Canadian Fashion Connection – Robin Kay

If you had to choose the most controversial character in Canadian fashion history, Robin Kay would probably win.

Robin Kay was born in 1950 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. In 1969 she did the hippy thing and left home to bum around Europe, taking odd jobs here and there to pay for her passage to her next destination. In 1975 Kay moved back to Canada and took a job in the display department at Eaton’s in Toronto. The following year she opened an eclectic boutique that sold primarily surplus army clothes. Kay’s success was fueled by overwhelming confidence and a good cash flow – courtesy of a lucrative cocaine-dealing side-business that lead to her being busted in 1978 and serving half of an 18 month prison sentence.

Cotton sweater by Robin Kay, 1980s

Upon her release, Kay met Judit Adam, a knitwear specialist, and the two began making one-size-fits-all cotton knit sweaters. Kay’s start-up funds were provided by her first husband, Bay Street financier, David Rothberg. In 1981, the growing Robin Kay Clothing Company opened in Liberty Village, the wartime factory area of Toronto that was filled with derelict warehouses at the time. At the height of her business in the late 1980s Kay had 18 store locations, and was wholesaling her sweaters across North America. The early 90s recession and the changes in industry manufacturing at the time caused Kay to take on Wing Son Garments as a partner, but with an overwhelming debt load, Wing Son took over the company in 1999, firing Kay and rebranding the company as RK.

In 2000, Kay was offered the top job at the not-for-profit Fashion Design Council of Canada. While with the FDCC, Kay is credited with creating Toronto Fashion Week but she also created many enemies along the way. The board of the FDCC was reduced from 12 industry representatives to 4, most of which were friends, including Joseph Mimram, the creator and owner of Club Monaco, and later Joe Fresh. Sponsors and locations of the event changed almost annually, and in the fall of 2007, a petition to have Kay removed from office was circulating through the fashion community. Many designers began holding their own shows during the same time but off-site from the fashion week locale.

A few weeks ago it was announced that the Toronto Fashion Week had been sold. I wasn’t aware you could sell a not-for-profit event into the private sector for an undisclosed sum… but apparently you can. IMG, an event management firm that also runs fashion weeks in Berlin, New York, Tokyo, Mumbai, Moscow, and Miami, are the new owners. Kay has stepped down from managing  Toronto’s Fashion Week but will remain president of the illusive FDCC (If you can find evidence of the FDCC’s existence let me know – I could find no website or phone number…)

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