Carolyn Quinn BA’02

Dedication And Hard Work Are Always In Fashion

By Joanie Veitch | spring 2019

Growing up on a farm in Bras d’Or, Cape Breton, Carolyn Quinn learned about working hard at a young age—it’s a value that has served the 39-year-old executive director of Toronto Fashion Week well throughout her career.

At a talk she gave at a Toronto high school recently, Quinn offered her teenage audience her best advice: whatever path their lives take, and no matter the job, a willingness to show up and work hard goes a long way to securing a successful career.

“I was and am, and will continue to be, a ‘yes’ person. I would never say no,” Quinn says. “My answer to any request was always ‘no problem.’ Get coffee? No problem. Do a 25-page report by tomorrow afternoon? No problem. I always say yes. I’m the first person at the office and the last person to leave.”

Now, as executive director of Toronto Fashion Week for the past 14 years, Quinn oversees every aspect of the biannual production from finances and budgeting to meeting with the designers and handling media. It’s the kind of job that can eat your life if you let it, she laughs. “When I first started, I had zero work-life balance.”

Maturity and motherhood have brought improved time management skills, she adds. “With two young children, I had to manage my time better. There’s no way I could keep that same pace.”

As a 10-year-old in rural Cape Breton, Quinn watched Jeanne Beker’s Fashion Television and was captivated by the glamour of the fashion world, but she had no idea that she would one day translate that early passion into a career.

After graduating from high school in 1998, Quinn went to Saint Mary’s University where she majored in Business and Sociology. “Being at Saint Mary’s was one of the best times of my life. It was my first time away from home and I still remember sitting in class and feeling so engaged. I didn’t know what my next steps would be, but I knew I was on my own path now.”

Still uncertain about her future after graduating in 2001, Quinn worked for a year in Halifax. The world of fashion was still fascinating to her, but she didn’t think she could make a career out of it. 

“Fashion was something you were interested in, not something you did. I kept thinking I needed a more mainstream occupation.”

Despite her misgivings, Quinn eventually decided to take the leap and moved to Toronto to take a two-year fashion management program at George Brown College of Applied Arts and Technology. An internship with a designer post-graduation (“It was unpaid, I had to get a line of credit to add in with all my student debt, but I did it and worked really hard”) led to a studio assistant job. Still a fledgling in the industry, Quinn saw a job posting for the Fashion Design Council of Canada, the not-for-profit that at that time owned and produced Toronto Fashion Week; she decided to take another leap of faith.

“I applied, I was totally underqualified and didn’t think I’d ever get it, but I got an interview. I was honest and told the interviewer that I was probably the least qualified person she’d interview that day, but I promised her that if she gave me a chance, she would not regret it.”

She got the job, of course. 

Six months later, after giving a big presentation in front of some of the country’s top fashion executives (including Jeanne Beker, her childhood hero), Quinn’s boss recalled that interview. “She said, ‘You impressed me that day and you were right, I made the right decision’.”

It’s a story that circles back to those early lessons back home on the farm. 

“My parents always said that hard work pays off. I’m glad I learned that from them.”

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