Montreal’s Cartel Aims a Kick at Fast Fashion

With products designed in Montreal and made with care in North America, Cartel targets the quality-focused segment of the women’s footwear

When Davis Guay and Nial Neven founded Cartel Footwear last year, the goal was to create an alternative to mega-brands like Montreal’s Aldo Group, where Guay previously worked. Today the boutique-sized brand just launched its fall/winter 2016 collection, their third, and it’s been received with the same success that has propelled their carefully crafted goods onto shop shelves all over Canada. We asked Guay, Cartel’s creative director, to share some of the secrets to its success.

Q: What inspired the launch of Cartel?

A: I was at Aldo Group for a few years, where I did some buying and some product development, and eventually I felt that something a bit more “me” should be in my future. I’m not necessarily the most corporate character in the world. I was presented with an opportunity to branch out and do my own thing, and I took it.

What are some of the brand’s guiding principles?

One is that it’s not a brand that’s super interested in chasing the trends. When you work for a fast fashion company, they want to be selling what’s of the moment right then, regardless of what it looks like, regardless of the brand identity. I wanted to do something that has a very strong brand identity. So I created something small, compact, tight – from season to season you’re not getting a huge shift in what the brand looks like. That, and it’s all leather products – we’re doing leather soles, leather uppers, leather lining. For us the focus is very much materials- and construction-based.

How do you position Cartel in an industry dominated by huge names?

Our client base and the message we’re trying to project are a smaller, more relatable, maybe a little bit more human. Luckily that puts Cartel in a position where we’re not directly competing with any of those fashion giants. The Aldos and the H&Ms and the Zaras, they can all compete with each other, and we’re happy to be batch-based.

What inspired you to create collections based on seasons, like in the fashion world, rather than have a growing base of recurring models?

There are certain patterns that we do bring back into rotation, maybe with slight twists or modifications. With a lot of companies, recurring models will be based on the sales of the seasons previous, where they’ll keep making what’s selling well. For us, when I design a collection I like to go from scratch and keep it a little bit fresh. For me the second you stop innovating, you stop developing as a brand as much as you could be. I’ll design something like 200 boots per season, and we’ll produce maybe 30 models. Working this way keeps my juices flowing and it keeps the customer interested.

What are some of the design details of the current collection?

What you’re going to see is a bit of python snake print – that was a detail we were really excited about. It’s hard to find that perfect print that’s not too flashy or gaudy. There’s some studding; we’re incorporating a bit more hardware into the collection moving forward, just to give it a bit more of a rock ’n’ roll edge.

How has the brand evolved over its three seasons so far? Are there lessons that you’ve learned?

Every day! Basically it’s evolved faster than we expected. We received a lot of attention and a lot of positivity from everybody, and the hardest thing for us has been deciding what not to do. You’re presented with so many options when you have a bit of traction, and you have to filter through them and decide what’s worth exploring. For example, as far as markets go, right now we’re in the Canadian market and we’ve had good success, and we were presented with a few other markets to open, one of which was Japan. We decided that that would probably be the most interesting market for us at this time because they’re very strict about their details and quality in Japan, and if we pass that test, then we know we’re ready for the rest of the world.


Does being located in Montreal add a particular flavour to your brand?

It adds a lot to our brand. Not just accessibility to retailers and a good positioning in Canada’s fashion industry, but also on a more personal, I live in St-Henri, and it’s a very interesting place right now. I draw a lot of inspiration from just sitting on the street corner.

Montreal’s Cartel Aims a Kick at Fast Fashion
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