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  Fashion executive has designs for Canadian talent
Triumph over adversity: Robin Kay draws strength from her past
  Sharon Dunn,
National Post

[Photo: Glenn Lowson,
National Post]

Fashionable mission statement: As head of the Fashion Design Council of Canada, Robin Kay says: "Our role is to create a cohesive fashion industry in Canada."

Robin Kay, twice divorced, mother of three, has had a rough road to the top. "We [women] today are a culmination of what we have done," she tells me. "You don't become powerful in a single stroke. I attribute my success," she says, "to my history ... and my Robin Kay clothing company."

Ms. Kay, who operated her famous knitwear apparel stores from 1976 to 1999, says, "it was a very successful business, but a quarter of a century is enough to devote to any one project."

Before long, she is giving me the real facts. "What am I trying to hide," she asks, "The fact that my business was taken away from me. The stores that exist today are not mine -- I would like that known."

In her 24th year of business, she confides, she lost her company. "After my divorce, the stress of the business was great, so I took on a financial partner," she says, "and in 10 months I was out."

I can see she is still very hurt about this. "I would like to think that he [the former business partner] came in with good intentions," she tells me. "But now I don't even own my own name."

Ms. Kay says being served papers was her first inkling she was losing her business, but, "a year later something wonderful happened. A law firm [Lerner & Lerner] approached me, and wanted to take on the case pro bono."

And they did. "But after a year of legals, I chose to withdraw from the case," she says.

"Do you miss your name?'' I ask.

"I feel secure with who and what I am," she says, "I'm not troubled. I sleep well at night. If I didn't, I'd pursue it [the lawsuit]."

Shortly after she lost her business, things went from bad to worse for Ms. Kay. She found out she had breast cancer just one week after becoming voluntary chairwoman of the Fashion Design Council, in 2000.

"Because of the [upcoming] chemotherapy, radiation and surgery," she tells me, "I suggested to the board that I resign, but they talked me out of it."

Board members she credits with encouraging her to stay include Barbara Atkin, fashion director at Holt Renfrew; Eric Dingham, vice-president of Labatt's; and Suzanne Boyd of Flare magazine.

"I worked my way through that first year," the 52-year-old dynamo tells me, "and here I am."

Ms. Kay says it was while trekking in the Himalayas that it struck her this project was bigger than Robin Kay (the clothing company). "When I returned to Toronto, I made a proposal to the board to hire me and they did."

She went from volunteer to a paying position. "I wanted to devote all of my time to it," she says. "I raised sponsorship dollars to build the venue and market the product on behalf of the designers. And what is really interesting here is because I had a name that people recognized, they took my calls."

Now in the third year of her position as head of the Fashion Design Council of Canada, she tells me, "Today, my life is a continuum. Our mandate is to create a cohesive fashion industry in Canada. There is no reason for our country not to have the same opportunities in the apparel business as New York, London, Paris, Milan."

Her first aim, she tells me, is to develop Toronto's Fashion Week, held in March and September. "It's about the business of fashion, to help designers have a venue with buyers, plus media support.

"I'm very at home with this project," she says. "Designers trust me because I was a designer myself and I understand the difficulties. Being a designer is a gift, and I use that gift in a variety of ways."

One way she uses that "gift'' is in her home. Ms. Kay, who has just moved from Forest Hill farther into the downtown core, has a beautifully decorated pad -- modern yet homey. When the conversation turns to her private life, she complains: "Do you have to ask about children and my personal life?" She explains that the anonymity of her private life has left her free to be strong professionally.

"I have the best job in fashion in Canada," she concludes. "I feel very, very lucky. It's an opportunity to make a difference. The reason I am powerful is that I am able, today, to use all the struggles and triumphs of my previous career."

When I ask if she has ever been on a power list before, she tells me no.

When I ask if she was surprised she made this one she says, "No, because I am an effective communicator, and in selling a product I know it intimately. My job is fashion, and it's a game of connector dots: sponsors, media, designers."

If she has any regrets, she is not about to share them. "I had thought of a regret the other day," she says, "but now I can't remember what it is."

  Last update: May 6, 2009
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