Rising stars: Vincentian-Toronto designer Rhonique Ballantyne

By Aya Baradie 


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. 

Canadian Fashion Designer: Mani Jassal

Fashion designer, Mani Jassal showcased her Spring/Summer 2016 evening wear Udaipur Tea Party collection in a runway show at 99 Sudbury on Oct. 14, 2015. Jassal’s inspiration for this collection was the city of Udaipur in India, also know as the ‘City of Lakes’. The designer reflected majestic combination of mountains, water and marble architecture of the royal palaces in an innovative blend of fabrics, colours and silhouettes that give the collection very luxurious touch. She used silks, crepes, brocades and embroidered floral prints in intricate pieces – gowns, skirts, trousers, capes, and separates.

Jassal describes her self-titled label as “a little bit more rebellious and a little bit more different.” Each outfit reflects the designer’s individuality and every piece of clothing is hand-made by Jassal herself, sometimes with the help from her mother.

She uses fashion as a universal language by combining Canadian and Indian cultures together. “I am Canadian-Indian, so my brand is taking those two cultures together, putting them together and creating clothes for everyone. It is not just for Indians or just for Canadians – it is for everyone,” she said. She represents that idea by choosing her models from many different ethnic groups.

Her studio is a place where she produces clothes for both national and international clients. Local clients come to her studio to place the order and have a look at her newest collections. For her international clients, she offers virtual design consultations. “No matter where you are in the world, I am able to create you something for any occasion,” she said.

The process of designing a cloth takes a lot of time since Jassal does everything on her own, but the final product is the only one of its kind. She draws inspirations from traveling, reading fashion magazines, or just simply watching people around her. Whenever and wherever an idea comes to her mind, she starts sketching it right away. Next, she goes fabric shopping. If she sees something she likes, she automatically has this vision in her head what she wants to create with it. In her designs, she enjoys using a lot raw silks and incorporating to it some sort of shine or print fabrics. Her collections always remain in one colour rather than a bunch of different colours for each piece of clothing. She designs clothes that she would want to wear and her customers enjoy what she wears, so it goes hand in hand to balance her creativity with commerce.

“My favourite part about being a designer is that it makes me happy, I really enjoy doing it and it doesn’t feel like a job,” she said.

Since Jassal was 12-years old, she knew she wanted to be a fashion designer. It was in the high school when she had this kind of ‘breaking point’ because she did not know what she wanted to do and at this point she was actually planning to be an engineer instead of a fashion designer. However, her passion to fashion drove her to Ryerson University in Toronto for fashion design and two years after the graduation she is here with her self-titled brand.

In five years from now, she wants to have her own boutique. She is planning to open her first location in Toronto and then expand her boutiques all over the world.