Rising stars: Vincentian-Toronto designer Rhonique Ballantyne

By Aya Baradie 

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Making fashion sketches during law class on the small island of Saint Vincent in the Caribbean, Rhonique Ballantyne never imagined her success as a fashion designer in a fast-paced city like Toronto. Now, only a few years later, she sits with numerous awards, including “Best in Show” and “Most Media Ready” for her latest fashion collection, Artifice. She studied fashion design at Seneca College in 2011 and received a diploma in fashion design. She opens up about her journey to fashion and her own struggles and successes as a new designer:

Describe the process of creating a design from the idea to the finished collection.

There's nothing simple about translating an idea from your mind and then bringing it to life. It's a whole process. The collection [Artifice] took a whole year to create, focusing all my energy on how to do it properly. I start by finding a few ideas and adding them to my inspiration board. This includes shapes, colours and silhouettes. I had to do over a 100 sketches for a four-piece collection. Sketching out 100 different outfits gets you the full range of ideas and that way you get the best of the best basically. After the 100 sketches, you condense it even further and develop those outfits that stand out.  

What was your latest collection "Artifice" inspired by?

It was actually inspired by a game of chess. I very much knew I wanted to pick up those faceted pieces and that can all be reflected in this collection. I didn't want my final collection to be just flowers or something else overplayed. This collection would set the pace for the rest of my career and so I wanted it to have meaning behind it, and chess is a game that is very rich in metaphors. The pawn in a game of chess is able to transform into any piece it desires as long as it successfully navigates the board and makes it to the other side. That really struck a chord to me what with my own upbringing and where I started out in life. It doesn't matter what hand you're played in life, you can choose to navigate it as you please and really make a change.

What challenges do you experience while you design?

My challenges were mostly financial. Fabric is really expensive, so I had to make do with the finances I had at the time when I was in school. I do think that the challenge of money helped me to really get creative with the resources I had. If you really analyze the pieces, they are all just simple materials, but the way it presents itself is of much higher value.

What happens when you get stuck on a piece?

This happens quite a lot, but when it does, I feel like I just have to walk away from it for a bit and do things that don't relate to fashion. There's a lot of beauty and inspiration in the world outside of fashion. Music, in particular, is really helpful when I'm stuck on a design piece. I tend to listen to artists whose passion can be felt in their music, like Beyoncé and Kanye West, feed off their energy.

How did you get into fashion?

Before I even started out in fashion school, when I would buy clothes, it would make me feel very confident about my image. That feeling of confidence that fashion gave me was a big reason for going into this industry because I realized I wanted to give that feeling to someone else.

 Did you have an "Aha" moment that made you realize you wanted to do fashion?

My grandmother was a seamstress and I spent a lot of time watching her work while I was growing up. I feel like what she did really resonated with me. Even in the Caribbean while I was studying law, I would get distracted easily during class and I would be sketching outfits.  

Tell me about your transition from Saint Vincent to Toronto.

Saint Vincent was an incredibly small island and I think I always knew I wanted to do bigger things for myself outside of the Caribbean. Coming to Toronto, it was definitely difficult. I would get lost a lot and attract stares because of my heavy accent and I didn't really have any friends here when I first started out. It's like you're starting your life from scratch.

How has your Caribbean upbringing influenced your work ethic?

One big thing I was taught growing up in Saint Vincent was to be resourceful. We didn't have much going on for us on that tiny island, but we made the most with what we had. We also were used to waking up very early in the morning to get work done and that's a habit I carried on to Canada and has helped me succeed as a designer.  

What motivates you to continue designing?

My family is a huge motivator for me. My mom raised my siblings and I as a single mother and most of what I'm doing is thanks to her. I feel like each generation should aim to do better than the previous one and I want to create a legacy for my family through fashion. I feel like I have a certain point that I'm trying to get across with fashion and designing helps me share it with the rest of the world.

How was your family's support when you decided to pursue fashion?

When I first applied to the fashion program, my mom thought I was applying to nursing. When she found out I never actually applied to nursing, and that I got accepted into fashion, she was really upset and we didn't talk for a couple of weeks. She thought it was a joke telling me "How could you do fashion design with no sewing experience?" I had to show her what I was capable of doing and how hard I was willing to work to succeed. After winning a couple of the fashion competitions at school, she saw how dedicated I was and was happy with my decision to go into this program. 

This piece was edited by Isabelle Kirkwood. 

Fashion Art Toronto (FAT2016)

FAT 2016 119 Fashion Art Toronto (FAT) is the fusion of art and fashion during a weeklong multi-arts event in Toronto running on April 12-16. Every day is packed with a mix up of runway shows, live performances, fashion films, art installations and photography exhibits. This year’s theme - Dress Codes, focuses on how fashion is used to construct a person’s identity. Everyday of the week each collection focuses on a sub-theme of the day. Friday's theme, Counter CODE, focused on the rejection of mainstream styles and is instead collections that are inspired by rebellion and evolution.  

Wolf N Crane

The first runway show of the night on April 15 was Wolf N Crane, a streetwear brand, by Ena Luckin. Inspired by Toronto streetwear, she showcased dresses, shirts, pants, rompers, leggings, shorts, and mini-capes in her featured line. Many of the designs included graphic prints of knives, roses, Hemp leaves and cranes.The colour palette of the pieces remained on the dark side, with mainly blacks and whites used as her bases with only minimal color added.

Neoteny Apparel

The second runway collection was created by Lex Brown showcasing her pieces from her company - Neoteny Apparel. Her collection -[Fallacy] Transitional focused on dress codes within non-creative work places. The pieces combined both modern business professional attireand the colourful prints, and cuts of fashion’s latest designs. Though the pieces stood out in their own way, there is still a conservative aspect and design to the pieces that make them office appropriate.

House of Poplyn

In the third runway show, House of Poplyn, featured many of its designs around layers of tulle and tie-dye for its theme - Dreamcatcher. Tanushree Pande, House of Poplyn’s founder, managed to embody the feminine charm and youthfulness within her pieces. The designs were a combination of both evening looks and dramatic ready to wear items. The overall colour palette remained on the fair side, with a mix up of whites, pale greens and baby blues, said to be inspired by the colours and patterns of nature.

Odrea

Andrea JungMin Oh’s featured theme for her collection was Dressing Line, which improved  the ideas from paper dolls and technical drawings. Mainly a womenswear designer, Oh’s pieces stuck to only one colour, white, throughout her entire line. The pieces were beautifully versatile and designed in such a way that the items could be worn either as evening wear or as business attire.

Nuvango

The founders Pichora and Downs of Nuvango, joined together with Fashion designer, Hillary Sampliner, to present Sampliner’s collection called Colour Theory, which explores art in motion and the body as the canvas. The designs on the collection were created from works on canvas or on a computer screen. They encompassed a wide range of designs from pops of colors to loud and eye-catching pieces that are both bold and wearable.

RiaToss-Skulptur

Ross Wirtanen is the director and choreographer of the performance-art piece called SKULPTUR. The runway transformed with the setup and execution of this piece, which was inspired by greek mythology.

Padina Bondar

Padina Bondar focused her collections around the biology of the female reproductive system. Each piece represented the different stages and a specific period in a woman’s life. The pieces displayed both modern and retro feel to their designs. Despite being wearable art projects, some of the designs could be considered evening wear with the chic and elegant designs, which present the female form for what it is.