The audience is cloaked in darkness, but I know that every seat is filled – the show is sold out. As I reach the end of the runway, I pause and camera flashes flood my vision.
I’m on the catwalk at Mass Exodus, the largest student-run fashion event in the world. It’s also by far the largest annual event for Ryerson’s school of fashion — a production that students prepare for all year long. A collective effort, this year’s show brought together 300 models, 58 fourth-year designers, 80 third-year fashion communication students, 34 production team members and about 50 radio and television arts and theatre students.
During the event, design students display their five-look collections, while the rest of the team helps produce the show.
My own experience began about a month ago when I attended a casting call for models. Even though I’ve attended Ryerson for four years, I had never been to one of the shows. I figured the only way to top watching the production was to actually be part of it.
A few days later, I recieved an email from a designer, Michelle Chung, who wanted to cast me for her ladies’ evening wear line.
At the end of March, I walk into a fashion design classroom for my first fitting. About 40 mannequins are scattered throughout the space. A row of sewing machines line the back wall.
“Hi,” exclaims a petite girl. She wears faded jeans and an oversized denim button-up shirt over a retro Star Wars T-shirt. She extends her small hand. It’s Michelle.
She hands me my outfit for the show, a floor-length gown made of champagne-coloured silk that has been creased by a piping hot iron.
Her collection is inspired by First Nations dream catchers and the back of my dress features a delicately beaded pattern.
Chung chose to base her collection around the First Nations custom this past summer when she was sifting through old photos, and came across a picture of a dream catcher that she had made for a friend in her last year of high school.
I emerge from the changing area and Chung’s face falls. “Oh no,” she murmurs. “I need to make so many alterations.”
The dress hangs loosely off of my frame, the low-cut back dipping dangerously low. Silk fabric pools at my feet.
As Chung gets to work pinning the gown, we start to chat. She had originally planned to take an entirely different direction with her career and study nursing, but four years ago she applied last minute to the school of fashion.
She tells me that a submission of three garments is required to apply for the program — but at the time, she didn’t know how to sew.
“I got a sewing machine and read the manual to teach myself how to use it,” she says as she carefully pins the hem of my dress and I teeter on a table above her in four-inch heels.
What a difference four years had made for Chung: from figuring out how to use a sewing machine to single-handedly creating an entire evening wear line, to be showcased in front of 1,500 people no less.
The day before the show, I step into a packed court at the Mattamy Athletic Centre (MAC), for a walking workshop with legendary Canadian fashion model Stacey McKenzie.
I find Chung and two of her other models in the bleachers and sit down. Shortly after I arrive, a girl with dark hair and blunt-cut bangs joins us.
“You cut your bangs,” Chung gasps, her eyes growing wide. “You hate me,” she adds, clearly thinking of the updos we would be wearing the next day.
The girl, Zoë Harvey, twists her face apologetically. “I’m sorry,” she squeaks. “I can pull them back if you want,” she says, holding her bangs away from her face. “See?”
I tug on my hair, glad I hadn’t decided to do anything drastic to it in the past week.
We start talking about our dresses and the adjustments that had been made. Chung turns to me. “You,” she says, pointing her finger at me in mock outrage.
I knew that one was coming.
Chung had stayed up all of the previous night altering our dresses. I’m impressed that she’s functioning, let alone so chipper.
Eventually the designers leave for a tour of the stage area. McKenzie struts in wearing black pointed-toe heels, high-waisted grey sweatpants with slashes through the thighs, bright red lipstick and a one-shouldered crop top that reads, “Artistic and employed.”
McKenzie wants us to walk in our heels, one by one, down a mock runway marked by tape so she can tell us what to work on. I have never done a “model walk” before, and now I am going to be critiqued by an industry icon in front of a basketball court full of strangers. Great.
When my turn rolls around after an hour of waiting in line, I step up to the start of the “runway” and begin to walk. “Stop lifting your feet so much – you’re walking like a horse,” McKenzie says.
Maybe I should be modelling saddles instead, I muse as I continue on, trying to keep my feet closer to the ground.
My modelling career was off to an exceptional start.
The next morning, I open my eyes to find my room still enveloped in darkness. 5:30 a.m. Showtime. When I enter the MAC half an hour later, I find the gym has been transformed into a full-blown hair and makeup studio. Long tables covered in cosmetic products are set up in neat rows, and hair and makeup artists stand armed with blow dryers, hairspray, blush brushes and mascara wands.
By 10:30 a.m., our hair has been crimped, teased and twisted into messy updos, and our fairy tale-inspired makeup has been applied.
It’s time to head backstage to get dressed.
A few weeks earlier, I spoke to Robert Ott, the chair of the school of fashion. He painted a picture of what the scene would be like backstage. “You’re probably going to be somewhat surprised by how quiet and organized things are,” Ott said. “This notion that makes for good television and good drama does exist – zippers breaking and models not showing up and chaos and all that stuff – but they don’t really happen at Mass Exodus.”
But that isn’t the case. The zipper on Harvey’s dress breaks, even though it had been functioning perfectly during the dress rehearsal the night before. Slowly, a small crowd forms behind her as person after person tries to manoeuvre it. It won’t budge.
“I’m going to have to sew her in,” Chung says resolutely. She heads to her bag and fishes out a needle and some pale blue thread to match Harvey’s long, flowing gown.
Working quickly, she skillfully weaves the strand through Harvey’s dress.
A few minutes later, all is well and Harvey is sewn into her gown. Crisis averted.
By about 11 a.m., everyone is dressed and lined up in order.
There’s one problem, though: I’m starving and no eating is allowed backstage. Though breakfast had been provided, that seems like ages ago.
We are the 49th collection being shown out of 58 and the trail of models snaking in front of me seems to go on for miles.
I imagine myself fainting on the runway. I look longingly over my shoulder at my bag, where half of a bran muffin is buried.
I can’t resist. I tiptoe out of line over to my purse and crouch between two clothing racks. I drape my coat over my gown to protect it, and root around for my muffin.
When I find it, I quickly look around me to make sure the coast is clear and stuff three massive bites into my mouth. Better, albeit marginally.
At 12:30 p.m., a muffled beat emanates from the direction of the stadium. The first collection is walking.
Over an hour later, we’re up. I feel a rush of adrenaline and anticipation as a crew member manning the curtain holds up three fingers in front of my face.
Three. Two. One.
He pulls back the curtain and I’m momentarily blinded by bright lights and the immaculate white runway.
As I walk, I remember what Ott had said during our interview: “It’s all about being yourself … at the end of the day just have fun. I mean, you’re going to be on that runway for what, 20 seconds?”
Before I know it, it’s over. My moment in the spotlight was beyond fun and far too short.
When the show is finished, everyone gathers in the gym.
Ott announces that this year’s curator, Nicholas Mellamphy, who is vice-president of The Room and personal shopping at The Bay, has helped select 18 collections to walk in the press show later that evening.
Leading up to Mass Exodus, Mellamphy studied the designers’ illustrations, read about their inspiration and considered how they incorporated the school of fashion’s guiding principles of diversity, innovation and heritage into their designs. This year’s main focus was innovation, Ott explained when we spoke in late March.
“It’s not necessarily about what (the curator) likes, but which of the collections out of the 50 or 60 that they’ve seen best embody this notion of innovation,” he said. “I think there has to be a strong philosophy of design, and then ultimately it does have to look good on the runway.”
Ott begins revealing the chosen designers. The entire audience seems to be holding its breath.
These pieces have taken seven months to complete, and in some cases even more. The students have spent countless hours, limitless energy and hundreds of dollars to turn their collections into reality. The second show, which attracts high-profile industry professionals like Jeanne Beker and Truc Nguyen, is an incredible chance to showcase their work to some of the biggest names in Canadian fashion.
Each designer called is followed by elated squeals. As the number of available spots dwindles, the crowd grows more and more tense. I raise my head to look for Chung but can’t spot her.
The last designer called, Ostwald Au-Yeung, happens to be sitting directly behind me.
“Oh my God,” he says, raising his hands to cover his mouth. “I feel like I’m going to cry.”
And so my modelling career comes to a close. I head back to the dressing room to pack up my things. Chung is there, upbeat and cheerful as always.
“It was a really good learning experience,” she will tell me in a message the next day. “I think I got more out of working with everyone than from actually seeing my designs on the runway.”
Before I leave her at the MAC, I hug her and thank her for a fabulous time. Afterwards, I head down to Carlton Street to make my way home, wild hair and glittery makeup still intact. As I stroll through Church-Wellesley Village in broad daylight, I draw more than a few confused stares.
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on April 9, 2014.
Leslie Walker graduated from the Ryerson School of Journalism in 2014. She was photo editor at the Ryersonian.