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The door is open at Hxouse, Toronto’s new artistic incubator

Creative Director behind the XO Brand and The Weeknd, La Mar Taylor, left, and Ahmed Ismail, right, tour the currently under construction site of, Hxouse, a creative incubator facility set to open it’s doors on the Toronto Waterfront this year.

Cole Burston/

While VIPs and others at Monday’s launch of Hxouse, a creative agency and incubator space for the arts, were attired in hip fashions or formal attire, co-founder Ahmed Ismail wore a custodian’s uniform from the Scarborough Board of Education. The peculiar choice in threads had a pointed backstory behind it.

“When I was in high school, my co-op teacher suggested that I would make a great janitor,” explained Mr. Ismail, a Toronto-based sports-and-entertainment marketer who founded the firm Influencer PR. After pushing a broom for two days at the same Scarborough high school east of Toronto where he was enrolled as a student, he quit the job but kept the uniform. “I told myself I’d wear it again when I do something to teach a lesson to the people who bet against me.”

That time has come. Mr. Ismail has teamed with La Mar Taylor and pop star The Weeknd to establish Hxouse, which occupies the fourth floor of Artscape Daniels Launchpad, a new $28.4-million, 30,000-square-foot building located in the waterfront’s “City of Arts,” as envisioned by developers Daniels Corp. Artscape is dedicated to the creation of non-profit cultural and creative spaces across the city.

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Mr. Taylor, whose friendship with The Weeknd stretches back to their high-school days in Scarborough, is creative director of the Grammy-winning R&B artist’s music label and brand, XO Records. The aim of Hxouse, envisioned as a “next-generation accelerator,” is to provide guidance, tools, funds, support and facilities for young artists and entrepreneurs in the fields of photography, music, film, digital design, fashion and marketing.

A two-day schedule of events designed to raise awareness for Hxouse includes a benefit concert at the nearby Rebel nightclub on Tuesday. The show will be headlined by The Weeknd (a.k.a. Abel Tesfaye, the superstar son of Ethiopian immigrants).

On hand for an open house and panel discussion on Monday were some of the program’s first batch of students. For the initial presentation and panel discussion on visual identity, the racially diverse array of students sat up front in a meeting hall. “These kids are our VIPs,” Mr. Ismail explained. “The rest of us are sitting in the back.”

Hxouse has partnerships with Puma, Google and Twitter. Among the mentors are Yassine Saidi (the streetwear guru and head of Puma Select, a division of the German sportswear brand that oversees high-level style partnerships), along with Brooklyn-based electronic musician Daniel Lopatin, American photographer Nabil Elderkin and The Weeknd himself.

According to Mr. Ismail, Hxouse is a “globally focused program created locally.” The threesome of Mr. Ismail, Mr. Taylor and Los Angeles-based The Weeknd (something of a silent partner) saw a gap in the development of Canadian-made entrepreneurs, who, to their mind, left Canada for opportunities in other countries. “Companies today don’t hire people without experience,” Mr. Ismail said. “I know this, because I had two degrees and no one would hire me.”

Hxouse is particularly aimed at young artists from underserved communities, with scholarships offered under a coaching program called No More Dreams. “The biggest barriers young people face are space, income and access,” Mr. Ismail said. “With Hxouse, those barriers are eliminated. There’s no reason to dream anymore, because it’s here.”

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