What’s your personal style? Carolyn Quinn, executive director of Toronto Fashion Week provides us with insights on fashion trends, environmental sustainability in the fashion industry, and tips on purchasing clothing and pulling together a great outfit!


References & Links

Carolyn Quinn, executive director Toronto Fashion Week





Interview Transcript

Dr. Andrea Wojnicki: Thank you so much for joining us, Carolyn. I really appreciate it.

Carolyn Quinn: Happy to be here. I’m excited to talk about all things fashion.

AW: So I wanted to start with a question that is a bit of a cliché. And hear your take on this. And the question is, what do you think about the saying, You are what you wear?

CQ: I think it is such a true statement. I think that we all have to get dressed in the morning and I think we make a decision based on so many different factors. When it’s mid-February and it’s snowy and it’s cold. I find myself personally, I’m in all-black. And you see everyone sort of in this city and in the world dressed dark and I think it really impacts our feelings and now that it’s starting to get warm out you know, I’m starting to pull out all the bright colors and whites and you can see, you can feel that spring is in the air. We also get dressed in a way, in the mornings, almost like an armor. I think that if there’s something that is happening in our life, or you know, affecting our mood. It’s impacted by what we wear very much. And I think that what’s happening internationally in the world, whether it be economic, wars, whatever. Designers design collections based on what is what is happening globally. And it impacts what we what we wear. And again, it’s like an armor. You know, if there’s something negative happening, or positive, or weather, or economics, we outwardly project ourselves based on what we wear in the mornings. Yeah, yeah, very much so.

AW: So armor is an interesting word, right? Because I feel like armor is something you put on to shield yourself from the outside. But you’re saying that may be true. It’s also true that you’re communicating from the inside out.

CQ: It’s so much a communication piece, you know. There are designers now that are — and I’m sure everybody’s seen it — on either social or in the city. There are slogans on a lot of clothing, right? So whether it be “I’m a feminist” or equal pay, or don’t ask me to smile, and the whole #MeToo movement has really moved that forward. So again, it’s the armor, it’s the subtle, you know, wearing black or wearing bright colors. But then it’s also very much putting it out to the world, right? You know, your stance, your position on things.

AW: Right. So there’s the style of what you’re wearing, there’s the color of what you’re wearing. There are the brands that you’re wearing. And people used to, I think, assume that that was communicating a lot. But now, we’ve really gone a step beyond that. And it’s literally having the sentence or the phrase or your motto or your mantra across your chest or on your toque….

CQ: You’re right, very much so. And there’s also the Make America Great Again. The Red Hat. Obviously, the famous Red Hat by President Trump. I’ve seen a number of different renditions of that with different slogans. Where it’s really a take on that and what’s happening in the politics of the world right now. Right?

AW: I’ve seen those too. Basically reversing the message.

CQ:  exactly,

AW: Exactly. There are so many things from what you said in terms of directions that we could go … but I actually think the listeners might be interested to hear what you’re wearing. I would be curious if I was listening to this! So Carolyn’s wearing a white short sleeve v neck t shirt, with no branding on it that I can see. And jeans and a lovely blue blazer that has nice piping on the inside. This strikes me as I love the red and white stripe.

CQ: When I got dressed this morning, it’s funny… My husband said to me, “where are you going today?” because I’m dressed sort of differently than I normally am. I always I always wear Canadian something. Some small piece of what I’m wearing is always Canadian. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, but there’s always some piece of Canadian. So I’m wearing the blazer that I’m wearing is a design team based in Toronto here called Smythe. And I own pieces from them that are 10 years old. And this designer duo has dressed Meghan Markle and numerous celebrities around the world. They have very much grown over the last number of years. They are very talented.

AW: Yes, yeah. Good for them and good for you for doing that. So you’re also dressing purposefully to encourage our local economy?

CQ: Absolutely. I’m the executive director of Toronto Fashion Week. My work is very much about encouraging and supporting Canadian designers and the fashion industry in Canada. So I always am, you know, purchasing Canadian designers wearing Canadian designers and supporting them. Promoting them.

AW: So let me just ask a few questions about the business then. I think when most people think about the fashion industry, at least from my perspective, I think about backstage at the fashion show. But there’s so much more to it right?

CQ: There sure is! During Toronto Fashion Week it’s you know, it’s glamorous. That happens twice a year. It’s runway shows, Canadian designers presenting their latest collections. There’s craziness, backstage. Hair and makeup. It’s very glamorous. But most of the time it isn’t glamorous. I spend most of my days you know, in the office, hunched over my computer, meeting with designers looking at their collections. It’s glamour for a couple of days, but most of the time it’s like any other business and industry. It’s about the work.

AW: So is your mission, at  Toronto Fashion Week, to advocate for…?

CQ:  To promote Canadian designers, both nationally and internationally. Yes, and to generate revenue and trade for them.

AW: So I guess the obvious thing then is — you have a lot of power. Because I would imagine if I was an up-and-coming designer in particular, I’d really want to impress you. Because you have this power to promote.

CQ: You know what? There’s so much talent here! There’s so much talent here, and a lot of people don’t know Canadian designers. I think here in Toronto and maybe in Montreal or Vancouver, the bigger cities in Canada, may know them more than, you know, in the smaller communities. I’m from Nova Scotia, I’m from a teeny tiny little town in Cape Breton and I certainly, growing up, did not know anything about Canadian designers. I didn’t even know whether was Canadian designers ,until I started going to school – until I went to school at Ryerson and then started to learn about them. So it’s really about promoting them to people in Canada that may not know.

AW: Okay, and I think people would also like to hear your background. So you went to Ryerson. And you studied fashion design?

CQ: I did. I went to I went to St. Mary’s and I have a Bachelor of Arts with a major in business, And then I came to Toronto to study fashion, essentially because where I’m from, there’s no real industry there, that’s for sure. I came to Toronto, went to Ryerson and George Brown, and then started to work in the industry.

AW: What was your first job out of school?

CQ: I worked for a designer called Rosaria Lamanna. And I was a studio assistant. Yeah.

AW: Wow. And look at you now.  A couple minutes ago when you were just talking about the “you are what you wear saying,” it something else came to mind that I’ve heard that I think is pretty funny. And I want to hear what your perspective is on this. Have you ever heard that women don’t dress for men? They actually dress for other women. Have you heard that?

CQ: I have heard that. I absolutely agree with it.

AW: You do?

CQ:  I absolutely agree with that. I think that we do too. I think primarily, I think we dress for ourselves. Yes. But I think that if we,… I don’t think it’s for men. I think it’s more for ourselves and maybe for women. Yeah, I think women love fashion. You know, most women, maybe not everyone, but most women love fashion. So I think that we’re dressing for our girlfriends, we’re, you know, we’re dressing for our girlfriends.

AW: So that’s an interesting segue into the next question that I have for you. Before we pressed record, you were telling me about sitting on a panel between —  was it a neurosurgeon and an economist?

CQ: A neurosurgeon, and somebody in economics, for a career day, a couple of days ago. The students were asked the question, “what do you want to do? What do you want to be? What kind of industry do you want to go into?” And a lot of them said science or economics or a number of things that the parents wanted to hear, right? But then later that evening, a lot of the students emailed me.  They were saying we want to go into film, I want to go into a creative field. And I think that’s what is expected of them. And you know, I think that it’s not a traditional industry — fashion (or any type of creative trade). So I was interested in hearing that and …

AW: That that’s really fascinating that they held on to their questions until later when it was more private. Yes, interesting. I have a friend who is really into fashion and she always looks phenomenal. And she’s also brilliant. You know, she has a PhD in psychology, and she’s smart in many ways, not just academically. She told me once that her husband said to her, “I think you need to calm it down on the fashion a little bit because people might think that you’re not as smart as you are.” And her response was, “I dress like this because I love it and they can make whatever assumption they want about me.”

CQ:  That’s very interesting. And again, it’s back to the we are what we wear and it’s about you know projecting almost our personality coming out through our what we decided to put on.

AW:  Right

CQ: .…and what we decided to wear. But you know, some days I’m in full leopard, and some days I’m in black. I think that it’s about projecting who we are.

AW:  right. And sometimes that can change.

CQ: Absolutely it can change, but I would never … I absolutely don’t agree with that statement.

AW: So I think he was trying to be helpful, though, right. He’s like, “you’re a really smart woman. I don’t want people thinking otherwise.” Fascinating, right? Just his perception was — people that are really well dressed can’t be that smart. Well, look at your wife.

CQ: Yeah, exactly.

AW: Exactly.  So she obviously has the confidence to curate her personal style. I was wondering if you have any pointers? They could be things that people have heard, and maybe things that people haven’t heard — about developing a personal style. First of all, should you? And if you should, how do you do it?

CQ: I think the most important thing about creating a personal style, or you know, when you’re shopping is to always dress for your body. I think that’s it’s so key. You know, in the early, I say, mid 2000s, when skinny jeans came out. I spent five years trying to find the perfect pair, they are not meant for my body and I came to the realization that they don’t look good on me. I can’t wear them. You know, I have to move on to something else. And I think that we have to dress for our body type. And I think that we have to not focus on trends, which people often do.

AW: that’s interesting! To hear from someone who does what you do.

CQ: I don’t, I do not focus on trends. I buy things that are — that have longevity. I have things in my closet from 10 years ago, and every spring I’ll pull out my summer dresses. And people always Oh my God, that’s amazing. And I always say it’s vintage. 10 years old is not vintage, but   it’s about being able to pull things out that you can wear again and again.

AW: Again, you always look stylish. You tried to find the perfect skinny jeans. Can you comment on ripped jeans?

CQ: I have them on right now. I love ripped jeans and you know they’re current right now. They’re current, but I think that they’ve been they’ve been around for you know, a number of years. They’ll go away. The skinny jeans will be back then the wide bottoms will be back again. I’m wearing them to the office today. So I think that they’ve become more commonplace. Again, fashion is cyclical.

AW: That’s an interesting answer. I’m sure you’ve seen images of models walking down the runway and there’s literally a one-inch strip of fabric down the side holding the jeans together and the whole front of it is ripped out of you know…

CQ: Yes. Yeah.

AW: When I saw that I was like I am not doing the ripped jeans thing.

CQ: Fashion always goes to the extreme. So waist lines for example, they go hi hi hi, until they can’t go higher, and then all of a sudden the trend is low cut jeans, and they when they can’t go any lower. That’s when I feel that the trend changes.

AW: Yeah, same with heels, right? They go wide, and then they go skinny and they go high, and they go low.

CQ: And then flats are in and then back to heels. It’s interesting to introduce trends into your wardrobe through accessories and those types of things that that you don’t have to invest a lot of money and it’s fun and you can update your wardrobe in that way. And that way, you know, you have pieces in your closet that you can wear for 10 years that are enduring. They stand the test of time.

AW: So I’ve heard similar advice regarding interior decor, right? So you buy a couch that you hope you’re going to love for 15 years, but you change the cushions, you change the vases.

CQ: you change the accessories, yes.  So yeah, exactly. And you know, I think that that’s an interesting comment because I think that fashion and home decor, one sort of influences the other. Yes, the design aspect of it.

AW: Which is the leading indicator?

CQ: Fashion for sure. Absolutely. And trends are cyclical. And you know, you can have something that you buy now and sits in your closet for five years, but then you can pull out again, and it’s relevant once again, right?

AW: I’ve had pieces in my own wardrobe where sometimes I’ve gotten rid of it because I thought it was trendy and the trend was over. But then I that I think a couple years later, that turquoise crossover blouse, I could wear it now and it wouldn’t be trendy. And it was good quality. Why did I get rid of it?

CQ: I made the mistake about 15 years ago of completely doing a big edit of my closet. And I think once a week, I think back to some of the pieces that I had there that I wish I had.

AW: You were in a purging mood.

CQ: I was in a purging mode. So since then I’ve kept everything. I don’t throw anything away. And really, I don’t throw anything.

AW: So therefore you are buying for long term.

CQ: Absolutely. When I am standing in a store making the decision to buy something or not, I think I wonder if I’ll wear this in 10 year’s time? And if the answer is yes, I’ll often buy it. I very rarely buy anything that is a one or twice wear outfit.

AW: I was gonna ask you this question at the very end, but just it relates to your focus on buying things for at least 10 years. The fashion industry, I’ve heard in the media and seen evidence of the fact, that it’s focusing more and more on environmental sustainability and responsibility. Can you talk a little bit about that?

CQ: Fashion is one of the biggest industries that generates waste. Fast fashion, is really giant, disposable fashion, you buy something and again, it’s back to trends. You wear it for a year and then you’re throwing it away. I think that again, you know, it’s about buying things that maybe are a little bit more expensive. But you will wear it. It will stand the test of time. It will have longevity. Also, I think it’s about maybe buying vintage and supporting pieces that you can you can have in your closet that have been worn have been celebrated and loved.

AW: So and buying the things that will last longer,

CQ: Absolutely.

AW: My grandmother, who was a school teacher, and she was very well dressed, but she didn’t have a lot of clothes and twice a year every spring and every fall. She would go to Holt Renfrew. And by the outfit, head to toe including hat, accessories, gloves, nylons, like everything right down to the shoes, and she introduced that into her wardrobe.

CQ: Yeah, it’s about interest introducing new pieces, you know, as the season each new season and updating and refreshing your closet, but still being able to wear the pieces. And also I think it’s important also to have pieces in your closet that are seasonless. So I have pieces that I can wear in the summer, but also in the winter. And then they again you’re able to wear them more often and not needing to be buying and fast fashion and continually adding things that aren’t gonna stand the test of time.

AW: So is this bad news for the industry though?

CQ: I think the industry’s changing. Like H&M has introduced a new eco line. So it’s about them recycling the clothes.  Zara has also introduced a line of recycled clothing. So I think that fast fashion is still happening. And you know, there is waste. But I think that bigger companies are recognizing, noticing that consumers are a savvy. Consumers are smart now and they want to be able to buy things that are contributing to…

AW: You’re making me think about a couple of purchases that I’ve made recently. I really like the animal prints, the reptile. And I bought some jeans recently that are, you know, really comfy stretchy jeans but they have the reptile print on them. Am I going to be wearing those in 10 years?

CQ: I think you will. I think you I absolutely think you will. I have pieces that, you know leopard print is so big right now. I have pieces that I bought seven or eight years ago that I’m now pulling it again and are relevant again.

AW: That’s true. Can you talk about the difference between style and fashion?

CQ: I think that style really endures. It’s something that is more of a classic look and feel. It’s more of our personality. Fashion to me is trends. Fashion is you know, buying pieces that are latest and greatest and newest and things that you’re seeing on the runway that that again are not going to stand the test of time. Style is about — it’s much more of a classic look and feel.

AW: Yeah, now you’re reminding me of a friend that I have. A friend of mine who always dresses really well, but she surprises people, I say “gorgeous wrap coat!” She says, “Winners!” What? And she just has impeccable style. She knows what looks good on her body — to your point. And she has friends who spend a lot of money on head to toe labels. And I said to her, the difference between them and you, is that you have style and they’re into fashion.

CQ: I always say you don’t have to spend a lot of money to be — to have a great sense of style. You don’t have to be shopping designers or, or labels or brands. Going to places that aren’t necessarily well known, and really picking out pieces that are classic to add to your wardrobe — that add to your style.

AW: Again, it sounds like something you could do for your host curating pieces.

CQ: Absolutely. Yeah. And then changing things with you know, every season, changing a rug, changing pillows, drapes, those types of things. Just it’s like dressing accessories.

AW: So focusing on trends, then I have some questions for you. I guess, from a business perspective, when you’ve observed different trends, be it a color or a shape, or a certain fabric that comes in or out of style, in and out of fashion. Do you see it as a cycle?  First of all, that is everything’s bound to come back. I want you to comment on that. And also, the pace of the cycles.

CQ: Fashion is absolutely cyclical, something that is in style that is trendy today. We’ll come back in years to come and it’s usually a four or five year cycle, you’ll see things come back.

AW: Four or five years?

CQ:  Yeah. The difference is though, is that there’s always a little bit of a different spin on them.

AW: Right.

CQ: And the best example of this is men’s ties. So my husband has hundreds of ties. They’ll be wider for several years and then he’ll go and purchase new ties and they’ll be thinner. Then again a couple of years later, they’ll be wider again. The difference is — and I always say, why do you want all these ties? you know you can re-wear them. Why? He gets rid of them because the there’s always just an inch or two off from what they were several years before. So there’s a little bit of a different look.  The fabric’s different. There’s more innovation and things change quite quickly. So it’s always a little bit different. I do think though and it back to the sustainability topic.  Things can be altered. Things can be changed to be wearable again. So you can kind of get to that happy medium to what the when the style comes back. You can alter it so that it’s fresh again.

AW: So big shoulder pads were in recently. But then of course, they really we’re in the 80s. But they definitely look different. I  look at the way I was dressing in the 80’s and my clothes were really big. They weren’t fitted. Even though I probably thought they were.

CQ: And it’s come back. But again, you know, to your point, it’s there, it’s a bit different. They’re a bit more fitted. Now, the silhouette is different. And it comes back, but it always has a special twist on it.

AW: So it’s four or five years. I was wondering, you know, people say that the pace of change in our world, in technology, things are changing faster and faster. Do you think that’s true in fashion? Or is it? Is it a pretty consistent every four to five years?

CQ: I think that it’s changing. I think that that timeframe is narrowing. Even the way designers and retailers issue their collection. So it used to be four seasons, designers. You’d see the clothes in the store the new collections. Now. There’s a different drop. Some designers are dropping collections every week, new pieces every week and introducing them that way.

AW: Wow.

CQ: Yeah, the best example of that would be Supreme. Which instead of, you know, dropping the collections four times a year, rather they’ve decided to do it once a week, to keep the consumers interested.

AW: Wow.

CQ: And they’ve been so successful is because we our attention span is narrowing . So with the introduction of social media, everything is immediate and we can see everything — we can find out anything we want.

AW: And fashion is obviously huge on social media, particularly Instagram, because it’s visually oriented. Do you want to make any comments about that?

CQ: Social media has such an impact on the fashion industry. It does. Even in my work with fashion week’s designers.  They used to present collections six months in advance of anybody seeing them. We’re seeing that timeframe really narrow because people are immediate, they see it — a designer presents a collection on the runway, and people want it right away.

AW: And can they can get it done?

CQ: Well not normally with a fashion week because designers wouldn’t produce that collection until the show’s ended. It’s in stores until six months later, right?

AW: Oh. Those are the samples.

CQ: Yeah, exactly. So the model is changing now. Designers are presenting “see now by now.” So they’re showing the collections that are actually in store so people can go and buy it. Or they’re introducing collections that are specific for “See now buy now”. So Burberry did that. Tom Ford did that creating a number of pieces that people could actually go into the store immediately following by physically into the store. I was imagining, you know, take your phone out, if you go to this website, you can you can click or you could do that, or you could argue,….

AW: Yes, yes. It reminds me I was recently listening to a TED talk about Nike shoes and how it’s consistent with some other industries where they have releases. Like think of the gaming industry. They have a new console or a new game that get released or whatever. People line up. People are lining up for new Nike shoes, especially Air Jordans every week. They’re physically lining up outside the Nike stores every week. So this is consistent with what you’re saying.

CQ: It’s those drops. Yeah. To keep people interested in excited and, and an immediate people want things right away. They see it they want it

AW: but that sounds like it’s it’s trendy stuff. Right? I feel like that’s fashion for a different reason, then

CQ: it is. It’s not that it’s not pieces. It’s not endurance, it’s not endurance, it’s feeding the immediate appetite of consumers, right?

AW: Although you could say my personal style is that I’m leading edge.

CQ: Yes. Some people have that. Yes.

AW: I’m wondering if you have generic tips that you think would help people just look better in terms of what they’re wearing when they’re choosing what they’re wearing in the morning? Are there some general things that we should be thinking about?

CQ: I think that first and foremost, quality of clothing is key. So it’s wearing fabrics that are not natural fabrics and wearing fabrics that are a little bit more high-end then fast fashion. And consumers. I think it’s about spending a little bit more money on clothes, if you can, and having higher quality. I think that everyone looks better in that type of quality

AW: really quality?

CQ: Yeah, it’s quality.

AW: Hmm. So if I’m not sure what to wear, and I’m trying to decide between two outfits, the deciding factor could be quality, right? If I’m choosing between — I’m going to a board meeting tonight I’ve got this suit, or this dress. I really don’t know what I want to wear. Which one’s better quality? Done. Go for the better quality one?

CQ: Yeah, I agree. And quality and fit. Fit is also important. So you can have something that you know if it’s not the right size, or if you have put on weight… Fit is really important. And having something tailored properly.

AW: I agree. Because there’s some things that I really love and they just they pull or they are baggy. Whatever. It’s just, it doesn’t you don’t want your clothes to be a distraction. I hate it when I’m in a meeting or, particularly if I’m doing a presentation or meeting with a client, and I’m thinking about my clothes. That’s not right.

CQ: When I get dressed in the morning, I often will think about what I have that day: what meetings I have, do I have to Am I going to be in and out of my car? You know… I often think about if I’m going to be — what meetings do I have to go to, do I have to do any walking, am I going to be in and out of my car, you know, because it really impacts how I dress. And if I’m going to be on the run or if I’m going to be sitting at my desk all day. Comfort is key.

AW: I heard this advice probably 20 years ago from a friend of mine who was a really successful model. She said that when they were in modeling school, they taught the models when you’re dressing you need to think about your hair, your hands and your feet. So if your hair looks great, if your hands are well manicured, and if you have great shoes on or a great pedicure, whatever however you define that. That’s what matters. Forget about the rest of it. What do you think of that?

CQ: I think head to toe.  You need to consider the whole look. So it’s about hair and makeup. Makeup is so important and makeup is another — is an important thing — when you’re considering what to wear. And its head to toe. You know you if you have bad shoes, but a great outfit. You know, it’s a distraction. I think that it’s key. The head to toe look is so important.

AW: I’m going to ask you the five rapid fire questions now that I asked every guest.

CQ: Okay, let’s go.

AW: Okay. Question number one. What are your pet peeves?

CQ: Late. People being like, I’m always on time, or I’m 10 minutes early. If I can be on time … I drive quite a distance to get to my office every day. I have two kids and crazy mornings, and I always manage to make it on time. I think it’s one of those things that … I think it’s rude. I think that people – Why is your time more important than mine?

AW: Second question: what type of learner you?

CQ:  Visual. Absolutely. And I think it has a lot to do with you know, the industry and the creative industry. Everything is visual for me. I have to see it. I have to, I need to see something tangible. 100%.

AW:  I’m not surprised. Introvert or extrovert?

CQ:  A little bit of both, depending on the environment that I’m in. Yeah, I can be very much an extrovert and sometimes very much an introvert.

AW: Okay. Question number four, your communication preference for personal conversations.

CQ: Face to face ….always face to face. You know, we spend so much time on our phones. So much time over email, social media, the internet. It’s nice to have a face to face with people. I often schedule meetings purposely face to face, rather than conference calls or whatnot.

AW: Last question, is there a podcast or a blog or an email newsletter that you find yourself recommending the most?

CQ: Every morning, I always read Retail Insider, which is an online retail portal. That is the latest in the retail news in Canada.

AW: In Canada?

CQ:  In Canada. I always read that every morning. I always read The Daily Beast for the sort of global perspective of what’s happening in the world. And then also Fashion Talks, which is a podcast hosted by Donna Bishop. It’s a fashion focused podcast that really is all the latest and greatest that’s happening in the world of fashion and how it relates to our daily lives. So I always tune into that.

AW: Great. I will put links to all of those that you mentioned in the show notes so the listeners can find them as well. How can listeners connect with you if they have a question for you? Or maybe they want to work for you, or they have questions about career advice in the fashion industry?

CQ: They can go to the website for Toronto Fashion Week. And all my contacts are there.

AW: Okay, great. Thank you so much for your time and your insights. It was really fun!

CQ: Yes fun. Thank you.



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