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In the beginning, Natalie Gangbar and Heather Winslade fought the stereotypical "it must be an import to be good" attitude. People thought they were crazy to represent Canadian clothing designers and brushed off their chances of success.

Six years later, Gangbar and Winslade can laugh back. They own an island together, they represent ten top Canadian designers and each year they boast over $2 million in sales.

"People were skeptical initially, since the designers we represent were not well known", says Winslade, "but we proved that we could reach and maintain a high volume of sales, especially during the recession when fashion was not doing as well."

Gangbar and Winslade's introduction could have been lifted from a movie script: six years ago, in a New York lower east bar, they struck up a conversation. Natalie was 23, a Ryerson Polytechnical fashion grad who had held management positions with Capezio and Comrags, and Heather, 29, was a Queen's University English grad, just home from six years in Europe and the south Pacific where she worked in promotions and public relations.

They discussed their favourite subject, fashion, and agreed that Canadian designers had potential, but that success for them meant aggressive marketing and getting their designs to customers.

Gangbar, the sales expert, and Winslade, the PR and writing specialist, realized their alchemy was a winner, the market ripe, and they returned to Toronto to whip up new business plans--Gangbar to switch jobs and Winslade to enter a new career, promoting designers door to door, the old fashioned way.

"There are no other designer representatives who have focused in on one particular area, such as young Canadian designers," says Ruth Ann Lockhart, Holt Renfrew's casual sportswear buyer. "By being focused and specialized, Gangbar and Winslade have maintained a unique position in the marketplace."

Most of the lines Gangbar and Winslade began with, in l987, they still sell today: the soft retro style of Comrags's Joyce Gunhouse and Judy Cornish expressed this year by long flared dresses and laced jackets with granny packs; the radical designs of Loucas Kleanthous as demonstrated by paneled vests and woollen pant suits; the gentle more contemporary fashions of Zapata's Nancy Young and Karen Gable who have a penchant for contoured necklines and geometrics.

Any of these lines may be seen across Canada in stores such as Holt Renfrew, Eaton's, the Bay, Mendicino and Stonework--places which rarely saw Canadian designers before.

"The collections carry a leading edge philosophy or attitude," say Gangbar and Winslade. "People used to think the clothes were weird, but ideas have filtered in from Europe, and people now see these lines as fashionable."

Gangbar and Winslade's philosophy is as unconventional as the way they met. While most people are in the fashion businessbecause of its vanity factor, this pair loves their work because of its high energy, non-static nature, where one always travels and meets different people.

"Fashion can be very intellectual as it's interconnected with design on more than one level," says Winslade, "And it's related to feminism--the beauty myth--not the airy-fairy sense of fashion. It plays a significant role in society, such as allowing women to choose how they look in business."

Natalie travels out west about five times per year and Heather travels east to New York. They're renown in the fashion world where they've been featured in Flare and Chatelaine magazines and have consulted for television shows such as CTV's Material World. Liberty, a 250 year old store in the U.K., has flown them and their young designers in for a major fashion show.

The pair has fought hard not only to keep Canadian designers in the forefront of fashion, but also to maintain afloat themselves. Their secret to success is simple but multifold: they collaborate and interchange roles when necessary, keep up to date via elite fashion publications such as Tobe, personally visit stores to get a feel for the atmosphere and clientele, and hold a strong belief that what they have is valuable.

Success has taken them from a 400 square foot studio on Adelaide and Spadina to a 2000 square foot split studio nearby. While they try to maintain their present lines, the fashion reps occasionally take on new designers who have been selling for a couple of seasons. The sales are on a commission basis, so the risk must be a worthy one.

"If designers meet our criteria, then we'll see them," says Gangbar. "But we have to be careful the collections don't compete in style, price, or age grouping with what we already have."

Diversity lies in the future. Susie Tompkins and Teenflo are two foreign designers that Gangbar and Winslade have brought on to widen their range of prominent contemporary designers, and different dimensions such as footwear and accessories are also on the agenda.

But don't expect to find Gangbar and Winslade sitting in their showroom, waiting as buyers and designers flock in to see them. The pair may be just around the corner, selling ribbons for World's AIDS Day or clad in jeans selling t-shirts at a glitzy Fashion Cares event.

Because, to them, fashion means more than just good looks.