Ryerson University’s Fashion Zone fosters growth in multiple sectors through its startup support

The word “Fashion” might evoke images of clothing, shoes and accessories for some, but Andrea Romero, manager at Ryerson University’s Fashion Zone, explains why it’s so much more: “Fashion is everything you touch. The design process is alive in all kinds of products, including furniture and even cellphones.”

Located in the heart of downtown Toronto, the Fashion Zone has been inspiring design innovation since 2013. This incubator has member companies with products across the fashion spectrum, and throughout the product, service and technology sectors.

It is part of Ryerson University’s approach to experiential learning – providing members with mentorship opportunities from over 40 industry professionals, and access to a network of 160 companies within the Fashion Zone “family.”

“We have a community of like-minded entrepreneurs who help each other,” says Romero. Members are instructed in the skills necessary to launch a company, and given 24/7 access to a workspace equipped with prototyping tools. And as an additional perk, members have access to the University’s student talent pool through the Fashion Zone’s Associate and Apprentice program.

Beyond the Runway

The Fashion Zone provides special programming, specific to its unique group of entrepreneurs, including branding/storytelling, growth marketing, retail operations and sustainable design. “You can’t sell a product without a good brand story because customers will question the legitimacy of the company,” explains Romero.

However, no matter how innovative or unique the brand, companies can run into trouble quickly if their strategies aren’t yielding growth. A reality, all too true in fashion – an industry where funding cycles move faster than they do for even technology or software companies.

“Fashion is a cutthroat world,” says Romero. “Investors will change their mind quickly if a company is not meeting their forecast for sales.”

That’s why Romero believes Fashion Zone’s biggest value to students comes from identifying the most commercial piece in their collection, by looking at the production costs and processes.

“We think beyond the runway show,” says Romero. “The show may create buzz, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t always convert to a sale.”

The “Alumni” Label

With a 31 per cent increase in applications over the last year, Ontario fashion start-ups clearly recognize the value the Fashion Zone holds for their companies’ future.

When selecting members, Fashion Zone looks for candidates who are coachable, driven and passionate about what they do. Many of these applicants go on to become successful alumni, including Inkbox, Knixwear, Soxy, 2020 Armor and Encircled.

By maintaining relationships with its alumni, the Fashion Zone broadens its network for past, current and future attendees – keeping alumni as an integral part of the incubator’s collaborative environment.

“If we can’t answer a member’s question, we connect them with an alumni who can.”

It’s advantageous for the alumni as well, as the incubator and the university’s talent pool is an added benefit for start-ups.

“Toronto is a top destination for tech talent, and we have design talent from Ryerson University – the top fashion school in Canada,” says Romero. “Access to diverse talent in a world-class city is key for us.”

Fueled by Technology

Last year, the Fashion Zone graduated 18 companies, while the revenue from companies currently in the accelerator experienced a 69 per cent increase.

Poised for growth, the Fashion Zone moved into a new building on Ryerson’s campus, shared with both the Design and Fabrication Zone and the Trans-Media Zone.

“We have a great opportunity to collaborate with the other zones and support our members in more ways,” says Romero.

The Design and Fabrication Zone will prove to be a handy neighbour as the accelerator focuses on interior design, architecture and the making process. The Trans-Media Zone specializes in radio, television and broadcasting, which ties in nicely as influencers and virtual reality technology are becoming a large part of fashion.

“Fashion and commerce are fueled by technology. It’s crucial in taking products from ideation to commercialization.”

The Fashion Zone also has its eye on new global partnerships. “Ryerson University has ties all around the world and we are always looking forward to our next collaborator,” says Romero. “Internationalization is top of mind for us.”

In the future, the incubator aims to keep more fashion companies in Canada, and increase their ability to scale up in Ontario. While traditional fashion markets are larger abroad, Ontario companies exploring the worlds of jewelry, cell phones and tattoos – to name a few – find a foundation in Canada that allows these companies to succeed.

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December 11, 2019
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