Re-inventing Atlantic Fashion Week

Halifax’s annual celebration of fashion design returns, with a new focus on young talent.
When growing up in East Preston, Nicole Johnson used to play in her grandmother’s lingerie and pretend she was in fashion shows in Paris. “We took on accents and took on what we thought fashion was,” Johnson recalls.
These days, though, Johnson, who is a fashion-design student at the Centre for Arts and Technology on Barrington Street, is going to be part of the real deal. She along with other senior students will be showcasing their collections on September 27 at the Emerging Designers Showcase at Atlantic Fashion Week (AFW). While the Centre has helped with organizing AFW in previous years, this is the first year graduating fashion students will get to strut their stuff to a larger, fashion-conscious audience.
Johnson says she has a particular woman in mind for her designs. “My aim is to go after women of colour, women who have some curves, you know, some thickness in the right places. They shouldn’t be ashamed of that, but dress nicely and be confident.”

My aim is to go after women of colour, women who have some curves, you know, some thickness in the right places. They shouldn’t be ashamed of that, but dress nicely and be confident.
– Nicole Johnson

Taking part in Atlantic Fashion Week gives these young designers exposure they’d not get on their own. “It’s clearly, for us, a great launch pad,” says Michelle Kulyck, department head for the Fashion Design and Merchandising program at the Centre. “Halifax is pretty small, the fashion industry is pretty small, you get press, lots of press by participating. Halifax, unfortunately, doesn’t have a lot of events like this, so it’s really great to make the city aware there is fashion here.”
That press is due in large part to Angela Campagnoni, who’s been organizing Atlantic Fashion Week since the beginning. A former model, Campagnoni studied costume design and spent several years in the fashion industry in various roles. She thought Halifax deserved a fashion event, so she started AFW. Her goal was to create an event in which designers could collectively showcase their talents in a small city with an even smaller fashion industry.
“Basically, I wanted to take my sales background, design background and do something. But something different for the city,” she says. “There are only a few designers who could pull off their own show, not only financially, but with their size of their collections.”
Unlike fashion weeks in larger centres such as New York, the designers at AFW don’t have to pay a fee to take part. No one designer gets an exclusive event; they take part in collective shows, reducing costs. The show is funded by sponsorships and ticket sales.
“The fact that [Campagnoni] does it and doesn’t charge is amazing” Kulyk says. “For these guys the working behind the scenes is really interesting to see how a fashion show is put on and understand what it means to be dressers, to participate in the organizing of it and to get to do that all on someone else’s dime is pretty sweet.”
Organizing the show as a collective, however, has its perks for the attitude of the show. “You get a real family mentality,” Campagnoni says. “It’s rare to get 10 designers together and they don’t want to kill each other.”
Organizing the event is a lot of work throughout the year, but with several seasons under her belt, plus support from sponsors and the local industry, Campagnoni says she is much more laid back this season than others. The effort, she says, has paid off for designers and local fashionistas. “[The show] has really proven itself,” she says, “where in the past people would say, ‘Oh, is anyone going to show up?’” She adds that AFW has garnered press from Flare and fashion industries elsewhere. “I really feel since fashion week started there has been more talk of fashion here. Everyone who jumped on see the benefit,” she says. “This is the fashion component to the art community.”
A new date is not the only change for this year’s show. There are new venues, new designers, all of which Campagnoni says add to the excitement. “I think that’s really the key to an event; not to get stale,” she says. “You want them to enjoy the night and not be comparing it to the previous year.”
Still, the designers she sees learn the trade in this city and often make their way to bigger markets in Toronto. It’s a bittersweet process for Campagnoni. “You love to see them go off because you know they will be very successful,” she says. “I would love to see it get to the point where our designers are more self-sufficient in terms of boutiques and having them show their work,” she says, adding that some local stores, notably Biscuit and J&R Grimsmo, support Canadian fashion talent.
Kulyk agrees. “In North America in general there has been a really easy switch to fast fashion global sourcing, which has killed manufacturing across North America. Nova Scotia used to have a garment industry. There is no government will to put support into manufacturing right now.”
While Johnson has plans to pursue her fashion career beyond Halifax, for now, she is excited to share her collection at AFW. “My peers have worked hard,” she says. “There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears. The workmanship each of us put in is worth the viewing. Halifax has something to offer in terms of creativity and production. [The show] will be the place to be.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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