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Is Crowd Funding the New Mercedes-Benz?
Christian Allaire: "Fashion designers are shaking their tin cup for change"

Juma’s Internet donation campaign via Kickstarter
It was writer Harlan Ellison who, in this notable ‘Dreams with Sharp Teeth’ rant, said nobody should ever work for free
: “I should do a freebie for Warner Bros.? What is Warner Bros., out with an eye patch and a tin cup on the street? Fuck no!”

Now fashion designers are shaking their tin cup for change.  

Tired of working for free or, rather, little profit, designers are panhandling (OK, crowd funding via the internet) to raise funds to cover the costs of pricey runway shows and collection production. Locally, Breeyn McCarney and Juma have both taken to the Internet to raise funds for their budding lines — but in two very different ways. Juma started the trend last spring, when they used Kickstarter, a non-profit website that develops new technologies and establishes new small businesses, to raise funds to show at New York Fashion Week.  

“I’m an avid user of new technologies and am always looking at new things,” says Jamil Juma, one of two creative forces behind Juma. “I came across the Kickstarter website a few years ago. It’s mostly used for new inventions and more tech-related things, but I thought it would be interesting to explore raising money to produce a fashion show for New York Fashion Week.”

Jamil and Alia Juma, Photo courtesy of Juma
Juma was able to raise enough money to show in New York by outlining what the money would be used for, why they needed it, and what it would mean for their future. The label got 18 backers and over $12,000… $14,000 short of their original pledge goal, but better than nothing at all. Juma also promised donors special gifts according to their donation amount: a scarf, duffle bag, or bottle of Dom Perignon. Begging for cash has never been so glam. Their international aspirations are worth supporting; without breaking out of Toronto’s teeny-tiny bubble, designers (sorry to say) stand little to no chance of becoming bona fide superstar success stories.

Other designers, though, are taking less grandiose approaches toward crowd funding. Breeyn McCarney, local womenswear designer and customizer extraordinaire, has taken to her own website to ask for donations just to survive here in tiny ol’ Toronto.

“I really didn’t know if we could pay for [this show] on our own, even though I worked enormously hard to cut every possible extravagant cost,” says McCarney. “We’re still a couple thousand short of where we need to be and because I don’t have an American bank account we didn’t qualify for Kickstarter. So that’s when we were like ‘why don’t we just build the site ourselves?’”

You can make a donation here (Ed note: DO IT! Breeyn’s amazing.) McCarney will show her new collection May 16, 2012.  

This act of begging for cash isn’t as nearly as pathetic as you might think. In fact, creative-types have capitalized on the trend and used it to fund niche side projects. Take this Griz Coat, for example. What these sellers/frat boys/people with too much time on their hands are selling isn’t revolutionary… it’s a bear costume. But the way it’s presented (and its hilarious absurdity) helped reel in 144 backers and $21,897 in pledges. People wanted to see the bear costume succeed, and boy did it ever. Success in crowd-funding often lies in a campaign’s presentation.

You can sell anything on Kickstarter
McCarney has a creative approach to donation-seeking as well. Whenever money is used from her donations pool, McCarney documents every dollar. She will feature gallery-style placards at her runway show revealing whose money was used for what. Donated five bucks? Your name may be attributed to that blue button on Look 4. Donated a few grand? The entire collection may be named after you. Donated nothing? Well, you won’t be mentioned. How embarrassing for you.

“My friend Sophie donated $50 and we spent it on red tulle, so when that dress comes down the runway she can nudge the person next to her and be like, ‘I paid for that,’” says McCarney. “People like to feel involved in these things, especially if it’s the arts, so it’s trying to create a feeling of community and involvement.”

But don’t get the idea that everyone is fan of crowd sourcing; even Juma finds the idea in poor taste, however potentially useful. “I feel like asking for a donation might come off as a little bit cheap,” says Juma. “I’m not sure how much potential there is to raise funds that way. I haven’t seen any brands exceed a big amount of money. But I did read about this guy on Kickstarter who developed a watch that syncs with your iPad or iPod, the whole concept being you could ride your bike and check your e-mails on your watch. For that, he raised $2 million in two days. It just goes to show that if you have something interesting and of value to offer, the audience will respond.”

Designers really can’t win when it comes to seeking donations. If they do raise enough funds, they risk being seen by consumers as amateur or desperate, incapable of keeping their own business afloat. But if they don’t raise enough funds, which is more often the case than not, their shows and/or collections can end up looking juvenile and incomplete. So what should take the hit: their reputation, or their work?

“It can be seen as amateur, but at the end of the day it costs a shit ton of money. If I did a show that I could afford it just wouldn’t be as good,” says McCarney. “People have really high standards in Toronto, and for some reason people want everything to be swish, but nobody wants to pay for anything.”

A donation rundown on designer Breeyn Mccarney’s website

So why are designers asking the public for money rather than seeking funds from corporations, the government, or the Fashion Design Council of Canada (FDCC)? The answer seems to be two-fold: there is no sponsorship to begin with, and most designers don’t want to be ‘owned’ by the sponsors that are available to them.

“There’s definitely nothing in Canada for clothing designers. There are some funds that help establish manufacturers,” says Juma. “But that’s money for companies that are semi-established to tap into. For true start-ups, there is actually nothing.”

“I’m not involved with the FDCC in any capacity,” adds McCarney. “I know that they’re predominantly funded through corporate sponsors, and that’s a problem for me because of my political beliefs. I’ve said that I’m not a big fan of the petroleum industry, so I can’t be sponsored by someone like Mercedes-Benz because that’s a massive conflict of interest.”

Money or no money, these designers will continue to trudge along and do what they love. “If I didn’t have to worry about money, I wouldn’t do anything differently,” says McCarney. “I worked in finance for a little while, but hated my life. Now, my enjoyment level of life is huge– I just have to worry about money all the time.” If crowd funding can live up to its hype, maybe not for much longer.


Christian Allaire writes about style for Toronto Standard. Follow his tweets here: @chrisjallaire.

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