Unstitching the mystery behind Ryerson fashion students

Being in the journalism program at Ryerson University, I am very rarely seen anywhere but the Rogers Communications Centre on Gould Street, where most of my classes are held.  When I do visit other buildings on campus, there are none others that intrigue me in the way that Kerr Hall does. 

I’m not sure whether it’s the pink-trimmed doors that catch my attention or the lingering smells of floral perfume wafting through the hallway—but every so often, a beautifully-dressed and poised student, often carrying handfuls of fabric and material will quickly walk up to one of the doors on the second or third floor of Kerr Hall, tap their card and disappear behind it. 

Salma Elwishy is one of those students, as a second-year fashion design student, who takes classes where she has the opportunity to focus on the design and construction of clothing, as well as the manufacturing process behind the industry. Elwishy appears in front of me, dressed head to toe in all black with an array of delicate gold necklaces adorning her neck.

She clutches a coffee in one hand and uses the other to pull me up the stairs behind her, as we walk inside towards Kerr Hall. “I want to take you to the overflow first. This is where the students [of their corresponding year] go to work, or even sleep. I actually just slept here three nights in a row.” Upon seeing the surprised look on my face, she laughs. “Yeah, this program gets intense, but a lot of people think it’s just fluffy.” 

Fluffy. I wondered what she meant by that. Elwishy notices the confused expression on my face, adding: “A lot of time and energy goes into finishing my assignments and a lot of sacrifices: lack of sleep, good mental health and wellbeing, as well as sacrificing family time. On top of that I work, so sometimes it can take me twice as long to catch up because everything moves incredibly fast in this program.” 

 Ryerson’s fashion program is competitive, to say the least. Ranked in an article by The Business of Fashion as one of  The Best Fashion Schools in the World 2019, this difficult program requires a high academic average, a letter of intent and a portfolio with samples of personal and published work.

The fashion design labs were spacious with a woodsy smell. There were big square tables that covered the majority of the room with one small section designated to sewing machines. 

A classroom with tables and dress forms.

Four rows of industrial sewing machines lined the right side of the room. “What makes them different than your typical sewing machine is that while the basic mechanics are the same, industrial sewing machines are for factory use and designed for specific tasks,” explained Elwishy.  

Next, Elwishy brings my attention to the outfits adorning the joudy, or mannequin.  “It’s too bad that they [Ryerson] cut funding for mass exodus this year. Fourth-years would have enjoyed it.” The exodus is a celebrated fashion event that has been taking place at Ryerson University for the last 30 years, providing students in both the Fashion Communications and Fashion Design program  a chance to show their work, gaining exposure.

“Instead, we have a capsule,” Elwishy explains. “Capsule is the chance to set up a booth inside of a venue, while the fashion department brings in well-known designers specifically to see your work; in a way, it’s good because you still get to showcase your work but the disadvantages are that if your work doesn’t appeal to the audience, no one will want to talk to you about it. We desperately need the funding to prove ourselves and they just took that away from us — how are we supposed to feel?” 

Elwishy takes four classes; accessory design, textiles, intermediate illustration and finally, intermediate fashion design, which is split into both draping and construction. When asked about her electives, she smiled. “We [fashion students] are under a lot of pressure. Most, if not all, of our assignments are very heavy all the way through our four years. I found what works best for me is leaving my liberal courses to the summer; I like to take courses that interest me and this way, I’ll be able to properly focus on them and learn from them, when I’m less stressed over my fashion because I’ve already taken those courses during the year.” 

Elwishy was most excited to show me her original work. Pulling out a multitude of pieces from a recyclable bag, she began describing her favourites. 

“Last year, for our final, we had to create a collection. I called mine ‘Couleurs S/S ‘20’. Inspired by ballet, my collection focuses on aspects of flow and movement of the body.” 

A fashion sketch concept board

Her work amazed me. It was clear the time that she took to perfect this piece and after seeing this, I didn’t believe it could get any better. Elwishy pulled out the next piece and let me flip through a sequence of three pictures she had drawn. “This one is fun; I like to call it ‘jingle with the wrinkle’ because it was inspired by multiple things. The polka-dot set in the photo, the custom of the male ballet dancer in The Nutcracker and the beauty in the way the body creases and folds together.” 

Fashion sketches

“When I was younger, I had a sketchbook full of fashion figures. Although my parents dreamt that I’d pursue interior design, clearly that didn’t happen. Coming into the program I wouldn’t really say I had all the techniques to become a fashion student but I believe that I keep getting better everyday, thanks to the [Ryerson School of Fashion].”

Elwishy has big plans for her future. “After [Ryerson], I hope to open my own luxury brand with a focus on modest fashion.” Modest fashion, by definition, refers to a fashion trend of women wearing less revealing clothing. According to the Washington Post, this multi-billion dollar industry is set to hit a net worth of $373 billion by the year 2022.  

 “I want to create both daytime and evening wear; my pieces are often tied to religious motives, in hopes that everyone feels certain emotion with the pieces that I create,” she says.  “I don’t see a lot of hijabi fashion designers out there who make it globally and I want to change that.” 

In the hopes of attracting more students who look like her to the program, Elwishy offers some advice. 

“[My best advice] would be to practice [sewing, drawing, crafting]. It’s important to have a base and to learn to work with materials that are outside of your comfort zone. Becoming more familiar with technique, while having fun and trusting the process.” 

Before Elwishy and I parted ways, I asked her what the Ryerson School of Fashion had taught her. “Being here [at Ryerson], I’ve been fortunate enough to learn a lot about my identity as a designer,” she says. “This program is nowhere near as easy as other students might perceive. No matter how challenging things get, I will never regret being a fashion student– that is one thing that I’m sure of.” 

All photos by Madison Dolman.