Oscar de la Renta spent Tuesday in Toronto, showcasing his latest collection and greeting fans. But it wasn't the Canadian fashion scene that drew the top designer to our city.

Instead, it was a children's fundraiser and a personal relationship with one of Toronto's most fashionable socialites that brought de la Renta to the city for the first time in more than 10 years.

Although de la Renta made an appearance at the exclusive retailer Holt Renfrew for a private party and trunk show Tuesday, the celebrity couturist was primarily here for a sold-out fundraiser in honour of the Hospital for Sick Children and its Healthy Kids International initiative.

"Mr. de la Renta's acceptance of my invitation to attend this fundraising event personally is a clear demonstration of his generosity of spirit and his commitment to children's charities," said Suzanne Rogers, the organizer of the fundraiser said in a news release.

"Canadians love fashion and my vision is to bring world-class talent to Canada for fundraising events, with the goal of improving the lives of children," she said.

But Robin Kay, president of the Fashion Design Council of Canada, says Canada's love affair with fashion is more a myth than fact.

The world's top fashion icons don't come here often because quite frankly, we're not big fashion consumers, she said.

Big names, small market

"Canada is a small market -- probably the smallest fashion market in the world," she said in an interview. "We're not big consumers of fashion and certainly not high fashion. We're just not part of the purchasing landscape.

"The more we create designer awareness in our market, and in the U.S. and in Europe, then that will grow," she added.

Holt Renfew has done its best to make Canadians more fashion conscious by bringing in the world's most popular designers into their stores and their prêt-a-porter collections onto their shelves.

In the last few years, Holts has hosted the likes of Michael Kors, Dean and Dan Caten, David Yurman, Dylan Lauren, Angela Missoni and Sienna and Savannah Miller for small, private events at their stores across Canada.

They have also tried to appeal to younger fashionistas by bringing in collections by Lauren Conrad, Nicole Richie and Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen.

Celebrity designers come to Holts because their stores are world renowned for offering their customers a strong selection of high-end designers from around the world, said Barbara Atkin, Holt Renfrew's vice-president of fashion direction.

"These customer experiences often vary and we are always striving to keep them exciting and unique," she said.

Fashion's celebrity status

Canada's fashion scene has made strides over the last decade, with the help of LG Fashion Week, reality shows like Project Runway Canada and the support of exclusive retailers like Holt Renfrew.

However, the world's most revered designers -- Chanel, Armani, Dior, Galliano, to name just a few -- have been noticeably absent from the Toronto runways.

In all fairness, big fashion houses rarely launch collections outside their home country, though they will often do second showings of their lines at elite fashion week events in New York, Paris, London and Milan.

"Designers might come here for a trunk show if they are on their way to New York or L.A. but is Canada their destination? Probably not," explained Robert Ott, chair of Ryerson University's School of Fashion.

For the last 11 years, Kay has been trying to make Canada a fashion destination with LG Fashion Week, where she serves as the executive director.

It is not uncommon for lesser known fashion designers from Europe and the U.S. to come to fashion week events in Toronto in hopes of drawing the interest of high-end retailers such as Holt Renfrew.

And Toronto's fashion week has also had its moments in the celebrity spotlight. The Missoni design house showed support for Toronto in 2004 after the SARS crisis by taking part in fashion week events here rather than at the more elite runway shows in New York City.

And Dean and Dan Caten, the Canadian designers behind the wildly successful high-end Dsquared2 fashion brand, made it back to Toronto for fashion week once.

The Toronto-born twins moved to Italy in 1991 and since then, have been showcasing their high-end fashion label at the prestigious fashion week held in Milan twice a year.

"It's easier to break into the sector when you're at the right place, at the right time, and in the right environment -- one that is fashion conscious and where celebrities already hang out," said Ott.

Kay agrees, saying the twins would likely not have experienced the same success had they stayed in Canada.

"They went to Italy and got great backing, great curb appeal in the celebrity world -- that's a big factor, celebrity appeal," Kay said. "They wouldn't have made it big if they stayed here."

Bringing them to Toronto for fashion week was a great experience, but one Kay says she's not sure if she's ready to repeat.

"It was very costly to bring them and their entourage for a fashion show that needed to be done exactly the way they wanted it," she said.

Lacking financial support

The high cost of fashion and the low financial support from Ontario's provincial government is one of the reasons Canada's fashion scene has suffered.

"Fashion could be considered to fall under the ministry of culture, which allows film makers and artists to apply for grants and opportunities, but fashion is excluded from that," Ott said.

He pointed to Quebec's fashion industry as an example of success with sound financial backing.

"(The Quebec) government is very supportive of that industry, it understands fashion's contribution to the GDP, the jobs it creates in the province," he said. "It's ironic that Ontario wants to position itself as creative economy when it's not all encompassing."

Most funding for Toronto designers come from the municipality while other funding comes from within the fashion industry, he added.

Ott pointed to Canada's murky sense of identity as another factor hampering fashion designers.

He said Canadian designers need to embrace opportunities to be innovative and excel at something that hasn't been done before.

"We should be the kings and queens of cold-weather clothing," he said. "We have to become innovative. Functional doesn't mean it has to be boring. It can be extremely exciting and we have an opportunity here to make a difference.

"I don't know if there is a lot of room to make a more beautiful evening gown or sexier bikini," he continued to say. "There are a lot of players in those arenas."

Doing our part

There are some Canadian designers -- Pink Tartan, Joe Fresh and Rudsak to name a few -- who have managed to break from the pack and become wildly popular among local fashionistas

LG Fashion Week champions these designers each year by making them headliners at the events that are always a huge media draw.

"That's what we're trying to build with fashion week – more of a world-wide awareness for our brand," said Kay.

At Holt Renfrew, showcasing the best of Canada's fashion talent is also a priority.

"We have some incredible design talent in this country, some of whose lines we are proud to offer at Holt Renfrew," said Atkin. "These designers should sit side-by-side with better-known names around the world."

In this way, Holts has helped put Canadian designers on the international fashion industry's radar, she said.

"By buying the best of Canadian fashions, not because it's Canadian but because it sits side by side with the best designers in the world, people that travel here and visit our stores have the opportunity to experience these amazing designers," she said.

Kay says the best tool Canada's fashion designers have at their feet is technology.

LG Fashion Week has started using the internet and social media to help raise brand awareness.

Runway shows are now regularly streamed live on the web, which has proved to be a cost-effective way for lesser-known designers to gain visibility in the industry.

"Designers can't make money if they don't sell clothes and they can't sell clothes if they don't get out there," she said.