As he approaches the design studio at 1266 Queen Street W., Willis Chan swiftly gets off his bike and heads to the building tucked inside of Parkdale.
Chan is dressed head-to-toe in black, making the white Nike symbol on his shirt dramatically stand out. His hair is neatly pulled back. He makes his way into the gallery, passing by a large exhibition room and walking down a flight of stairs.
His design workspace can be found in the basement, littered with fabrics, sketches and tiny black garment labels with WILLISCHAN written on them in white block letters.
Chan is one of the 10 finalists in the Danier Leather Design Challenge at Ryerson University, a contest that allows third-year fashion design students to create a leather jacket and have it sold in stores.
“It feels great and rewarding after three years spent at Ryerson,” said Chan. “It’s a nice form of validation that I’m doing something right.”
Chan is just one of the top 10 contestants who are making their mark on the fashion scene in Toronto by promoting their creative work outside of school.
“I think that the fashion scene in Toronto is slowly getting better,” said Chan. “There’s more people noticing the talent in Toronto and people actually moving here and seeing it as an emerging fashion capital of the world.”
Born and raised in Edmonton, Chan didn’t consider fashion as a career until his last few years in high school. He says his love for fashion has grown and evolved since he was a teenager.
“My mom has been tailoring for 40 years so I’ve grown up in an environment where she was always sewing and working,” said Chan. “I guess I’m kind of like my mom.”
He doesn’t seem like any other third-year fashion design student. At the age of 20, Chan received a grant from the government over the summer in order to help him launch his own brand.
WILLISCHAN is a collection of unisex garments with black and white as a reoccurring colour in his pieces. He’s slowly branching out and evolving from his designs, picking up a purple piece of fabric and describing his new love for the colour.
“I describe (my work) as high-athletic; a mixture of high fashion with athletic wear, comfort wear, leisure wear,” said Chan. “I want my clothes to be comfortable but also fashionable. I achieved that through the use of different types of fabrics and silhouettes with the clothes.”
In the summer, the Queen and Dovercourt fashion boutique Parloque started to carry WILLISCHAN garments.
“I really liked their esthetics and the designers that they carried in store,” said Chan. “I had a meeting with them and they were on par with what I was doing so it’s a collaborative thing where we both help each other out.”
Since Chan received the news last Tuesday that he is one of the finalists in the competition, he’s been worried about his submission and about meeting school deadlines.
“I’m moving onto the next stage of the competition now which is to create the leather jacket,” said Chan. “In the past two stages I had to create a sketch of the garment and also create a prototype.”
Chan’s jacket is sportswear inspired, like most of his garments.
“I’m doing a modern, luxurious take on the bomber jacket with several ways to wear it,” said Chan.
“With the competition we have to stay with our true design esthetic while maintaining a commercial eye for the mass commercial side of fashion, which can be tricky at times.”
All third-year fashion design students are required to create a leather jacket as part of their curriculum. Those who make the top 10 are allowed to have their leather provided for them by Danier.
“I’m waiting for the school to get me the leather so I can start creating,” said Chan.
He made his way to Ryerson from Edmonton after looking through a number of different fashion schools.
“Ryerson offers a lot of classes that I couldn’t find anywhere else, such as accessory design and textile making classes that I’ve applied to my own designs,” said Chan. “I’m mostly doing projects and using my hands every day instead of reading a textbook, which I hate doing.”
The Danier Leather Design Challenge winner will be announced in late December.