The Sears Atrium doesn’t typically look like a scene from American Horror Story.
But on Oct. 20, just over a week before Halloween, it does.
The giant auditorium is cleaved in half by two parallel rows of flickering candles, a makeshift runway bridging both sides of the theatre. On one end is the entrance, with photographers huddled together and wrestling against one another amid the sound of their cameras. On the other is a curtained-off podium, where three chandeliers are suspended from the ceiling like nuclear fruit hanging from a tree.
There aren’t enough seats for the number of impatient bodies. Some cluster together at the back of the room, standing under ceramic potted plants. Others hover behind the rows of chairs, struggling not to fold over the person seated in front of them.
It doesn’t feel like Ryerson University. And when the first model hits the catwalk, the wonder is deafening. Evening wear designed exclusively by second-year Ryerson fashion students suddenly springs to life.
“In Ryerson fashion, we slave over our work every year. But you only really get to see what we’ve done in our fourth-year exit show,” says Blake Harris, the third-year fashion design student who produced the fashion show. “I thought it would be cool to see that middle moment in between where we started and where we end up.”
Harris is right. As models parade down the runway, their dresses billowing around their bodies as they turn, a thought forces its way onto my lips — Ryerson students made these? They belonged somewhere else: a runway in Paris, a show in Milan.
One brown-skinned model stalks down the catwalk, her gloved hands resting sharply against her hips where her black dress cascades down around her legs. A net of black fire is stacked atop her head as her heels click against the linoleum. It’s Joan of Arc meets Dior’s New Look.
“I’m happy this is my first dress,” says Martin Mithras, a third-year fashion design student. He motions toward the satiny frock. “I’d never sewn a gown, and this was my first one.”
You could never tell he’d never sewn one. It’s both polished and sophisticated, a testament to the talent that lives in Ryerson’s fashion program. And that’s precisely where the name “FORM” came from. It’s a double-entendre: in part referring to the Judy form mannequins on which clothing is draped and fitted, but also speaking of fashion as a form of expression. A formative process is determining one’s design identity.
Harris says second-year projects are often rejected. Students disown them and tuck them away in their closets, embarrassed by dresses they couldn’t possibly be proud of. FORM reimagines second-year potential, showing their shortcomings in a new light that exposes the beauty of what they may later call “failures.”
Just under two dozen dresses make their way up and down the runway before the show is over. Some are regal and Elizabethan, others are contemporary. A McQueen-inspired gown explodes out at the hip as though it were resting on a crinoline cage. A crimson dress is a bustier that becomes a waterfall of silky fabric. Another is ivory and modern — something Jessica Pearson from the legal TV drama Suits might favour.
When the show ends, the audience refuses to leave. Models pour out from behind the scenes, their dresses sparking tempests of conversation that would continue for another half hour. I can hear people exchanging words, admitting how impressed they are with the adventurous looks.
“I feel like a lot of Canadian designers play it safe. And I understand why — the market is tough, and the only way to make it is appealing to the rich socialites that live here,” says Harris. “But Ryerson fashion is pushing boundaries. That’s why I love it.”
All images by Connor Garel.