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Robin Kay: Schooled by Life

I walked into an interview with a theme in mind. Maybe it was more of a question: how do we find redemption and then redefinition after crisis? The person I went to interview was Robin Kay, the former designer and current President of the Fashion Design Council of Canada (FDCC) and the woman who had brought the iconic 'Fashion Week’ to Toronto.

Robin Kay’s life has had moments of crises some of which were public—with drug and alcohol abuse, incarceration, and being ousted from the brand that bore her name by her then-business partner. Others, although private, her battle with breast cancer, and her divorces, also became public. Headlines were written and judgements were made. In 2008, The Globe and Mail wrote, “The descent of a Toronto fashion diva” after an incident where Kay gave a speech in which attendees described her as being seemingly intoxicated, leaving many who were at the event questioning her ability to preside over the FDCC. Yet, navigating through and out of her difficult (and some destructive) times all the while knowing it was for everyone to see was something she dealt with privately. Even when asked about undergoing chemotherapy, she described to the Toronto Starnewspaper as it being “a difficult experience, not a terrible one.” So when I met Ms. Kay on a bright morning this summer at her condo in downtown Toronto, what became clear pretty quickly was that redemption or redefinition weren’t topics Ms.Kay was interested in nor something she felt she needed. It made me wonder, why was I?

Robin Kay founded the ‘Robin Kay’ brand in Toronto in 1976. She wasn’t a designer but she describes herself as “instinctively” knowing how to sell. She had worked at two of Canada’s biggest department stores but when one of those stores called time on her employment it was because she “couldn’t follow orders.” For Robin though, the insubordination was more about the early realisation that she worked better when she worked for herself. It was a lesson learned growing up in Winnipeg in a family of entrepreneurs where the how-to’s of business were schooled upon her simply by her being there, an education through osmosis. She tells me, “I grew up in a very commercial environment. My grandfather was a cooper, a barrel maker, my father didn’t go to school, he joined his father. From barrels they went into steel drums, the company then grew into plastics etc. So I really heard all of that. I learned the intensity of making, buying, selling.”

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When the idea came for opening her first store, the order of how it all came to be is similar to how she feels her life as a whole unfolded, part serendipitous, part street smarts, & and part sure-footed instincts. That order was, as Kay describes it, along the lines of this: “…my best friend had a wonderful little boutique. Marvellous clothing store. Her partner had just opened up a restaurant called Mr. Greenjeans where you can shop and eat. And I thought ‘I can do that!” So I took a shop on Bellair in Yorkville (an upscale area of Toronto), painted it all white, it had a little neon ‘Robin’ sign on it, it was all perfect and I walked inside and there was nothing in it. I didn’t think to put inventory. So I went over to Spadina (Toronto’s historic garment district) and I got beautiful, never before worn army, navy clothes, carpenter shirts and carpenter overalls. Racquel Welch would wear (similar ones) in Time magazine. It was bang on (trend). And then one day, not long after, a woman walked through the door carrying a cotton sweater and I fell in love with that cotton sweater. She was from Switzerland and she made these pure cotton sweaters on the Dubied hand knitting machine and I became partners with her and I learned about those things. I opened up a factory, then I opened up a big knitting mill. (The brand) grew to 22-23 shops, 600 wholesale accounts across North America.”

Robin Kay started her business because she felt she could. Hers was an attitude that wasn’t about ‘should I?’ or ‘why not?’ It was more of a matter of fact. And she did well. For someone who wasn’t a designer or trained as one when she started, she was able to tap into the style of the time, perhaps even before its time whether it was a simple white t-shirt made from organic cotton before ‘organic’ became fashionable or becoming a champion of sustainable fashion, making sweaters from unbleached and recycled yarn at a time when sustainable fashion wasn’t even a thing. When I asked her where she got the resources to finance her determination, she says, “in the 70s a woman couldn’t get a bank loan without a co-signee. A man. But I only needed $3000 to open that shop…I found a floor of perfectly made, never worn sailor shirts that I bought for $0.25 each and I sold them for $25. So I made my own money all the time. I love to sell. It’s fun and it worked. And designers (well I wasn’t a designer then), we’re psychic and I could see “it”. And I think because I had been on my own for such a long time I trusted this (points to her gut).”

While her business was flourishing, her personal life seemed to be under strain. Robin chose not to divulge too much about her life outside the business but she would hint at issues that date back to when she was a teenager. When I ask her what kind of an impact her parents had on her she replies, “well clearly very destructive. What person is willing to leave (home) at 15. But in turn (it was) positive. How would I have learned and gotten where I am today?” She would go on to add, “I didn’t have any real relationship with my parents when I was growing up.” The decade in which she opened her stores would also be a decade defined by highs and lows. She would get married, twice and have three children.

Those were the highs. And while on the outside Kay portrayed a successful, independent businesswoman, in control of her company, on the inside, something else was going on that was destructive and that would lead her down a rabbit hole, one that landed her in jail. In 1978, two years after she opened her first store, Kay was arrested and convicted of drug possession and trafficking heroin and cocaine. She was sentenced to 18 months in a correctional facility. She would serve 9 months of that sentence and then would jump right back into her business and open more stores. And for a while she and her business thrived. Until it didn’t. Debt and the economy would bring testing times in the form of a business partner to help the Robin Kay brand out. For someone who preferred to be self-sufficient, the partnership would prove to be misaligned with Kay’s life vision. It ended with the business being bought out from under her and all ties with her being severed. The new owner would own the ‘Robin Kay’ name and would eventually change the brand name to ‘RK’. “It was ridiculous,” she says. “How could I have lost my name? And I did try to pursue (it) and then three months later I got cancer and that took about a year distraction and then that company went bankrupt," Kay tells me. I wondered about Kay’s use of the word “distraction” in describing her diagnosis of breast cancer but in true Kay fashion, she looked at all of it with the benefit of hindsight, as a journey that was leading her somewhere, even the tough times. She says, “I think it’s critical how you handle disappointment because either you don’t pay attention and other things happen…I don’t think I pay enough attention to disappointment…it doesn’t matter to me because…sure I would have loved to kept that business and the factory…my daughter would probably be working in it right now…I don’t have that legacy for them…that’s disappointing. But then I would not have built Fashion Week. I don’t think I would ever have had the opportunity or bandwidth to do, to think…for it to occur to me.”

Established in 2000, Toronto Fashion Week was a coup for the city, Canada's

financial capital, to be given a sense of status similar to New York, London, Milan, and Paris. In what seeemed like another coup for Kay was selling Toronto Fashion Week to IMGin 2012. IMG owns NY Fashion Week. But four years later, IMG closed shop in Toronto citing lack of local interest (ie local sponsorship) leaving Kay bewildered and shocked. She told the Globe and Mailnewspaper, “I would never have sold the event if I had known it was to be a four-year period," she says. "The purpose in selling the event to IMG was to build out Toronto to more global exposure. This was the promise of IMG.” She went on to tell the paper, “IMG is a billion-dollar global corporation. And they failed.” But for a while, Kay took it as a personal failure saying, “I have to stand up sometimes and say 'look, Robin, you can’t look backwards, you have to look forwards.’ Because I am troubled by the sale of fashion week to IMG. That was a total letdown. I sold it so well financially. It was an excellent event that only needed tweaking. I regret that, that I wasn’t paying more attention. I believed IMG because they had 28 fashion weeks and they knew what to do , but they didn’t.”

There is a pattern with Robin where one can see that each professional disappointment led to a new opportunity. The “bandwidth” as Kay describes would open to allow for the next chapter. Whether it was her brand buyout leading her to launch Fashion Week in Canada, or the selling of Toronto Fashion Week leading her to become President of the Fashion Design Council of Canada. At the FDCC she has been a vocal advocate for young Canadian designers trying to make their way through ever-changing business models and retail demands, and how they survive in a country where fashion is yet to be seen as art.* Unlike Britain and France, Canada is the only G20 country that does not include fashion as a cultural industry. Leaving Canadian designers and the industry for which they work and their nation's identity to which they contribute, essentially "orphans" as Kay describes it.

Without much, if any, provincial and federal support, designers in Canada are swimming upstream in a world where the demands of a fashion house are like a pressure cooker for already-established brands, let alone those that are still trying to find their feet on unsure ground. And so the FDCC and Robin Kay in particular, are fighting tooth and nail for them, travelling the world carrying the Canadian flag so that they are recognised and supported. And for Ms. Kay it’s personal. She’s been there. She knows what it takes to survive and succeed. She knows the pressures and pitfalls.

Robin Kay went into rehab in the late 80s and entered a 12 step programme. It would be around the same time she would heal the relationship with her parents. And while not knowing what really had happened to her growing up in Winnipeg, and why that relationship was so damaged, I realised, while writing this, that for me to know the Robin Kay that she allowed me to know and to learn something from that experience of meeting her, I didn’t have to know the origins of her pain, if she wasn’t willing to share it. What I did come away with from our conversation, is how we perceive what our life, and everyone else's life for that matter (especially those in the public eye), to be. I thought we had to keep redefining ourselves. I thought everyone, at some point, was searching for redemption after all, Hollywood has banked on the tried and tested formula of heroes and heroines falling from grace, struggling, and then rising from the proverbial ashes, with humbled wisdom. It’s a way to bring us all to a unified level, ensuring that we are all similar in some way, notably, fallable. I guess, in a way it’s a roadmap for all of us to know that should we ever fall or fail, there is always a way to come back. And that perhaps, failure isn’t something that is seen as negative. It is a part of life. How we look at it, how we use it, and what happens after is in our control.

For Robin, and here’s here’s the thing about her, and why I felt an affinity towards her, she accepts and values all the lows of her life. She accepts and values them because they make her who she is. There is no search for redefinition and redemption because those things, for her, would imply taking the focus away from all the choices and detours she has taken instead of accepting them as having led her to where she is today. That those choices and detours, however destructive, with hindsight, have added another brick in her emotional foundation. It’s a very no-point-crying-over-spilled-milk way of thinking. She takes full responsibility for her part in the course her adult life has taken. Mistakes were made but they became an education into who she was, and what she does with that information becomes an education into who she is. And what she is capable of. When I ask her what lessons she has learned about her life, she tells me, “there’s no lesson here, you have to go through shit to see what you didn’t do.” She says, “I have a great belief in the universal genius. That which has the sun everyday, the clouds, and the seasons. I think I’ve been really lucky despite all the extreme life things, that I had two great careers. I have three amazing kids, I have pretty good relationships with one of the fathers, I have great girlfriends, I’ve been lucky.”

We are the sum of all our experiences. One moment, one event, one mistake doesn’t define who we are, unless of course we keep making them. Learning from our experiences and taking steps towards refining our time on earth can only be fully appreciated through perspective and gratitude for all that we have done, gone through, and have achieved now. And that’s what Robin Kay emanates, to me anyway, gratitude for the relationships she has, the relationships she has healed, and for a life that has shown her that despite all the knocks, perhaps even because of them, she is still here, living her life, her way and being a voice for a new generation of artists trying to do the same.

*Since this blog was published, the Department of Canadian Heritage has moved to include, and thereby recognise, the integral part that fashion plays in contributing to Canada's cultural fabric, identity, and economy. The quote below is part of Creative Canada's Policy Framework:

"In our vision, we move deliberately to using “creative industries” to include a wider range of industries that contribute to the creative sector: design, fashion, architecture, video games, digital media and multiplatform storytelling - transmedia. The intent is to recognize their role as employers and producers in the creative economy."[/expand]

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