“Something Great Might Come Out Of The Ashes”: Hilary MacMillan On The End Of Toronto Fashion Week

“Rest in peace, right?” says Hilary, a rueful edge in her voice.

We’re sitting in her studio, located on the main floor of a large historic home in Toronto’s east end. The classic foyer, with its ancient hardwood floors and wood paneling, stands in direct contrast to the contemporary flair of MacMillan’s latest designs, displayed on racks to the left of the entrance. Bursts of pink in mixed fabrics brighten the space, and the tiny dog in MacMillan’s lap is panting delightedly. MacMillan herself is poised with the air of someone who’s trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Last month, Toronto Fashion Week made national headlines when organizers announced that, in the face of shrinking sponsorship, the event would be closing its doors. It was a shock for the fashion-lovers, certainly, but for even the designers directly involved, the news came as an unexpected blow. “I was kind of blindsided,” says MacMillan. “They had contacted me about a month ago and asked me what time slots I wanted.”

MacMillan, an emerging designer who recently transitioned to an entirely cruelty-free, animal-friendly line (MacMillan herself is vegan), is exactly the sort of designer who would traditionally benefit from Toronto Fashion Week. “It’s expensive putting on you own shows,” she says. “It costs a lot in terms of venue rentals, food, cocktails…” Toronto Fashion Week, on the other hand, was long seen as an opportunity for young designers in particular to present their work on the national stage with minimal risk and financial burden.

“I’m not happy about it,” MacMillan says of the cancellation. “I think it’s a big step back for us in terms of a global scale. I think having our own fashion week is really important for our success and now it’s like we’re all scrambling.” She does, though, recognize the possibilities in a changing model, however difficult the transition may be. In our evolving world of instant digital gratification, there’s an increasing tension amongst consumers who must wait several months after a fashion show to acquire the product. For this reason, MacMillan and her publicist are actively seeking out opportunities to show clothing in-season.

“I’ve read a lot of people [saying], ‘This is an exciting time, we’ll all come together as a community…’” And while that may take years to cultivate, MacMillan is hopeful. “Something great might come out of the ashes.”

Despite the setback, MacMillan is forging ahead. She received a pleasant surprise recently when Kim Cattrall dawned one of her blazers for a Canada AM interview. “I always am happy when someone could have worn anything and they chose to wear something that I’ve created,” she says. “That’s kind of a big moment, I think, for any designer. It’s exciting to see how they style it differently than you would have in a look book or on the runway. It’s a creative process to see how it unfolds.”

Given MacMillan’s steady success and the fact that she seems to have so uniquely honed her voice as a designer, I find myself questioning the term ’emerging’. When I ask whether she still identifies as such herself, she is adamant. “Yes,” she says, “100%. I think there’s different levels of emerging — you know, when you’re brand new, you’re emerging, but I don’t really think you’ve ’emerged’ until you’re a decade in and established. And even still, you might seem emerging. It’s kind of a slow grind, fashion. It’s definitely not for anyone who’s faint of heart.”

As for MacMillan’s upcoming line, she shares that it was inspired by swans. “I just fell in love with the look of them, the crisp white,” she says. “There’s a lot of white that kind of mimics the feathers of a swan.” She also promises lots of denim and screen-printing. Keeping with tradition, this season she has worked once again with her mother (a painter, with whom she shares the studio space), to develop a print for the line. “My mom is a perfectionist,” she says, “which can take a long time…but the product is always great.”

The animal inspiration seems like an appropriate direction for the vegetarian-turned vegan, who has taken to paying homage to animals—rather than using them—in her creations. Despite the limitations that one might expect of going completely leather and fur free, MacMillan is excited about some cutting-edge innovations coming down the pipeline.

“I’ve just discovered this leather made out of pineapple,” she says. “It’s environmentally friendly and they’re already farming the pineapple, so it’s just extra income for the farmers. And they make it into a leather. It biodegrades over time, so ten years from now, if you don’t want the jacket anymore, it won’t hurt the environment.” And there’s another process that recently came to her attention: leather made out of mushrooms. She’s admittedly more skeptical about that product. “I’m curious about what the texture would be,” she laughs.

You may no longer be able to see MacMillan’s work showcased at Toronto Fashion Week, but with her clear knack for innovation, no doubt the emerging designer will find new ways to showcase her work in a changing fashion landscape.

Meghan Greeley
Meghan Greeley is an actor and writer originally from Newfoundland. She has performed in films that have screened at festivals around the world, including Cannes, Karlovy Vary, the Utah Indie Film Festival, the Montreal World Film Festival, and the Toronto International Film Festival. As a writer, her works have been published in The Stockholm Review, Metatron, Riddlefence, Nelson Publications, and the Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Drama. She is a winner of the Magnetic North Theatre Festival’s Playwriting Contest and first place winner of the Sparks Literary Festival’s Poetry Competition. She currently resides in Toronto.