canadian designers, photographers, and stylists to get international work without having to emigrate to America or Europe. Without that drain, a healthy concentration of talent allowed for building a richer local ecosystem—a Toronto stylist can pull a Toronto designer’s looks for a Toronto client to be shot by a Toronto photographer even if it’s for an international fashion magazine, for instance—and, a more vibrant environment allows for more growth—a positive feedback loop.  

“It’s a better time for fashion,” agrees Dare. “Canadians care more about fashion now.” This is evident in the bubbling up of fashion blogs such as I Want I Got, Backseat Stylers, and Souls Of My Shoes to having a televised red carpet segment at the Canadian Screen Awards. And with the closure of Montreal’s fashion week (to make way for a more consumer-focused event in August) Toronto’s star will continue to rise. Ruginets, the designer, says that already more designers from that city are now showing in Toronto’s fashion weeks. World Mastercard Fashion Week is just a little over a month away, but it won’t draw much attention until TIFF finishes. 

Back at the Stylist Box lounge, the actress has decided upon a bracelet. With bags in hand, she hugs McInnes. There are thanks and hopes to see one another later at a party. Funny enough, spending the day helping others get ready doesn’t leave McInnes much time to prepare for her own appearances. Ever the professional, she whips out a sequined jacket from her bag and tosses it on. She smiles: there, ready.

Jaime Woo is a Toronto-based writer whose work has appeared in the Financial Post, Hyphen, Hazlitt, and AV Club. He is the author of the Meet Grindr, a finalist for the 2014 Lambda Literary Awards, about how the design of geolocation cruising apps shifts user behaviour.
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