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Iris Simpson – Business Class

The trailblazing luxury buyer reflects on her fashion career and the industry's lack of diversity.

The trailblazing luxury buyer reflects on her fashion career and the industry’s lack of diversity

NameIris Karen SimpsonBirthSeptember 7BirthplaceClarendon, JamaicaEthnic OriginJamaicanOccupationsBuyer, Stylist, Instructor, Co-founder Hello, COUTURE! DesignWebsitehellocouturedesign.comShare

Few people in the fashion industry possess the professional credentials and social network of contacts that Iris Simpson has amassed over her four decades in the business. She’s emerged as an astute merchant and advocate for social justice and Black inclusivity.

Simpson credits her mother, Vashti, a dressmaker, who taught all her daughters to sew and imparted to Iris a love of fashion. She could cut freehand without a pattern and made all of Iris’s clothes, including matching outfits for her dolls at the same time.

Early Life and Career

Born in Clarendon, Jamaica, Simpson was the youngest of eight children to parents, Arthur and Vashti Simpson. In 1958, the family emigrated to Toronto, Canada. She was educated at Monarch Park Secondary School and then at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute (now Toronto Metropolitan University), where she graduated in 1978 with a diploma in Fashion Merchandising. While pursuing her diploma at Ryerson, Simpson worked simultaneously at Eaton’s department store as a part-time sales associate.

For Simpson, Eaton’s management trainee program was where it all began. It’s where she developed from a part-time sales associate at the Attitude Shop, which showcased all the hip  young designer collections, to manager of the designer department, Signature Shop, home to established Canadian and international designer labels.

Nella Walker is a creative and design director who, in the mid-80s, was also in Eaton’s management trainee program when she met Simpson,  a manager at the time. According to Walker, “Iris shared her skills, knowledge and expertise in an energetic and welcoming manner. Even in these early days, Iris was a talented merchant, marketer, networker and educator. Our professional relationship soon evolved into a lifelong friendship.” Professional relationships that became lifelong friendships is a recurring theme with Simpson.

Business of Luxury Fashion

Simpson’s career as a buyer was about to ignite.  She says, “In 1981, I met Krystyne Griffin, who was head of the Eaton’s Paris buying office. When she resigned to take over the rebranding of Hazelton Lanes into an exclusive designer retail destination, she coaxed me with a great opportunity to come with her to Hazelton Lanes, where Yves Saint Laurent was opening their first standalone boutique in Canada.”

The Canadian fashion icon, Krystyne Griffin, recalls the beginning of their more than 40-year relationship as colleagues and friends. “She came to my office in the late 70s. Iris, beautiful, young and Black, was a vibrant and accomplished young woman at 25 years old, and I felt immediately that she should join our team at Hazelton Lanes,” says Griffin. “We were creating a specialty small shopping centre, where only international destination boutiques — YSL’s Rive Gauche, Hermès, Guy Laroche, Courrèges, Armani — were being assembled.”

In Simpson’s eyes, this was the gateway to high-end Toronto fashion on an international level. In its time, Hazelton Lanes — now Yorkville Village — attracted the top fashion aficionados of the city, with society women flocking to new designer stores, according to Simpson. “How exciting for me, especially as a young Black woman,” she says. “My aesthetic grew, we had all kinds of special events, lunches and fashion shows.”

Simpson’s success owed as much to her business acumen as to her refined sense of style. According to Griffin, “Iris was not only a ‘fashion’ personality, she was a business executive. She travelled internationally to buy the fashion collections. And I was witness to her abilities, as were many VIPs both in Europe, and the U.S. They were impressed by Iris; She was capable, firm, yet courteous to all. A winner!”

Griffin, who has an esteemed history and vast connections in the fashion industry, pays Simpson an exceptional compliment. “I will always be grateful to have worked with Iris Simpson,” she says. “It is on the shoulders of persons like Iris that I made my own successful career in fashion.”

 

 

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When a client asked to speak to the buyer, the sales associates pointed to Iris as the buyer. The woman kept looking around saying “Where?” The sales person pointed again, “She’s right over there.” The woman then replied, “No, I want to speak to the buyer.”

It was obvious that because of her preconceived ideas, this client would not believe that Iris, a Black woman, was the buyer of expensive designer collections.

Iris poses from the black leasther couch at a YSL store in Hazelton Lanes Shopping Centre
Iris poses at the YSL store in Hazelton Lanes Shopping Centre in Toronto [1986]

Breaking Barriers

After two years at YSL, in 1984, Simpson went to work as a buyer at Creeds, an upscale destination known then as ‘Toronto’s Bergdorf Goodman’ for a year and a half. Three months after her first day, Simpson was flying to Paris and London, working with buyers and luxury fashion brands and building her ever-growing career across the border.

One particular experience stands out while at Creeds. When a client asked to speak to the buyer, the sales associate pointed to Iris as the buyer. The woman kept looking around saying, “Where.” Iris knew that as a Black woman she did stand out. The sales person pointed again, “She’s right over there.” The woman then replied, “No, I want to speak to the buyer.” It was obvious that because of her preconceived ideas, this client would not believe that Iris, a Black woman, was the buyer of expensive designer collections.  

Simpson says that aside from that experience and a few others, she encountered much kindness in the industry, for which she has always been very thankful.

Looking back, Simpson says that the buying industry has shifted into something different. “There aren’t these little independent boutiques that go off to Europe to buy coveted pieces, the way I was exposed to a lot of small boutiques.”

Simpson elaborates, “Now you’ve got to buy huge minimums, and most of the buyers deal with planners that set the amounts and dollars. You’re buying capsule collections that are predetermined. You don’t get to pick and choose the way I did. Now in 2021, buyers deal with chains, rather than boutiques, in major fashion cities. With chains, buyers are working with a lot more numbers and logistics and the system isn’t as individualized or personalized.”

Simpson adds candidly, “You have to realize back then, and even today, being a buyer for international designers was a very coveted position. It wasn’t a position that came up often, especially for a Black person.”

Iris Simpson is seen in a photograph of YSL's street style from Paris Fashion Week [1986]
Iris Simpson is seen in a photograph of YSL's street style from Paris Fashion Week [1986]

Her next career move brought her to Holt Renfrew, where she had the opportunity to further expand her buying experience with many more top designer collections. One of her proudest moments was buying the collection of Patrick Kelly, the celebrated Black American designer. Simpson is extremely grateful for all the amazing opportunities she was given.

Influence and Legacy

After giving birth to her son Tareke in 1991, Simpson felt that the extensive travelling required of a buyer would take time away from him, so she ended up reinventing herself as a stylist. This career happened somewhat out of the blue for Simpson, but for the people around her it was simply another of her natural talents.

Vangie Sipidias, another former Eaton’s colleague, approached Simpson to fill in at the last minute for a styling job. Her colleague thought, “Who’s going to do it?” she says, recalling the former coworker’s words. “‘I’m going to call Iris’ she said.”

In Simpson’s eyes, she was a ladieswear buyer and retailer, but in her former coworker’s eyes, Simpson was a multifaceted talent who had the knowledge and style to put the ensembles together. She packed her tape measure, safety pins and a lint brush and made her way to the location.

This was the start of her styling career, which has been going strong since 1992. She found herself travelling to many southern destinations in October to shoot spring and summer collections, and working with different studios. Simpson is still working as a stylist, always busy and on the move

Hello, COUTURE! was launched in 2018 with Mary Jo Appugliesi (aka MJ), her schoolmate from her Ryerson days. Says Simpson, “We always wanted to do something based on sustainability and  decided to work with recycled denim and vintage fabrics to create up-cycled fashions and accessories.” During COVID they added home decor items and also segued into producing fashion masks.

Iris poses with business partner MJ Appugliesi
Iris poses with business partner MJ Appugliesi

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