'Modern, eclectic, chic': Toronto fashion designer marries high-fashion with African heritage


Her clothes are almost as bright and dazzling as her smile. Catherine Addai, founder and CEO of Toronto fashion boutique Kaela Kay, said she never wanted to dress like everybody else.

"I wanted to wear pieces I couldn't find in department stores," she said triumphantly, wearing a bright turquoise, A-line dress with Afrocentric patterns. 

"I also wanted to mix modern fashion with my African heritage," said the Ghana-born entrepreneur. 

She describes her fashion brand as "modern, eclectic, chic."

Working primarily with Ankara fabrics, a West African method of creating African patterns on 100 per cent cotton fabric, Addai sought to modernize prints in today's fashion, which are part of her history. 

"My mother, my grandmother, they all wore or used Ankara fabrics in their clothing and I wanted to be able to bring that here in North America to show women that it's possible to wear these prints that are so historical," she said. 

Despite her lack of formal training in design, fashion and business, Addai's brand has gained popularity with Toronto locals, international boutiques and even A-list celebrities. 

"I'm grateful for how fast the business has gained exposure and how far I've come in the past two years...but nothing is overnight," she said.

Kaela Kay began as an online store in 2013, where fittings and alterations took place in Addai's basement.

She hired seamstresses from Toronto to learn from them and build her brand. 

Some of the biggest hurdles while being self-taught were putting together a collection, accounting and customer service, Addai said, adding that she had to rely on her seamstresses to help her. 

Addai quit her job as a decision support consultant in 2017 to work full-time on Kaela Kay. 

And what started as an online clothing store has just recently become a charming North York boutique.

"I never envisioned I'd be in this space right now," she said of her store, established just three months ago. 

'By women, for women'

Addai said she's proud of where her brand's clothing comes from. 

"All the clothes are intentionally made in Toronto by women. It's important for me that my business is supported by women, for women, and I like to work closely alongside the seamstresses who I've known for years," said Addai. 

Of the numerous women that have dressed in Kaela Kay, some A-list celebrities make the list.

"[Cityline's] Tracy Moore, [actress] Busy Phillips... It's been great for growing the business and for giving Kaela Kay more visibility." 

Addai said these celebrities have opened up her client demographic significantly. 

Diversity in fashion

While Addai's clothing is what gained public attention, her startup story caught the attention of another successful woman.

Emily Mills, founder of How She Hustles — a Toronto-based network that highlights and supports diverse women — is presenting a new digital video series called, Startup and Slay, which features six diverse Canadian women entrepreneurs, and Addai is one of them. 

"Diversity in fashion is super important, which is why I wanted to bring my Ghanaian roots into the fashion industry," said Addai.

"I wanted to show that fashion from other countries could also become mainstream and that it's not just something that is only for a certain group of people or demographic...We want people to see our fashion and our culture," she said.

How She Hustles will debut Startup and Slay on Oct. 24. during Small Business Week (Oct. 20-26) in an initiative to promote diverse female entrepreneurs. The featured women will share their experiences and practical insights about their startups. 

"I want all women from all backgrounds, all nationalities, all walks of life to feel like they can come to Kaela Kay and find their personal style and themselves in the clothing," said Addai.