From growing up in Toronto’s Regent Park to competing in design challenges in China, I caught up with designer Doreen To to learn about her incredible experiences at Seneca College in the Fashion Arts program, and taking part in the #BecauseItMatters campaign.
Gracie Carroll: Tell me a bit about yourself, where are you from and where did you grow up?
Doreen To: I was born in Toronto and grew up in in the old Regent Park neighbourhood. Despite the bad rap the neighbourhood gets, I loved living there and that place is still home even though I don’t live there anymore. I learned independence and fearlessness at a young age because it was safe to walk to-and-from school alone – even at nighttime when I was going home from a nearby friend’s place. There were many summer block parties well into the late night with good food, music, and friendly neighbours. Plus, it was in the heart of downtown! Close to the Eaton Centre, streetcars running 24/7, and all the roads were shovelled already whenever I woke up in the Canadian Tundra. My love for multiculturalism (especially food) and sense of adventure came from growing up in that diverse neighbourhood.
GC: What were you interested in when you were growing up? Were you always interested in Fashion?
DT: When I was growing up I was interested in playing sports (still am) and wanted to either become a police officer or an actress. This was influenced by heroic female leads on TV shows about cops and action films. I was also into playing dress-up and makeup. My favourite thing to do was give my friends makeovers and haircuts! I was both a Tomboy and Girly Girl. People saw more of the tomboy side of me; I wore a lot of hand-me-downs growing up of both boys and girls clothing. When I was 11 my aunt took me shopping at Jacob Jr. for the first time, and it was the first time I was allowed to pick out what I liked, and have more than one choice – it felt like a shopping spree! When shopping with my mom, she would have the ultimate say in the clothes she bought for me; if I wanted purple, she would buy me green, etc. With my aunt, I got my first cool pair of dark blue flared denim (that fit!) and my favourite baby blue fuzzy sweater. I received so many compliments from girls at school about my outfit and I think it was in that moment that I liked fashion because I liked how I felt. From then on, I fought for freedom to choose my own clothes and went to the mall with my friends without any parents. This was when I was in grade 5 with only $10-$20 that I had saved up in my pocket, and taking the TTC was much more affordable back in the day.
GC: At what point did you decide that you wanted to become a fashion designer?
DT: Being a fashion designer was not something I ever dreamed of doing growing up, and that’s probably because I didn’t know anyone who was a designer, or that it was a real career choice. To be really honest, I went into fashion design as a kid thinking that it would be an easy diploma to get, and then I could figure out what I wanted to do afterwards. My success in college made me realize that I could actually be a designer for real.
GC: What was your experience like studying Fashion Arts at Seneca? What were the highs and lows?
DT: In my first and second year of studying at Seneca I would say that my learning curve was like the steepness of the Leviathan at Canada’s Wonderland. I had no prior knowledge of sewing, patterns, or fashion design. I mean I took art in high school and just passed. My first class ever was a pattern making class and that day was also my first time ever stepping foot on Seneca campus, because cool kids don’t need to go to orientation and read the letters sent to you by program admins, right? I was so unprepared! I definitely learned my lesson afterwards; Fashion is not easy. It’s not shopping, dressing nice, and having nice Instagram photos. It is discipline, research, and creativity. When I finally “understood” Fashion, I was getting good grades and feeling really proud of my work. I participated in design challenges and got to go to China and compete internationally on behalf of Seneca!
GC: How did your time in the Fashion Arts program at Seneca help shape who you are as a designer, and a brand?
DT: Being at Seneca helped me realize that the fashion route is right for me. Overcoming the initial challenges I faced in my studies and then to excel proves to me that I wanted it all along without knowing it. I’ve grown so much in the 4 years I was at Seneca because of the highs and lows. Although I am still quite fresh in the industry I feel confident in my skills and what I have to offer.
GC: How would you describe the Doreen To brand and your debut collection, the “Paper Samurai”?
DT: My debut Paper Samurai collection was inspired by the many ways you can manipulate a piece of paper by crumpling, ripping, cutting etc. It’s raw and organic. No steps to follow unlike origami. And it was also inspired by Samurai gear, pride and battle. A lot of edges are raw to portray still being a boss after a fight. Each piece of the collection is a statement piece on its own and does not clash when worn together. The mood I wanted to convey through the collection is drawn from my personal experiences of struggle and victory. And feeling totally badass.
GC: What was it like to participate in the RED: Emerging Designer Showcase at World MasterCard Fashion Week last fall?
DT: It was surreal. When I was 18 I saw my first WMCFW show with my friend from high school and her mom who worked for that designer. I was so giddy and very disappointed that it ended after 15 minutes. I wanted more! Fast forward to 6 years later, I would have never thought I’d be the one to show my collection to people who also love fashion, and being able to share a glimpse of my world to my friends who came to support. I was also excited to show my best pieces and styling it differently from when it was first debuted (at school). I am pro ‘slow fashion’ and was happy that my collection still looked fresh on the runway even though it was not a new collection.
GC: Now that you’re a graduate, what’s the next step for your career?
DT: My next step is to network and collaborate with other creative minds not necessarily only in the fashion industry. I want to expand my knowledge and skills, be inspired by others, and be a part of an organization that is passionate about helping others. I know that sounds vague, but eventually I want to make my fashion career into one that helps people feel the way I felt when I was 11 years old at school rocking an outfit that was completely me.
GC: How has Seneca helped prepare you for what’s to come?
DT: The best thing I gained from coming out of Seneca was all the close connections I made. I know I have a supportive group at Seneca where I feel comfortable with going to for advice and help. The next best thing is that Seneca invests in their students and the future of learning. We have great working space and every year you hear past grads say to the current students, “I wish we had that in my year!” which tells me that they are always looking for ways to improve.
GC: Why does taking part in Seneca’s #BecauseItMatters campaign matter to you?
DT: It matters to me a lot, and that’s because I know from my own experiences that sharing my story and also hearing others’ stories has helped me heal from the things that were once broken in my life. I was once also afraid of judgement and misunderstanding if I were to let people know about where I grew up and the things I had to face. I first had to learn to accept and not be ashamed of myself which was the most difficult part. Then when I opened myself to others people were very loving, encouraging and understanding. Friendships were deepened and burdens were lifted. When doing the #BecauseItMatters campaign my family was going through something difficult and I was undecided whether I wanted to go through with it because it was so in the moment, but my instincts told me to go through with it because the campaign celebrates those who have gone through hurdles and I needed that positivity to help me leap over the next one my way. I have to thank Seneca for recognizing their students beyond just the grades, but the road they walked on to get there.
Thank you for sharing your story Doreen!