Toronto: Fashion, Food and Fun in the Gay White North
Imagine a land where the streets are filled with people who don’t honk horns in traffic and everyone knows your name. Toronto might be that land.
Toronto is known as New York City’s softer, greener sister to the north, and was recently named the fourth-largest city in North America, according to the latest data from Statistics Canada and the U.S. Census Bureau. (Sorry, Chicago; you got bumped.) The city’s so picturesque and idyllic that many TV shows, movies and commercials are filmed here. The sense of local pride in Toronto never seems to run out. And it manifests itself in a myriad of ways.
Let Me See Your Peacock
Toronto couldn’t be prouder of its international fashion scene, with many regional designers and boutique owners taking advantage of the high demand for Canadian apparel and accessories.
In the U.S., this sense of "shop local" has just begun to blossom, but in Toronto it has flourished organically. Unlike other countries that are now becoming aware of where clothing is made in response to the recession and high-profile overseas factory incidents, Toronto fashionistas have an innate pride in supporting their own. It helps that they’ve got some great brands to back, including royal fashion couple Joe Mimran, of preppy and colorful Joe Fresh, and Kimberley Newport-Mimran, of ladylike Pink Tartan.
Also on the roster? Luxury labels Jeremy Laing, David Dixon, Greta Constantine and Lida Baday, among others. Toronto is also home to the Barneys of Canada, Holt Renfrew, and North America’s longest-operating commercial corporation, Hudson’s Bay Company.
Clearly, Toronto puts some of the world’s best shopping right at the locals’ fingertips. Just ask Kendra Thompson, public relations director at Harry Rosen. Since 1954 the Rosen family-owned specialty designer clothing store has catered to the most discriminating male clientele of Toronto. Even now, you can be fitted for a custom-made suit in the penthouse suite while perusing Tom Ford, Ferragamo and Lanvin mixed with Canadian menswear on the other floors.
"We have such an abundance of established and emerging Canadian and Toronto-based designers, it’s becoming easier to dress local. The Toronto fashion industry is becoming more modern and sophisticated, so each season it’s fascinating to see what’s in store for local fashion, and how each of us can incorporate it into our personal style," says Thompson.
Greta Constantine designers Kirk Pickersgill and Stephen Wong think being based in Toronto (where their whole company, from workshop to studio to press, is located) gives them the fashion edge. As they explain: "Our client likes that it’s in Canada. It’s different. It’s not Europe, it’s not the U.S. But they envision us somewhere in between. So we’ve received really positive feedback." Greta Constantine is sold throughout the world (minus the States!) and is emerging as a fast-track favorite for fashionable ladies like Naomi Campbell, Victoria Beckham, Coco Rocha and more.
Perhaps Wong can accredit his success to his time at the Toronto Fashion Incubator. TFI is a nonprofit organization funded by the Toronto government to promote, mentor and space emerging fashion designers. Founded in 1987 (predating the similar CFDA of New York), the incubator offers its members discounted studios and workrooms in addition to invaluable access to people in the industry. These include lawyers, accountants, marketers and designers.
Susan Langdon, executive director of TFI, believes in these new designers as a representation of Toronto’s rich fashion history and future. "Historically, fashion has always been a significant industrial sector in the city, and has deep roots here going back to the late 1800s," she says. "Much like New York, there are generations of Torontonians who worked on Spadina, in the Garment District, and those individuals take a lot of pride in that. I believe that we still have the depth of talent, innovation and skills needed to make ’Made in Toronto’ or ’Made in Canada’ products competitive in the global market."
Take Me Down to the Paradise City
Style in Toronto isn’t limited to just clothes and accessories, however. It goes deeper than that. There’s something in the core of the city that is creative and rich, with a huge focus on the arts. Statues, monuments, murals and art installations inspire and provoke thought from citizens taking advantage of its beauty.
The local government has instituted a clever way of bringing more public art into people’s lives. "Anybody that builds in Toronto must donate one percent of their budget to community art projects," Judy Holland of Toronto Bus Company informs me on a rainy day tour through the Distillery District.
This is just one of the neighborhoods the Business Improvement Areas (BIA) have reclaimed in an effort to maintain Toronto’s historical architecture and communities while bringing them into the modern era. Cobblestone streets in the Distillery are lined with cute shops and waterfront property crafted from antique whiskey breweries. The whole thing feels right out of a postcard.
But all of Toronto does. As I’m walking through Cabbagetown and various other parts, I learn that each area is so well maintained because each has its very own BIA representing and preserving its integrity.
No wonder the different districts feel so distinct -- and clean. Toronto is a neat freak’s heaven, with no litter to be seen. But if it were, one of the many public service cleaning teams would be on it. This New Yorker is taken aback.
In addition to cleanliness, Canada is also known for hard winters. But fear not: Toronto has thought ahead and designed glass-enclosed walkways between many of the downtown buildings. There’s even an underground path connecting the entire business community, complete with shops, restaurants, hotels, banking and more. You no longer need to brave Old Man Winter if you don’t want to.
When you do make it outside, there are tons of public parks (with all that art) and free botanical gardens at your leisure. Museums also play a big part in the quality of life in Toronto. Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at Bata Shoe Museum (yes, there’s a whole museum devoted to shoes!), confesses: "I am perhaps biased, but having the largest shoe museum in North America is one of the perks of living in Toronto! There are also numerous other museums to enjoy, including the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Textile Museum of Canada, the Gardner Museum of Ceramics, the Design Exchange ... the list goes on and on."
I recommend Bata’s "Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture" exhibit, now through March 2014. It is a great visual history of the humble running shoe and its transformation into both casual must-have and street-style icon.
Next page for LGBT culture in Toronto and Resource Guide.
We Are Family
As an LGBT traveler, I am particularly impressed with the level of gay pride in Toronto. Canada is leaps ahead of the U.S. with the nationwide legalization of gay marriage in 2005, but Toronto lobbied and won the chance to host WorldPride 2014. It makes sense, since Toronto has the largest LGBT community in Canada, and WorldPride is like the gay Olympics.
There’s plenty to celebrate, too. Toronto has an established "gayborhood" at Church and Wellesley, with historical plaques and monuments weaving the city’s colorful tale of acceptance. Like other metropolitan areas, there are up-and-coming LGBT districts, such as artsy Queen Street West ("Queer West") and trendy Greektown, also known as the Danforth. Each neighborhood has its own unique mix of gay clubs, bars, restaurants, travel agencies, galleries and shops.
It’s all very welcome and open. The Church Wellesley Village BIA supports a community center - "the 519," as everyone calls it - on Church Street that is open to everyone to host meetings and support groups, and it even has a pretty sweet café.
The Pink Pages is Toronto’s premiere LGBT directory, and every season is published an additional, more editorial-driven publication reflecting the season. I arrive in time for the "Springplay!" edition launched at the Flying Beaver Pubaret, where the beer and wine are flowing, Toronto-based drag performer Roxy Plains is belting out the tunes, and Editor-in-Chief Jeff Harrison makes the rounds. The whole thing is a spectacle of perfect midday debauchery-lite. My impending dinner plans force me to leave the party before it can bump up to the next level.
If you’re looking for a bit more LGBT history, the Toronto AIDS Memorial at Cawthra Square offers a powerful reminder in a particularly beautiful semicircle formation. Each stone represents a year into which the names of community members lost that year are carved. Local architect Patrick Fahn won the competition to design the monument, and it is both eye-catching and intense. It is yet another reflection of Toronto’s pride and a humbling reminder of the city’s unique intersection of fashion, art, culture and acceptance.
When in Toronto, I stayed at the boutique Hotel Le Germain Toronto, right off Lake Ontario. If the views, modern amenities and gracious staff don’t convince you of its stellar reputation, the in-house restaurant, Victor Restaurant and Lounge, will. David Chrystian, recognized by Canada’s National Post as one of Toronto’s top 10 chefs, takes you on a tour for your taste buds with family-style dishes in the evening’s theme.
Of course, Toronto is home to many fantastic places to dine, including MoRoCo Chocolat, a chocolate lover’s heaven that includes a vast array of desserts to tempt you after a savory meal or high tea. For authentic French cuisine, stop by La Société for blueberry-and-ricotta pancakes at brunch or a croque monsieur anytime. Evenings at the Drake Hotel are a brilliant fusion of lavish meals, lush cocktails and dancing. Genius!
For general Toronto information: www.seetorontonow.com
For Church and Wellesley information: www.churchwellesleyvillage.ca
Hotel Le Germain Toronto
Its stellar reputation is well earned with stunning views, modern amenities and first-rate service. The in-house Victor Restaurant and Lounge is a must, with family-style dishes in the evening’s theme.
This minimalist and luxurious property in the heart of Toronto offers breathtaking views, full concierge services and an on-site health club. shangri-la.com/toronto/shangrila
This world-renowned property originated in Toronto. Located in the heart of the glitzy Yorkville neighborhood, you’re just minutes away from fine dining and the utmost in luxury shopping. fourseasons.com/toronto
Glitter and Be Gay
Local Flavor - Rac Boutique: Great local boutique featuring both Canadian and international contemporary designers.
Fine Vintage - The Cat’s Meow: High-end designer consignment and well-curated vintage for the discriminating customer.
Drunk on Style - GOTSTYLE Men’s Store: Great suiting and casual menswear located in an old whiskery distillery in the Distillery District.