Canadian designers might be favourites of influential fashion plates like Kate Middleton, Michelle Obama and Jennifer Lopez, but the industry still has a way to go toward global recognition.
CAFA organizers conceived the glitzy annual event, which trumpets outstanding achievement and emerging fashion talent, as a sort of Academy Awards of Canadian fashion or yearly celebration along the lines of New York's famed Met Gala.
Now, in its fourth year and after impressive exponential growth, it's poised to become just that.
"Every year, it just keeps getting better and better.... It's a great opportunity to get the public aware that there is a Canadian fashion industry, that we have the calibre of talent that we do in this country, coast to coast," Susan Langdon, executive director of the Toronto Fashion Incubator, told CBC News on Friday.
"For those of us slogging it out, it's a wonderful night of recognition, especially for the designers. Who doesn't want to be lauded by their peers and recognized?"
According to Langdon, an early CAFA adviser who also serves as a juror for the awards, the annual event has been an "astounding" success for a variety of reasons — from its celebration of Canadian talent to organizers courting and nurturing relationships with major retailer sponsors to strategic outreach with international fashion-world movers and shakers.
"We can't be insulated. We don't live in a world that's just Canadian any more — or just France or just U.K. It doesn't work that way. With social media and the internet, everybody is connected."
Canadians gaining recognition
It's no secret that a host of Canadians have made a splash on the international scene in the past decade.
London-based Canadian designer Erdem Moralioglu is a favourite of Kate, the Dutchess of Cambridge, as well as actors such as Keira Knightley and Nicole Kidman.
In the U.S., New York-based Taiwanese-Canadian designer Jason Wu counts Michelle Obama, Reece Witherspoon, Kerry Washington and Jaime King among his famous devotees.
Moralioglu and Wu — both expected to attend this year's red-carpet CAFA gala — are past winners of the Canadian fashion honour.
CAFA laureates also include designers Joe Mimran, Dean and Dan Caten (DSquared2), Sid Neigum and Jeremy Laing, model Coco Rocha and labels such as Greta Constantine and Beaufille.
Meanwhile, the future also looks promising: Canadian up-and-comers Thomas Tait and Vejas Kruszewski have been honoured with the LVMH Prize for young fashion designers in the past three years.
Not unlike peers in other creative industries, Canadian fashion designers have long looked beyond our borders towards a global audience.
Getting beyond big brands, stereotypes
However, with megawatt international brand names or ultra-low price points being the key drivers of consumer purchases today, it's an uphill battle for most Canadian creators, who typically fall into a middle category, Langdon said.
"They're not a big name brand like Chanel or Louis Vuitton or Gucci or Michael Kors ... and yet they're not dirt cheap, too. They're not Zara," she explained. Still, she continued, it's not impossible to succeed.
There are Canadians innovating by leveraging social media and new technologies and others winning over major players with verve — meeting retailers and style decision-makers on their own turf. More government export and development grants and financial support — like the Fashion Canada fund from the days of Pierre Trudeau, which helped boost the industry in tthe past — could help, Langdon said.
Another challenge is dispelling the perception many fashion followers worldwide still have of Canada as simply "the land of ice and snow, the great outdoors and lumberjacks," despite our domestic industry going back to the 1960s.
"We're still on the brink of recognition and acknowledgement by the international fashion community, but we're making inroads. And every event that happens here in Canada [like CAFA] helps to build that type of international recognition," she explained.
"There is something exciting happening here in the land of ice and snow."
The 2017 Canadian Arts & Fashion Awards (CAFA) take place in Toronto Friday evening, hosted by CBC-TV personality Jessi Cruickshank.