Debbie Zakaib: An industry’s voice

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Debbie Zakaib has a mission: remake Montreal as the world’s fashion capital. An interview with an industry leader and disruptor.  

Many questions swirl around your head when you’re about to interview Quebec’s fashion queen, but first and foremost among them is: What am I going to wear!? After having tried—and decided against—everything in my closet, I opted for a LBD (little black dress), hoping to emphasize subtlety.

In hindsight however, I had to laugh at myself. In reality, the General Director of mmode la grappe métropolitaine de la mode couldn’t be more diplomatic.

Authenticity is key 

When she took up her position in January 2016, Debbie Zakaib deliberated as to what defined Montreal as Quebec’s fashion headquarters. She and her team launched a brand image project in order to help their beloved city find its unique signature. 

After focus groups with fellow citizens, she discovered some recurring themes: authenticity, a zest for life, and celebration. “It’s not so much about Montreal having one style as it is everyone having their own individual style. That freedom of self-expression is really our strength,” explains Zakaib. “Montrealers are creative, are inspired by creative events, festivals, and cultural diversity.”

Zakaib has been intrigued by this very question for some time: her Masters thesis even studied the notoriety of Quebecois fashion designers. After having completed her education, she worked for cosmetics multinationals, all while organizing fundraising events for the Foundation of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Some may even know her from her days as a Radio-Canada television on-air personality, or through her blog on the Clin d’œil website.

Mmode’s Director (for nearly two years now) is enamoured by all that is creative: contemporary art, architecture, gourmet foods, design, and of course, fashion. Montreal businessman and Zakaib’s partner, Alexandre Taillefer, very nearly matches her love of their hometown.

This industry cluster incorporates every industry sector: clothing, footwear, fur, denim, textiles, and welcomes large and small companies alike, from multinationals like Aldo and La Vie en Rose, to lesser-known boutique brands and creators. “The entire fashion ecosystem is united here: manufacturers, retailers, wholesalers, the government, agencies, sectorial associations, producers, event organizers, and so on,” Zakaib lists. “The goal is to help everyone work together to find solutions for the industry as a whole.”

Despite the wide range of interests represented—or perhaps because of it—the arrangement seems to be working. “After our meetings, people don’t just get up and leave, they hang back to talk, exchange business cards, and so on,” Montreal’s grand dame of fashion explains.

Numerous challenges

Yet the image of Montreal as a fashion city has suffered in recent years. The media has in part, pushed this impression, with stories highlighting big names closing their doors, and allusions to an industry that’s lost its momentum. How does the mmode Director plan on combatting the notion that the industry has lost its glamour?

“The businesses that closed didn’t succeed in adjusting to the digital era, or didn’t have a next-generation to generate ideas. Those that have succeeded are strong and internationally developed. While others seem to be focusing on the negative, there are a lot of positive stories we’re not hearing about—it’s our organization’s role to get those stories out.”

Zakaib and her organization have four defined priority areas: workforce training and retention, industry image and outreach, export (primarily to the United States) and innovation. In reference to innovation, the mmode Director believes that identifying talent within teaching and educational institutions is key, and that digital and technological advances now-inherent to all the industry’s production stages, need to be incorporated into programs that are training the new generation. “From machinery to stock level management, transport and logistics, costing and marketing, right down to shipping management, customs and taxes, and merchandise returns.”

According to CEFRIO (Centre facilitating research and innovation in organizations with information and communication technology), only 14% of Quebec fashion businesses have a transactional website. “Transactional websites have been around for as long as social media has,” warns Zakaib.

A positive note

Digital streams and social networks are bringing businesses closer to their consumers—whether they’re in their own backyards or anywhere across the globe. “Data management, analysis and compilation are creating new industry trends, like custom fitting. There’s a group of new companies that are featuring these new business models, and have new ways of communicating to and offering clients their products,” she enthuses.

Zakaib offers this example: retail is now reinventing itself by way of virtual reality change room mirrors that give online customers an idea of how clothes will fit. “It’s happening in Quebec as we speak,” she says. “We need to support these companies’ efforts and help them develop to their full potential and fine-tune their expertise. We need to inspire the next generation to want to stay here.”

It would appear that Quebec’s fashion industry, just like its Director and grand dame, still have a lot to say.


Text: Marilyse Hamelin

Photo: Jocelyn Michel, Consulat


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