‘The Sophie Effect’ on Canada’s fashion industry

Justin Trudeau has been enjoying still rising his popularity since he took office as Canada’s Liberal prime minister 10 months ago. Equally popular is his charming wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, former television personality, journalist, activist working for various causes, and 41-year-old mother of three.

Soon after she became the Canadian prime minister’s wife, the term “Sophie effect” has been the talk of the town. Wherever she goes she always draws lot of Canadian media’s attention to what she wears – which Canadian designers’ clothes, shoes and bags. She has said in public that she wants to play roles to promote Canadian designers on the world stage when she accompanies her prime minister husband on foreign trips. And her efforts are already generating great impacts. The Canadian fashion industry and media are calling it “the Sophie effect.”

A photo of Sophie Gregoire in a white coat, waving to supporters along the Ottawa street, while walking with her husband to Rideau Hall for the government’s swearing–in ceremony last November caught almost all Canadians’ eyes. Many people of the world saw the same scene as news media carried it across the world on front pages or in video feeds.

The white coat she wore was an elegant baby alpaca coat made by Sentaler, a luxury outerwear company founded in Toronto in 2009. “The effect on the brand was immediate…. From being a relatively unknown brand sold at Holt Renfrew, Sentaler was the Canadian fashion label that suddenly everyone was talking about. And wanting.” (Globe and Mail, July 14) The white coat, later dubbed “Sophie Gregoire white coat” increased in sales by 400%, according to Bojana Sentaler, the designer and creative director of Sentaler, 31-year-old Belgrade native. The Sophie effect only increased after Sophiie Gregoire again wore Sentaler at four other high-profile outings, including a meeting with the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

Her efforts at the cause to raise the international recognition of Canadian fashion brands seem to have won broad-ranging and enthusiastic support. The Toronto Star (July 26) said “Sophie Gregoire Trudeau has achieved ‘fashion icon’ status during her ascent into the spotlight, and has many applauding her for wearing Canadian designers,” while the National Post (May 27) quoted Elle AyoubZadeh, owner of the Toronto shoe line Zvelle, as praising her as “Sophie is Canada’s style icon.”

When it was widely reported that many of what Sophie Gregoire wore to showcase Canadian design during her overseas trips were the designers’ gifts and loans, one activist group “Democracy Watch” criticized her for accepting fashion gifts and loans, instead of buying them. It soon became a dead issue, however, as most Canadians rallied behind her as those items fall within Canadian conflict of interest guidelines.

There is a whole list of examples of “the Sophie effect.” One of the most important, big occasions was during the Trudeaus’ state visit to Washington in March at President Barack Obama’s official invitation. Canadian and U.S. media played up pictures of Sophie Gregoire being meticulously styles head-to-toe in Canadian designers at the airport, the welcoming ceremony and the White House state dinner – which were viewed by audiences not only in the two countries but throughout the world, including Japan.

Among those Canadian designs were: a gray two-piece DUY suit by Montreal-based Vietnamese-Canadian designer Duy Nguen, worn upon her arrival at Andrews Air Force Base; a Lucian Matis dress at the arrival ceremony at the White House and a gown also by Lucian Matis, Romanian immigrant-turned Torontonian designer, at the state dinner; and a Toronto designer Ellie Mae’s botanical pattern jacket, to name just a few. In addition, shoes, bags, earrings and rings and other accessories – all by Canadian up-and-coming designers, many of them obscure, little-known brands outside Canada.

When Prime Minister Trudeau and his wife visited Tokyo and Ise on their first official visit to Japan for the G7 Ise-Shima summit in May, Japanese media literally followed them wherever they went, especially reporting about fashions Sophie Gregoire were wearing. There has been great public interest in her outfits in Tokyo, an epicenter for fashion and a vital market for up-and-coming Canadian designers, according to Montrealer Jessica Mulroney, Sophie Gregoire’s friend and stylist.

The “Sophie effect” was felt back in Canada as soon as Sophie Gregoire stepped off the plane at Haneda airport. Within 24 hours, there were growing inquiries about the bag she was wearing on the red carpet at the airport alongside her husband – Montreal luxury bag brand WANT Les Essentials (Incidentally, popularity of the brand has been rising in Japan, too.) When Sophie Gregoire joined Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie at a cocktail event in Kashikojima, the venue of the G7 summit, her metallic gold shoes made quite an impression. Within hours, the Canadian-designed high heels the “Ava” of the Zelle brand had a lengthy pre-order list, according to the National Post (May 27). Sophie Gregoire wore the Zelle heels when she was pictured chatting with the Empress at the Imperial Palace earlier in the week.

These images easily spread through social media and digital media nowadays as people tweet and put them on their Facebook accounts or via smartphones even if traditional news media should fail to publish. And when people access these Canadian fashion designers’ web sites, pictures of Sophie Gregoire donning their clothes or accessories pop up on the top pages of their web sites.

Dr. Ben Barry, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Fashion in Toronto, praises Sophie Gregoire’s roles highly, saying that her support is enormously important to a designer’s brand recognition. He told the National Post (May 27) that many Canadian fashion designers are enjoying the hard-to-get exposure she is giving them by wearing their designs on her trips abroad. A lot of emerging Canadian fashion designers are small businesses relative to their U.S. and British counterparts, and are working with small marketing budgets, Barry said.

Interesting to note is that, in addition to “putting Canadian designers on the map,” as Barry pointed out to the National Post, Sophie Gregoier’s style choices are “just as political as they are fashionable.” “It’s important to look at who she is wearing, and the fact that she’s selected brands that are from emerging Canadian designers, Canadian designers that are very multicultural and designers that weren’t born to Canada but immigrated … that sends a very strong message internationally.” The white Sentaler coat Sophie Gregoire wore for the Trudeau Cabinet’s swearing-in ceremony, for example, met many of these criteria, and in addition to the creator of the coat, Ms. Sentaler, being an emerging Belgrade-immigrant Torontonian designer, the alpaca coat is “hypoallergenic, eco-friendly and animal-friendly” – some of the values the modern Canadian society attaches importance – according to Ms. Sentaler who spoke to the Globe and Mail (July 14). The cruelty-free shearing of the alpaca is guaranteed by the Peruvian government, she said.

“These clothes promote ideas of who is Canadian, what it means to be Canadian, and the values that Canada represents,” Jessica Mulroney says. As the “Sophie effect” is being talked about, her roles as Sophie Gregoire’s style adviser, advising her on what to wear as the Sophie effect creator, have drawn attention of more Canadians. But she has said that she doesn’t tell Sophie Gregoire what to wear. “I’m not Sophie’s stylist but we’re working together to make sure that we can represent Canadian designers so that everybody gets a chance. (I’m) A fashion strategist, maybe.” (Globe and Mail, March 1)

By Yoshikazu Ishizuka, Senior Consultant, TOCS

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