It would be really easy to lose sight of Sid Neigum in his Toronto studio were it not for his quick movements. Dressed entirely in black, he blends in with the puddles of dark fabric that have spilled over into the crisp white space.
When I arrive, he emerges from behind a rolling rack of black scarves and darts over to a skirt from his latest collection. Taking it from the mannequin, he tries it on himself to demonstrate its movement. “He really is the best model!” shouts Yin, his seamstress, from a sewing table across the room.
Neigum grins and leads me to a lounge where we sit down to chat, away from the distractions of the work in progress. But this doesn’t temper his frenetic energy. He fidgets constantly, and I imagine his mind racing with ideas in much the same way. When he speaks, though, he is calmly assured—all his hard work has led, finally, to a breakthrough: “Support from Canadian retailers has been really difficult to get,” says the Edmonton-born designer. “But now that’s changing for me.”
For the first time since Neigum launched his eponymous label in 2009, his clothes have been picked up by two major Canadian retailers: His spring/summer 2015 collection, an architectural feat inspired by modular origami, is now available at The Room at Hudson’s Bay and Toronto boutique Jonathan Olivia. Neigum, who produces every garment in his Toronto studio with Yin, worked right through the Christmas holidays to get those orders finished for February.
No easy task: His designs feature intricate laser-cut details, meticulous draping and careful folding, demonstrating a mastery of technique that puts him leaps ahead of his peers. Few attendees were surprised when that collection won him the Mercedes-Benz Start Up competition at World MasterCard Fashion Week in Toronto last October.
The $30,000 prize, which helped fund Neigum’s fall/winter 2015 collection and runway presentation, seems to be part of an ongoing winning streak for the young designer, who most recently claimed the Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent, Fashion, at the glitzy 2015 Canadian Arts & Fashion Awards gala in January.
Beyond indicating that Neigum might just be the most exciting young talent working in Canada now, these cash prizes have enabled him to financially break even for the first time in four years. But the designer, who graduated from New York’s prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology, is the first to admit that they’re not enough to guarantee long-term financial security—Jeremy Laing, after all, won an inaugural CAFA award in 2014 and quietly closed up shop the same year. “That money only lasts so long, so you need to think about a way to have longevity,” says Neigum, adding that the business side of the industry can be foreign to many designers.
Having a father who is a business owner has given him a critical advantage, says Neigum. Susan Langdon, executive director of Toronto Fashion Incubator, where Neigum’s studio is located, has seen that paternal advice at work. She describes how Neigum invested early prize money to attend the Coterie trade show in New York and a fabric-sourcing event in Seoul and to hire a sample maker. “He has talent and wonderful designs, of course, but he’s a smart business person as well, and that’s why his business is now accelerating.”
Neigum also knows how to put himself out there, constantly emailing and cold-calling stores he wants to be sold in. “It’s like a global attack,” he says, shifting forward to the edge of the couch. “I’ll try to get an appointment with anybody and then fly to that city and try to lock down a sale.” He leans back and lowers his voice. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Often the conversation about the struggle faced by Canadian designers turns to examples like Erdem and DSquared2, who both reached international acclaim only after leaving Canada. But, according to Neigum, the solution is not as simple as making a break for London or Milan. “I would never be able to have this in either of those cities,” he says, gesturing to his vast studio space and noting that the monthly rent of $1,000 would likely be 10 times that amount elsewhere. “It wouldn’t be feasible, plain and simple.”
But staying at home comes with the unique challenge of attracting attention from local and international markets, both of which are apprehensive about taking a chance on Canadian labels. “American designers get huge support from their own retailers, and then they’re able to start expanding into Europe and Asia,” says Neigum. “But Canadian retailers buy more conservatively; they follow what’s happening in New York rather than make their own judgments. I think Nicholas Mellamphy [vice-president and buying director] of The Room at Hudson’s Bay is someone who’s going against that grain.”
Neigum intuitively knew that being carried at The Room was critical to his success in Canada—so he set his mind to it. He enticed Mellamphy to visit his studio last fall. “We were really impressed with not only the quality of the garments but also his vision and the way he is able to speak about what he wants to achieve,” recalls Mellamphy. His new collection was introduced at The Room in February with a splashy installation at the entrance—something previously reserved for internationally acclaimed designers such as Thom Browne and Roksanda Ilincic. “He is doing things in this market that no one else is really doing,” says Mellamphy. “He’s as good as anyone else around the world."
Neigum knows it too, as he contemplates where in the world he would like his collections to end up next. “There’s not really a plan of attack in terms of location,” he says after a careful pause. “It’s global domination.” And his takeover has started right here at home.