Susan Langdon, CEO of the Toronto Fashion Incubator, has given Canadian fashion designers a springboard to success and 30 global cities a winning pattern to follow.
A model strides down the catwalk dressed in glamorous Canadian-designed swimwear layered under flowing chiffon. Another follows in an oversized coat woven from recycled saris, and then a show-stopping black gown makes an appearance, raising gasps from the audience.
In the front row, Susan Langdon, executive director of the Toronto Fashion Incubator (TFI), wears an admiring expression, like a proud mother watching her child’s first recital. Seeing others succeed motivates her, especially when they’re young designers whom she has mentored.
“When you see aspiring young people come to TFI and they are just trying to get a foothold in the industry, but then in a year they are making sales and two years later their fashions are in trade shows around the world, and then they’re winning competitions, that’s extremely rewarding. Because I know that TFI has played a huge part in their careers and success,” shares Langdon.
For 20 years, Langdon has had an active role at the Incubator, a non-profit business centre that nurtures new creative talent. TFI’s headquarter operates as a cooperative, funded by a small government grant and corporate sponsors. It provides new designers, recent grads from fashion programs, with shared access to the tools of the trade, including industrial sewing machines, pattern-making equipment, and cut-rate studio space.
TFI’s runway show is a prestigious national competition known as NEW LABELS. Each year a select few up-and-coming Canadian designers show off their collections with hopes of winning the grand prize: a substantial monetary award, press coverage and a professional look book.
There’s room in the fashion business, especially for individuals who are talented, persevering, and disciplined, asserts Langdon, and so a key component of TFI is mentorship — equipping young designers with a business sense and contacts in the industry.
“In the fashion world the business day doesn’t end at five-o’clock,” muses Langdon. “They contact me 24/7 for advice, asking me to review emails, help them with business plans and mentoring them through workshops on how to create a portfolio of sample outfits, which will have a unique design point of view and capture the interest of judges or buyers.”
A Ryerson fashion graduate herself and a seasoned designer having worked her way up from fashion houses to launching her own line of evening wear in the 1980s, Langdon can identify with the dreams of these young designers.
Her own childhood gave her unique insight into the business — her mother was a garment worker and her dad owned a dry-cleaning shop on the east end of Toronto. She learned to sew at a young age and would admire the gorgeous dresses seemingly forgotten in her father’s shop.
“One day he came home with a box of ‘50s-style prom dresses, reminiscent of Cinderella gowns made of silk organza, cascading layers of tulle netting and cinched waists. We had so much fun playing dress up and were the envy of our neighbourhood.”
It was around this same time that Langdon, who is a third-generation Japanese-Canadian, had her first experience with racism — a memory she can’t erase, yet an event that has spurred her to live a life of honour.
“I was playing on the front lawn when a businessman approached me. He returned my smile with a racist slur, a word my mother told me never to repeat,” says Langdon. Her parents and grandparents had lived through the worst of racism. Despite being born and raised in British Columbia, they were removed from their homes and businesses in the 1940s after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. They were forced to live in prisoner-of-war camps until after the war.
As Japanese Canadians struggled to rebuild their lives in the 1950s, they taught the third generation, the Sansei generation born between the 1940s and 1960s — Langdon’s generation — to grow up without a strong sense of membership in a larger Japanese Canadian community. Youth were encouraged integrate and not marry Asian.
“They told us to never expect a hand out, never commit a crime, and to work hard for everything,” says Langdon. “It was ingrained in us that if you want something you have to earn it yourself.”
And that’s exactly what Langdon did. Nose to the grindstone, she mastered pattern making in high school and was propelled by the prophetic words of her home economics’ teacher: “You’re going to be the next Christian Dior.”
As the years progressed, Langdon and her siblings became inquisitive as to their Japanese culture. They didn’t want it to be a secret. A cousin studying the families’ history made the exciting discovery that the family were descendants of the Samurai.
“They were the noble warriors for the king, and of the utmost integrity and loyalty. Those two ethics have stayed with me, and I continue to strive to achieve a high respect in the industry,” says Langdon.
Her dedication to TFI and efforts to nurture support and promote new design talent have assisted in launching the careers of many established designers. Over 18,000 jobs have been created through TFI programs and community outreach under Susan’s direction.
Because of TFI’s success in job creation and youth entrepreneurship, there are now more than 30 organisations located around the world based on the TFI model. Cities include London, Paris, New York, Milan, San Francisco, Melbourne and Cape Town.
Langdon has received numerous personal accolades as well. She was selected as one of the first 12 inductees in Ryerson University’s Hall of Fame, and given the JoAnna Townsend Award, honouring one outstanding woman in Ontario who through her business and personal networks fosters opportunities that actively support women entrepreneurs to achieve success in international business.
“I truly believe in the spirit of giving,” says Langdon. “I don’t believe in the saying that if you give it’s going to come back to you. I don’t give for that reason. I give to be a better human being and to help others achieve their goals.”