Resurrecting Chabanel

By Jessica Murphy on July 22, 2010

Five years ago, textile and apparel quotas were completely eliminated for all WTO member countries, including Canada.

Montreal - alongside New York and Los Angeles - is one of the top three fashion production hubs in North America and the city has been scrambling to ensure the industry’s continued existence despite the pressure of loosening trade regulations. 

It launched a glitzy campaign to showcase Montreal as a ‘fashion city’ filled with a creativity and passion for the craft. 

We have our very own fashion commissioner - Diane Duhamel - who iron out the kinks for fashion related businesses interested on moving onto the Island. 

Place Ville Marie is also currently  hosting a retrospective on the city’s fashion industry. 

Chabanel, once the heart of the city’s garment district, is undergoing a massive refurbishment and re-branding. 

Montreal has kicked in $17 million  to spruce up the area, adding a bike pass, a new bus line and infrastructure. 

Real estate developers have launched the ‘New Chabanel’ initiative, which aims to make it “the focal point for creative Montrealers.”

Provincial and federal governments have also chipped in cash to help prop up our apparel and textile businesses. 

But for all  the glitz, the glamour and the fashion pages brimming with local design talent, there’s little mention of the manufacturing sector that helped put Montreal on the map in the first place. 

That may be a mistake. 

"There's more focus on design, logistics, because of international outsourcing," said Norma Rantisi, a Concordia professor who has studied the shifts in Montreal’s fashion industry. 

That new focus has created a greater demand for skilled jobs - from those in the creative fields to more technological and management specific positions. 

But Rantisi notes that maintaining trade knowledge and experience is key to a thriving industry. 

"People who are on the production side - it's critical to have them close by," she said.

Sewers, pattern makers and the like are key to ensuring smooth quality control and serve as a go between for the manufacturing and design sides of the business.

They hold an informal, institutional memory and knowledge necessary to  keep the eco-system thriving.

The withdrawal of trade barriers was just another milestone in a series of shifts in Montreal’s schmata manufacturing industry, shifts which began in the 1960s with the emergence of countries like Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan as manufacturing powerhouses. 

Following the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement in 1989, we began exporting to our southern neighbours in earnest. The clothing industry added thousands of jobs, peaking in 2001 at 94,000 employees. 

But once China, Bangladesh and Mexico were able to freely export their  textile and apparel goods into Canada, domestic producers began to pay a stiff price in lower production and job losses. 

(Consumers, however, have benefited from lower prices.) 

To a point, the industry  weathered the recession  both the recession and globalization and remains  a major economic engine for the city and the province. 

Seventy-five per cent  of jobs in the apparel sector are located in Montreal, along with 66 per cent  of the province’s manufacturing establishments. 

Montreal is still home to several thousand manufacturing companies. 

Many are highly specialized, high-end producers or shops able to produce  ‘fast fashion’ with quick turnaround for major international producers.  

But statistics show a decline over the last five years. In canada, clothing manufacturing sales fell from $ 5.1 billion in 2005 to $ 2.4 billion in 2009. Textiles saw slightly less drastic, but similar, reductions in the same period. 

But the city lacks certain ingredients that make Los Angeles and New York among the most important fashion cities in the world - money, media, marketing, manufacturing and creators all together.

The missing pieces keep Toronto out of the majors as well. 

"Toronto's got money,” said Rantisi, noting the country’s largest city is also a hub of marketing, media and retail, while Montreal has creativity and manufacturing. 

But as real estate developers try to diversify the businesses renting in traditional garment districts like Chabanel,  production is pushed out  and becomes decentralized.

Still, the Chabanel developers say the manufacturers will continue to play a role in the area. 

“The New Chabanel will be a creative hub, and as such, this sector will continue to be a major player in the community,” the company said in an email. 

There is room to grow. 

The vacancy rate in general for the area is 25 per cent  to 30 per cent. However, it differs from building to building.

Rantisi said the politicians and business people who are trying to promote  the industry need to learn to value the production side along with design, marketing and retail.

"If you lose production, you don't know what you're losing," she said. 

"People will say: 'I really need a button supplier, or a sewing machine repair shop. Where did they go?'"

The city needs to co-ordinate retraining programs for lost manufacturing jobs and to integrate branches of the industry if it wants to succeed. 

"It needs to be given a serious look from a policy perspective," Rantisi said. 


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