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Written by Madelaine Woo

Studying in London, England, Vanja Vasic was in awe of the fashion boundaries being pushed. Walking down the street, she saw an edgier style compared to her home in Canada, which she now says sparked an unexpected entrepreneurial journey. Back in Toronto, she felt a pull towards the non-traditional. Vasic was aware of Toronto Fashion Week, an annual ode to haute couture in Canada’s largest city, but she had zero interest in seeing the tall, white and skinny industry-standard models in their shows. She was ready to create her own space where people could be experimental and be themselves, and where they would be welcomed. She wanted to make fashion about inclusion, acceptance and body-positivity, showcasing people of various backgrounds, races and genders.

And so, in 2005, Fashion Art Toronto was born. Vasic knew she wanted to make her event different from Toronto Fashion Week in every way, which started with the name. Fashion Art Toronto is known as FAT. To Vasic, that means fullness, energy and expression. She wanted to show that there is more to fashion than the skinny style. There’s a much more well-rounded and realistic side to be seen.

“Back in the day it wasn’t trendy to have plus-sized models and queer models and whatnot,” Vasic said, recalling FAT’s earliest days. “But that didn’t stop us from pushing those boundaries. I think now the world is catching up to us in a sense and feeling the nowness and relevancy of the event.”

Astrid Superstar remembers attending her first FAT show in 2018 as a plus one for her friend. Although she had never been to a fashion event before, Superstar knew it was a big deal. She even rented an outfit from the Humber Boutique for the event. Superstar recalls being blown away by everybody there and says she knew from that moment that she wanted to get involved in any way possible. Starting as a social media volunteer, she went on to become communications director.

“FAT was always kind of heralded as the anti-TFW. It started as the more fun and kind of experimental version, giving designers who make clothing that's a bit more different an opportunity to show it,” said Superstar.

FAT now lays claim to the longest running fashion week in Toronto. They have been an annual event for 18 consecutive years, outlasting even the late Toronto Fashion Week. On Jan. 14, 2020 the official TFW twitter page announced that they would be going on hiatus.

Like most fashion weeks around the world, FAT is held twice a year, once during the spring and once during the fall. For many years FAT took place at the Daniels Spectrum, but has gradually built up to bigger venues like the Black Creek Assembly, Ripley’s Aquarium and Union Station.

When Vasic describes Fashion Art Toronto, she talks about high energy, and events that are busy, loud and full of excitement. The scents of hairspray and deodorant cling to everyone’s nostrils as people bustle around a packed backstage. Models take off things here and put others on there as they prepare to line up for their cues. You can hear the sound of the audience chattering through the music of electric runway beats. The spotlights and flashing cameras highlight everyone’s passion and eagerness to see the designer’s talent on the runway.

In past shows, FAT has had about 500 people seated for each show. Superstar speculates there’s probably around 1000 a day that cycle through.

Vasic wants to continue to bring exposure to local designers, while hoping to catapult them onto an international stage. They have already made headway with a couple designers’ exposure. For instance, Toronto fashion designer Farhan Haque has been able to take his designs to the Junos after presenting them at FAT.

Toronto Fashion Week’s last show in 2019 was at a large and glitzy venue, the Royal Ontario Museum, so the announcement of its hiatus came as a shock to many people. However, there may have been small hints of what was to come.

Susan Langdon executive director of Toronto Fashion Incubator, a non-profit organization that provides early to mid-stage entrepreneurs access to expertise, tools and connections in the business of fashion, noticed fees for Toronto Fashion Week were going up before the abrupt cancellation. And tickets were suddenly on sale to the public. This was an unusual occurrence as it had always been an exclusive trade event attended by invitation only.

“I think what happened was it grew too big and maybe a little too greedy. It became much more of a profit-generating business and lost its soul and heart, which was to showcase the best talent in the city,” Langdon said.

Pui Yee Chau, a fashion design professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, had also attended a couple TFW shows.“I don’t know and can’t pinpoint why Toronto Fashion Week was cancelled. But normally it has to do with money, sponsorship and participation,” she said. “It’s only speculation though.”

“FAT works very hard every year. I think they will be able to keep the Canadian fashion industry alive,” said Chau. “It’s already grown quite exponentially from when Vanja started. I think with the drive of the younger people and with the growing participation, it will work out.”

FAT has also always been primarily a volunteer-run event. “I think at our core, we’re passionate about what we do. We do this not because we’re making a ton of money, we do it because we love what we do and represent, and we want to make change,” said Vasic. “We’ve never really relied on big, corporate sponsors in the past. Now we’re trying to get more of that but if we didn’t have corporate sponsorship we would still keep going.”

Every year, FAT is paid for by ticket sales, as well as some PR sponsors. “We also cut a deal with venues based on ticket sales, and then the venues provide lighting,” said Superstar.

Although FAT has been able to thrive this way for years, there is a concern for the little government support for fashion.

“There’s so much that we could be doing from a government to art perspective, and it’s a big problem that they don’t view fashion as something that needs funding, because for a lot of people it’s their livelihood,” said Liam Colbourne, co-producer of FAT. “There’s support for every single other facet of an entrepreneurial journey except fashion. Fashion remains this enigma where we have to figure it out ourselves.”

“Outside investors can similarly be hard to find, even for established brands,” said Chau “Many people still think fashion is quite trivial,” she said.

Despite this, Vasic says this year she’s pushing to make the biggest FAT event they’ve ever had. “I love being in a real warehouse space and taking that over. There’s gonna be a huge runway room, fashion presentations, a fashion cinema. There’s gonna be artwork all over the venue for people to checkout, and the market too. It’ll be a really amazing space to connect and mingle and just enjoy the environment.”

Now the only major fashion event that the city of Toronto has, FAT is standing on its own, and, while more funding would always be appreciated, Vasic is not looking to take the place of Toronto Fashion Week.

For Langdon, FAT becoming too much like Fashion Week would be a loss.

“We don’t want FAT to turn into that, because right now it’s still produced with a lot of love, heart, care and compassion,” she said. “I would really hate to see that disappear for the sake of money. That heart has to stay there, or else people are going to turn away from it like they did with TFW.”


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