A Short History Of Toronto’s Fashion District And Art Deco Architecture

Architecture, City Living, King West / Niagara / Liberty Village, Queen West

As I move into my 28th year as a realtor – trading in property across the central core from The Beach west to The Kingsway, and from Harbourfront north to Hogg’s Hollow – I’ve witnessed an enormous change in the 42 city neighbourhoods which encompass my business. I’ve experienced this change both in theory and research – including my undergraduate and graduate studies in university – and through my experience as a Top Producing realtor navigating Toronto’s real estate trenches. ‘Shelter’ in Toronto continues to change and evolve, which is part of what makes my career so fascinating and of interest to me.

My expertise as a realtor is rooted in the ten years I invested learning about housing at York University including a Canadian Social History Degree that focused on the migration patterns of the city’s cultural groups, with an emphasis on how they influenced Toronto’s housing market from 1850 to 1970; an Urban Studies Major where my thesis – funded by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs – focused on Gentrification in South Riverdale in the 1980s (here’s my 2010 post called A Nose For Leslieville); and my 1993 Graduate Degree in Environmental Studies that researched the development of Adaptive Re-use Conversions into loft condominium living, which included a fascinating psychographic analysis of its residents.

This healthy obsession in housing and home reflects my broad interest in all facets of shelter, including diasporic settlement patterns, the evolution of gentrification, and how changes in land-use policy can reshape city living. Of particular fascination to me is The Fashion District in Toronto, in part because my career began with the Adaptive Reuse Conversion of century warehouses in the area including The Monarch Building on Wellington Street (in addition to such notable loft conversions like The Button Factory on Clinton Street, The Banquet Hall on Claremont Street, and The Movie House on Euclid Avenue at College Street, amongst others), as well as my role in the concept and marketing of new condominiums like Cityscape Terrace on Richmond Street, just west of Spadina Avenue.



The view from my listing in The Morgan on the north-west corner of Spadina and Richmond Street West.


A Short History Of The Fashion District In Toronto

The Fashion District – also known as The Garment District – in Toronto evolved at the turn of the century for two significant reasons. The first is because Toronto’s port harbour and rail lines boomed in the early 1900s and, being an essential factor for the growth of industry and commerce, fueled the redevelopment of this location from what was predominantly a residential area into one that would quickly become large factories and warehouses constructed in the early1900s through 1930s. In fact, did you know that Wellington Street West from Spadina to Bathurst was originally designed as a grand boulevard of Victorian merchant class estates in the 1880s? Anchored by Clarence Square at Spadina Avenue in the east and Victoria Memorial Park at Portland Street in the west, less than two decades after being designed for wealthy residents, by the early 1900s these mansions were being torn down and replaced with five-storey factory warehouses, many which still line the street today. One of these is The Monarch Building at 436 Wellington West which I pre-sold as 34 custom-built brick and beam hard lofts in 1997.

The second reason for the growth of this industry was cultural. At the turn of the century around 80% of the city’s Jewish community – who spearheaded this industry – lived in the immediate area (with their original roots in Kensington Market). The growth and demand for textiles and garments, and its locational ease to receive and ship these products, allowed this ethnic group a foundation which supported the expansion of its community needs and services, including Jewish delis, bookstores, cinemas, Yiddish theatres and synagogues. The Garment District industrialized rapidly and grew, with many significant buildings of merit built in the iconic Art Deco style in the 1920s and 1930s, several which still line Spadina Avenue.



*Image courtesy of the Torontoist – Located at the NW corner of Spadina and Richmond is a homage to the Fashion District and its roots – a giant sculpture of a thimble and colourful buttons. (Uniform Measure/Stacks by Stephen Cruise in 1997).


After World War II, much of the Jewish community migrated northwest up Bathurst Street (including the development of Forest Hill in the 1940s which was one of the first Jewish suburbs – which has since gentrified), and the factories and warehouses began to be converted into other uses. It would also coincide with the next waves of immigration to Canada, from which Chinatown would come to dominate Spadina Avenue north of Queen Street West in the 1950s.

In the 1970s through to the 1990s, a lot of industry and commerce in the downtown core moved to suburban industrial parks. New modern factories were constructed on one level for greater efficiency in production, located on highway systems so goods could be transported more easily by trucks rather than rail, and a growing labour pool living in nearby suburbs could commute to work by car. This prompted a significant period of decline in the manufacturing markets in the downtown core, where a high vacancy rate ensued. Furthermore, zoning regulations forbid property owners from leasing properties to non-industrial tenants, so some property owners actually began to demolish buildings in order to reduce their taxes.



500 Richmond Street West – Cityscape Terrace – which I sold preconstruction in the mid 1990s.


In 1996, the City of Toronto introduced a Live/Work zoning regulation across two large swaths of the downtown core on either side of the CN Tower, with the objective of encouraging re-investment to revitalize these decaying industrial areas. The City understood it needed to respond and accommodate the emerging post-industrial economies of finance, information, technology, and services, which would serve as the foundation for Toronto’s economic rebirth. The creation of The Entertainment District, and The Fashion District, were two new neighbourhood designations on the central west side targeting these new economies. Fortunately for me, I was establishing my career in the sales, marketing and development of Innovative Spaces during this time, and aligned with some amazing development teams who were pioneering this new urban spirit.

Two early projects in The Fashion District remain very special to me. One was spearheading the conversion of the vacant Monarch Building on Wellington Street West into 34 live/work lofts, and the other was a new development called Cityscape Terrace, located at 500 Richmond Street West (pictured above) which at the time was a vacant burnt-out former Salvation Army warehouse being redeveloped into 109 ‘houses-in-the-sky’. These reputable developments are early examples of what this dynamic neighbourhood would become. And get this, back in 1997 I was selling 1000 square foot units in both these projects for $169,900!



*Courtesy of the City Of Toronto Archives – A Toronto textile factory (Approx. 1908)


Art Deco Edifices

I love Art Deco architecture.

The Art Deco Style first appeared after World War I catering to the French luxury market. This new fresh architectural style was designed with a nod to the past and an eye to the future, where skyscrapers celebrated new technologies and used modern materials like concrete. First appearing around 1910, it took root globally after the Paris International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Art in 1925. Not only limited to architecture, but the Art Deco aesthetic also appeared on home furnishings, fixtures and fittings, as well as fashion accessories and jewellery.

In Toronto, many Art Deco buildings are characterized by strong lines emphasizing their verticality, a subscription to balance, symmetry and proportion, yet infused with clean-lined geometric patterns across their facades which often frame their lobbies, entablatures and parapets. The stylized poured concrete decorations are theatrical yet restrained and front lobbies are often treated as if entering a stage set. I adore when Industrial buildings celebrate this Art Deco styling, like the Century Loft Conversion on Dundas Street East in Moss Park and the Tip Top Loft Conversion on Lake Shore Boulevard West.

There are still a number of buildings remaining in The Fashion District from its heyday, among them the iconic Capitol building located on Adelaide Street West. This seven-storey building was built in the 1920s and displays some of the notable Art Deco features, like clean lines and geometric shapes in the detailing. The large windows were ideal to let in ample light to facilitate the work of those cutting sewing and finishing garments.

One of the most noted architects to establish themselves in Toronto’s bustling Garment district was Benjamin Brown, who was hired by garment industry clients to build buildings that were conducive to working with textiles but also offered ornate architectural design. It really was one of the first fusions of function with fashion. The buildings he designed were built with reinforced concrete and featured stylish Art Deco cladding made of cut stone and brick.



*Left Image courtesy of SpacingToronto. Balfour Building: Then & Now.


His best-known works include two buildings that sit opposite each other on Spadina at Adelaide, the Tower Building and the Balfour Building – both built in the late 1920s/early 1930s. They both display obvious cubist influence, which is a hallmark of the Art Deco style.

Click here to read more about Benjamin Brown and his role in establishing the Fashion District as an industrial hub with style. Also, check out Touring The Garment District Designs Of Architect Benjamin Brown and Toronto’s Art Deco Legacy Celebrated.



Graffiti Alley Is Toronto’s Laneway Louvre – located just south of Queen Street west of Spadina Avenue


The Fashion District Today

Today many of the former factories and industrial space have been converted to offices which retain their factory ambience with exposed brick walls, wood-beamed ceilings and wood plank floors – many which are home to marketing, technology and design companies. The area still remains home to a number of fashion purveyors, along with a host of other cool retailers, galleries and eateries. The original freehold housing stock in the area remains a mix of merchant and working-class dwellings – in all sizes and condition – while over the past two decades there has been an intensification and densification of mid and high-rise condominiums. Without question, this now chic (yet still with a hint of grit) neighbourhood demonstrates (and elevates) how places that were once solely places of industry can successfully become centres of re-invention, balancing both commerce and domesticity, in a livable setting (Walk Score:99, Bike Score:75, Transit Score:100). It’s been a real pleasure to have been part of The Fashion District’s rebirth and to continue in the sale of properties across this dynamic neighbourhood.




Do you covet a panoramic perch in the synergetic ‘Bright Lights Big City’ groove of The Fashion District? 

Sorry, but this amazing home is now SOLD, but if you’re interested in purchasing a property in The Fashion District give Steve Fudge a ring at 416-845-9905 for a quick synopsis on what’s available matching your requirements! Thanks!

We’re delighted to offer this sun-drenched south-east wrapped-in-windows 1025 square foot corner crib in ‘The Morgan’, which boasts the preferred split 2 bed 2 bath floor plan with an amazing Entertainment Space. This is the kind of place you’ll wake up and pinch yourself! We invite you to live a technicolour dream in this swish skypad – situated in a reputable ode-to-Art-Deco well-managed, well-equipped, pet-friendly edifice of swelegant domesticity, located at the corner of hip and happening.

Yup, your coolhunter pals will consider this swag pad ground zero for cocktails before collectively adventuring into the limitless cosmopolitan wonders that lay just outside your front door.

Although this is sold, check out our Urbaneer promotion of A Panoramic Perch In Toronto’s Hip & Happening Fashion District, so you can see the kinds of unique urban homes we specialize in. Offered for $799,000, the unit sold for $1,020,000.





Did you enjoy this? Check out these other neighbourhood history blogs featuring Toronto real estate:


Excavating The History Of Toronto’s Avenue Road

From Brownfield To Playing Field: A Brief History Of Toronto’s Davenport Village

A Brief History On The Intensification Of The Danforth In Toronto

Garden City: The History And Revitalization Of Toronto’s Regent Park Neighbourhood

• Gentrification, Densification, And The History Of Toronto Real Estate


Love Toronto architecture as I do? Check out these blogs:


• Edwardian Residential Architecture In Toronto

• Bay & Gable Victorian Architecture In Toronto

• On The History – And Popularity – Of The Open Concept Space Plan

• The History Of The Ontario Gothic Revival Cottage




May my team and I be your realtors of choice?

With decades of experience navigating the ever-changing Toronto real estate market, a commitment to promote the sale of properties like yours with interesting and relevant information, and the ability to guide Buyers with credible insights and well-informed guidance, we are here to help without pressure or hassle.

Please consider our services!


Thanks for reading!


-The Urbaneer Team

Steven Fudge, Sales Representative
& The Innovative Urbaneer Team
Bosley Real Estate Ltd., Brokerage – (416) 322-8000

– we’re here to earn your trust, then your business –


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*Love Canadian Housing? Check out Steve’s University Student Mentorship site called Houseporn.ca which focuses on architecture, landscape, design, products and real estate in Canada.


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