A flair for fashion

New York designer Tanya Taylor is making waves in the fashion
industry for her playful, polished designs.
by Linda Sutherland

Her creations have been worn by Hollywood starlets Emma Roberts, Elizabeth Banks and Emmy Rossum, but fashion designer Tanya Taylor, BCom’07, says the biggest rush she experiences in her job comes well before a celebrity is spotted sporting one of her outfits.

“For me, the most exciting thing about being a fashion designer is being able to dream up new and sometimes wacky concepts and then finding a way to bring them to life,” says the bubbly 28-year-old New Yorker, recently selected as one of Forbes magazine’s Top 30 Under 30 up-and-comers in the world of art and style.

Taylor’s namesake label, launched a mere three years ago, features playful, polished pieces whose contemporary shapes are offset by distinctive colour combinations and whimsical embellishments.  “I want the clothing I design to be an artful combination of classic silhouettes and lighthearted femininity,” says Taylor. “My grandmother, my mother and my little cousin all wear my designs,” she adds proudly.

Taylor’s quirky yet sophisticated creations have garnered widespread praise, with fashion journalist Alison McLaughlin describing them as having a “maturity not often found in young designers. She takes obvious consideration of the needs of women at all stages of life and is able to sculpt her inspiration around that”.

Growing up in Toronto, Taylor was encouraged to explore her creative side at an early age. “My mother had a very demanding career, but was also very artistic. When she got home from work, we would all gather in the arts and crafts room and have fun painting and creating things,” she recalls.

Designing items for her clothing line continues to give Taylor an outlet for her artistic streak. Many of the fabrics she uses are based on images she has hand-painted, and recently she has taken an even more unusual approach to her designs, using Sharpie markers on leather and custom-making accessories from Mongolian sheep fur that she has dyed in florescent colours.

While she clearly thrives on her creative challenges, Taylor says that the business training she received at McGill has been invaluable. “Most days, about 80 per cent of my time is spent on business-related tasks, and the lessons I learned during my four years in finance have helped so much.”

These lessons stood Taylor in good stead when she undertook her most bold and rewarding venture to date: launching her 2013 collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art – something no designer had ever done. This involved getting sponsored by one of the museum’s major benefactors, and Taylor readily admits that the ‘elevator pitch’ skills she learned at McGill definitely paid off when she approached various companies, including JP Morgan, which agreed to sponsor her.

Not only was McGill where Taylor honed her business talents, it was also where she first got a taste for fashion design. Taylor got involved in a fashion show organized by the Desautels Faculty of Management to benefit AIDS charities. She decided that designing some outfits for the show might be fun. So she bought herself a sewing machine and taught herself how to put clothes together.

Her creative appetite was whetted, and during the summer following her third year, Taylor took an introductory design course at Central Saint Martins in London to see whether or not she wanted to pursue fashion as a career. It turns out she did. After completing her McGill degree, Taylor moved to New York to attend Parsons The New School of Design (Project Runway’s Tim Gunn once taught there).

“I was in a two-year applied program, and there was a cool mix of students, including a former opera singer and pre-med student. It was really exciting to see the diverse approaches they took to design,” says Taylor. After graduating from Parsons in 2009, she interned at a popular design firm; but soon she was itching to take a risk and set up her own business.

Choosing to set up shop in New York – the epicenter of fashion in North America – was a gutsy move, as was the decision to have all Tanya Taylor clothing manufactured in the U.S. “Although it felt challenging at first to be up against so much competition, it also made me focus on my design goals,” says Taylor.

While she is thrilled with the success her fashion line is achieving, Taylor also derives satisfaction from another – and very different – source: the Haiti Coffee Academy, which she recently established in partnership with the Clinton Foundation. Taylor and her husband recently visited the Coffee Academy’s rural roasting facility that supports up to 250 workers, teaches sustainable skills and helps with regional reforestation, through the sales of a special coffee blend. “Haiti used to be responsible for more than 50 per cent of the world’s coffee production, but now one rarely finds Haitian beans outside the country. This has been a really exciting venture to get involved with,” she says.