Meet TFI Executive Director Susan Langdon.
Toronto Fashion Incubator, also known as TFI, is a non-profit organization and the world’s first fashion incubator. Leading the award-winning operation is executive director, Susan Langdon.
Born in Toronto to a family of fashion industry professionals, Susan grew up immersed in the world of design. After studying at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson), she began her career as an emerging designer, selling $500,000 in merchandise during her first season. In 1994, she took her expertise in the Canadian fashion landscape to TFI, becoming the first racialized woman in a leadership role in the Canadian fashion industry.
TFI helps entrepreneurs reach success in the world of the fashion business, with its groundbreaking incubator model replicated in major fashion meccas such as New York, Paris and London. Under Susan’s leadership, its influence has amplified the careers of many local designers including Joeffer Caoc, David Dixon, Shelli Oh and Sid Neigum.
As well as Susan, TFI has a roster of industry experts on-hand to give essential guidance to its community. The organization’s mentors cover every aspect of the fashion world, from sales and marketing to PR and social media.
We chatted with Susan on what TFI does, what it has achieved to date and her personal fashion inspirations. Keep scrolling.
As the Executive Director of Toronto Fashion Incubator, can you give us a rundown of what TFI does?
The Toronto Fashion Incubator (TFI) is an award-winning non-profit that helps emerging fashion entrepreneurs become successful by understanding the business of fashion. If you’re interested in starting or growing your fashion business, the best way to begin is to become a TFI member and take advantage of our strategic business-building programs and services including professional, private one-on-one mentoring, B2B and B2C market opportunities, educational webinars, networking socials and exclusive discounts from industry suppliers to save you money. We also offer affordable e-lists and guidebooks and free downloadable resources prepared by experienced fashion insiders.
What are some of TFI’s biggest achievements to date?
A couple of major projects come to mind. To respond to the challenges created by the pandemic, TFI launched Showroom Canada, Canada’s first, national, digital showroom in February 2021. Launched on JOOR, just ahead of London Fashion Week, the 6-week, B2B export market initiative attracted retailers from around the globe and put a spotlight on Canadian design.
During the 2021 event, we achieved outstanding results. 43% of participants generated orders and almost $1,000,000 (CAD) in wholesale sales were generated in 6 weeks. The digital showroom was visited by 1,146 retailers from 28 countries and we generated 1,410,914 gross media impressions from publications including WWD, The Industry, Business of Fashion, Millionair Magazine, Drapers and more.
The second project we’re proud to have achieved is TFI Fashion Your Future. This was a start-up boot camp program for equity deserving individuals. The program ran for 3 summers (2015 – 2017) and returned in 2021 as a virtual, online program.
From 2015 to 2021, Fashion Your Future has engaged with 190 youth and other equity deserving individuals and over 50% of participants self-identified as BIPOC. 77.8% of program participants are still in business, 56.6% continue to generate revenue and 11.1% have employed staff since completing the program! During this time the program employed 150+ maker/mentors and industry experts and was able to award over $65,000 in non-repayable kick-starter micro grants
What is TFI’s Resident program?
TFI’s Resident program refers to our hand-picked group of fashion entrepreneurs who represent the best and brightest in the Canadian fashion scene. We offer 10 emerging talents one-year leases, in a light-filled co-sharing space, where they can work and grow their business into a financial success.
Resident members enjoy 24/7 access to our facility which includes a private studio and shared use of over 20 industrial machines such as sergers, a coverstitch machine, single-needle machines, industrial irons, cutting tables and more. They also receive unlimited mentoring hours with our 20+ volunteer industry consultants, as well as exclusive mentoring time with me. I used to be a fashion designer with my own brand and business, and I’ve been there/done that, so I have a lot of experience and advice to share. This prestigious, by-application-only program is limited to a maximum of 10 designers.
You’re currently scouting for new residents, what are you looking for?
At TFI, we’re open to all types of fashion entrepreneurs such as apparel and accessory designers, but also to those such as stylists, bloggers, publicists, marketers, fashion tech and app creators, and more. The first step for anyone who’s interested is to take our pre-qualifying Resident program survey. Survey answers will inform us if someone has both the financial acumen and skills/knowledge to launch and grow their business. The next step is a one-on-one interview with me where I determine if the individual has the right personality to fit into a co-sharing environment where they will be working alongside potential competitors, and I assess their willingness/openness to learning. At the meeting, I also evaluate their samples for quality, innovation and suitability for their target market, and review cost sheets to see if they are using proper industry calculations.
What can TFI Residents expect to learn during their tenure?
Hopefully, Residents learn how to make their existing business model more efficient and effective, how to commercialize their product to generate more sales, how to refine their fit and pricing, identify more distribution outlets and generally to manage their business more effectively. We strongly encourage Residents to get into a routine of working at the studio every day, to participate in our networking events and webinars, and to sign up for other programs (if they are appropriate to them).
Tell us about the other membership programs.
TFI offers a few other one-year membership options.
The Outreach program is best suited to fashion designers and entrepreneurs who WFH or have their own work space but want to access exclusive discounts at suppliers, and who wish to meet with our online fashion business mentors for advice.
The Affiliate program is best suited to fashion industry service oriented and supply chain providers who want to be placed at the top of the e-lists we sell (Manufacturers/Production Contractors and the Industry Suppliers e-lists). It’s a very affordable type of advertising.
The Student Outreach program is for full-time students enrolled in high school or post secondary institutions. Students can gain access to exclusive discounts at suppliers and from TFI such as invitations to free networking events where students can meet potential employers for internships or post-graduation work.
TFI memberships include industry expert mentoring, what topics are covered?
We have 24 fantastic, dedicated volunteer mentors who cover a wide range of topics that fashion entrepreneurs are interested in. Our mentors include former retail buyers and designers, lawyers, a chartered accountant, public relations experts, sales, marketing and licensing experts and even a customs broker. Imagine having the opportunity to pick the brain of a former buyer from Holt Renfrew and rehearsing a sales pitch with them to gain pointers on what to improve. Or what about gaining tips about how to perfect the cold call, and practicing with a sales professional. TFI members get 120 minutes of free consultation time per membership year which can be divided into 30 or 60 minute increments.
As a mentor, what are your three top tips for emerging fashion entrepreneurs?
Thanks for asking. My top 3 tips are:
- Create desire. There are basically 2 reasons why people buy fashion. The first is to replace something needed because it’s broken or it doesn’t fit anymore. We’re talking about wardrobe staples like jeans or black pants or a black jacket. The second reason people buy fashion is because of “desire”. You may not need another black jacket, but the design or fabric is so engaging and compelling, you just need to have it. This is desire and people will pay more for something they desire.
- Follow the formula. Be sure to follow industry costing formulas for domestic, US and international markets but also keep an eye on what your direct competitors are charging. If, by following industry calculations, your products seem to be way more expensive than your competitors then you need to re-think the price of your fabrics, construction methods and labour. You cannot change the formulas or you will not make enough money to stay afloat.
- Put the ego to bed. Yes, it’s wonderful to get mentioned in the press or social media, but don’t let that go to your head. You’re never too famous or too established to learn.
How do you personally stay inspired?
My mom used to do the crossword every day until the age of 102 and while I haven’t mastered crosswords, I do like solving puzzles. Running a business, managing the ups and downs/highs and lows, dealing with funding issues etc., all require creative thinking and problem solving. Everything is a puzzle; you just need to figure out how to make it fit. I actually have a lot of family and friends who come to me for problem-solving ideas because they know I’ll always come up with a good solution. Brainstorming and bouncing ideas off of one another is incredibly inspiring and creative!
What is your current favourite movement in fashion and why?
I am always in appreciation of garments that demonstrate technical ingenuity and intelligence. For example, I love the cut-out looks designed by LVMH winner Nensi Dojaka, as well as Canada’s own Sid Neigum because each one requires incredible thought and strategic planning. I also love the ingenuity behind Marie Saint Pierre’s creations. It sounds crazy to be fascinated by seam finishes but you must look at Marie’s work; it’s astounding!
Find out more about Toronto Fashion Incubator on IG and its website.
If you liked this interview, read some of our other interviews with Erica Choi of SUPEREGG and Myla Davey of Cherry Gardens.