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"ROM After Dark: Fashion is Art" Recap

Written by Astrid Superstar

Last week, art literally came to life at the Royal Ontario Museum. For a special edition of their “ROM After Dark” series, Fashion Art Toronto hosted a curated fashion experience like no other. While a handful of these events are put on throughout the year, their April 12th event “Fashion is Art” paid tribute to the city’s burgeoning high-fashion scene. 

On a normal day, the ROM is filled with eager children and guests who look forward to seeing awe-inspiring exhibits and experiencing world culture from all stages of history. On this night, however, the museum was empty - save for the industry denizens attending the Fashion After Dark event. 

The Royal Ontario Museum at night. Photo by Marco L.

From 7:30-11:30 pm, the historic museum closed its doors for a private adults-only event featuring “curated music, visual arts, performances, and distinctive food and drink,” according to the ROM website. Each ticket holder was granted access to the entire museum for a true “Night at the Museum” experience - the one we’ve all probably dreamed of since we watched the movie as a kid. (That’s a universal thing and wasn’t just me, right…?)

“Go full fashionista at RAD: Fashion is Art - a night blending fashion, art, and history with high style, avant-garde fashion, and fiery beats,” their website teased, announcing collaborations not only with FAT but with the fashion design students of Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU). A performance by Roney X and a set by DJ Blackcat provided the soundtrack for the night, as intricate and flamboyant haute couture haunted the hallowed halls. 

The Royal Ontario Museum, one of Toronto’s oldest and most significant historical buildings, was established in 1914 - approximately 110 years ago. Since then, the building has gone through many cosmetic changes, most notably the addition of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal in 2007. This is the most striking part of the building’s facade - the giant crystalline glass and aluminum angles emerging from the original stonework. You know the one I’m talking about. It’s as if the building itself has crystallized, jutting out over the streets. The fact that the ROM can exist as both a stately structure and an experimental masterpiece at the same time is an apt representation of the city of Toronto and its unique inhabitants. 

Fashion Art Toronto promised to “turn the entire museum into a high-fashion catwalk,” as a curated selection of designers would be “showcasing diverse designs, up-and-coming artists, and the future of style.” The mixture of FAT-affiliated participating designers, combined with the expertise of FAT's Hair and Makeup Leads Dylan Cruickshank and Jez Taylor, was sure to invoke the level of spectacle one would expect from such a prestigious affair. Show-stopping icons L’uomo Strano, House of Hendo, World of Folklore and Fugnitto have shown with FAT many times, while returning favorites Narces, Tran Thien Khanh and IMAGO Millinery rounded out the roster. Known for their expertly-detailed, larger-than-life designs, these creative minds were sure to rise to the challenge. 


At 8 pm sharp, professional pianist Darren Creech took a seat at the grand piano in the center of the museum’s main foyer. 

Creech, who has been playing piano since the tender age of 5, was decked out head-to-toe in House of Hendo - one of the featured designers of the event. It was a full-circle moment for , who had their first ever Toronto performance at the ROM 12 years ago. “So much of my work blends fashion and music,” Creech says, explaining that his solo work often included numerous outfits and costume changes. He is often dressed by designers for these shows, previously having repped local designers like ZOFF and recently L’uomo Strano for a performance at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. 

Left: Darren Creech, in full House of Hendo, stands before the crowd. Photo by Chris Cheung.

Right: Creech and Kelly Henderson, designer for House of Hendo. Photo by Natalie Ambri

Set to a moody blue light and accompanied by a mix of contemporary classical music, a procession of models wearing select looks the featured designers emerged from the crowd, taking turns circling around the setup in a carousel-like fashion. They slowly twirled about, lightly touching the piano, dazzling the audience with the elaborate embellishment of their attire. This was the beginning of the night - just a taste of what the evening had in store. 


Trần Thiện Khánh, House of Hendo, World of Folklore

In a quick, rapidfire succession, designs from Trần Thiện Khánh, House of Hendo and World of Folklore dominated the Chinese Architecture and Asia Gallery off the main entrance. Posing on white podiums strategically placed throughout the exhibit, models turned the scene into a living tableau - almost as if we had collectively been transported to days of yore. While these designers' creations are unquestionably different, each collection managed to highlight a different component of the gallery.

Up first was Trần Thiện Khánh, who blends traditional Indonesian style with modern concepts with effortless ease. His reworked Áo Dài (translating to “long dress”) is often signified by a mandarin collar and an ankle-length hemline. Committed to the intersection of heritage and innovation, the finer details of his work (often elaborate jewels and embroidery) elevate these gowns into something straight out of a fairytale.

While Trần was unfortunately unable to attend, he was represented by his assistant Truong, who is notable in the fashion scene for their powerful runway walks. Also there to support was Kelly HongLe, his frequent collaborator with their shared non-profit foundation Áo Dài Canada.

Left: Models for Trần Thiện Khánh. Right: The models in front of the temple facade.

Photos by Chris Cheung. 

“He’s very passionate about what he does, and wants to share his cultural costume, the Áo Dài, with the world,” HongLe shares. “Khánh always has a theme when it comes to his designs, but today, you’re just getting a sneak peak. His big, beautiful collection is going to be in May.” (It’s true - Trần Thiện Khánh is set to close out the 5 pm Fashion Art Toronto show on Sunday, May 5th - tickets are available here.) 

“The theme is very heavenly,” she continues. “You’re going to see a lot of soft textures - it’s earth and sky. It’s not the traditional Ào Dài, but when you look at it, you still know it’s the Ào Dài.” 

In front of the life-size temple facade, a model wearing a white gown with embroidered clouds and a black sheer cape was the physical embodiment of the sequin-encrusted cranes adorning her feathered headpiece. Tall, poised and graceful, she was statuesque, arms stretched overhead while the wing-like cape fluttered behind her. A second model joined her, this one in a warm yellow dress with a broad-shouldered silhouette, with a golden wire headpiece atop her sleek bun. 

Another was perched on a podium in front of an ancient wagon, in a similar black and white gown to the first. Her dress had a majestic bird in flight embroidered on the front, along with a sheer white embroidered cape and a large black hat to complete the look. It strikes the audience that the location for this collection could not have been better chosen, and it seems as though what we are seeing is like observing nature itself. 

Silhouettes invoke an ancient quality - puffed sleeves, high collars, long trains and rounded, silk headpieces reminiscent of golden halos seen in Renaissance-era paintings. The collection as a whole was exactly as HongLe described - empyrean, like stealing a glimpse through a portal of celestial beings on Earth. 

Next to present was House of Hendo, who’s garments are known for their extravagance and ornate adornments. Designer Kelly Henderson utilizes methods of sustainability and circular fashion - or in her words, “consciously converted clothing” - along with opulent accessories to generate looks of pure elegance. 

Henderson was excited to show an accumulation of looks from her extended 5-part collection, “The Pile”. Part I debuted at Fashion Art Toronto during our virtual series in 2020, with the consecutive iterations being shown at our fashion weeks throughout the years. An Artist Statement on the Fashion Art Toronto website, coinciding with the release of The Pile I, describes the project as a “branching out” from Henderson’s curated vintage.

The 5 models for House of Hendo, each wearing an outfit from one of The Pile collections.

Photo by Natalia Ambri

She describes “taking her talents as a fashion designer and curator to combine pre-loved garments and notions into new high-end wearable pieces.” The name of the project came to be as “all materials have been in her life’s PILE for years, if not decades. It is time to make time to design them with love, and then set them free.” 

With a total of 5 looks being displayed at The ROM, each model represented a different incarnation of The Pile. “I'm showing all of them in one space at one time,” Henderson says, emphasizing that this had never been done before. 

“I've wanted to show them all, but collectively I needed to keep building them,” she explains. “[My] crochet pieces are, for me, the most in-depth and personal. It takes a lot of time to build them, a lot of hand work, so they're a big representation of each collection.  I'm excited for people to walk around them while the models are standing still, and they can get an up-close look.” 

And get an up-close look we did. In contrast to the previous presentation, these models were mostly still, taking advantage of the statuesque stone additions to the exhibit. One model stands in the center of a giant arch, the colour of their crochet gown perfectly matching the rock itself, giving the impression that they may have been created at the same time. She wore a cream crochet gown with a matching cape, with tufts of fabric tied around her ankles.  The subtle glitter around their eyes glimmered like tears in the light. 

A model in a similar crochet piece poses next to a statue - and it strikes us again how similar the fine crochet work and highly-detailed carvings compliment one another. For the model at the Temple Facade, we see an all-red look, complimenting the striking hues of the wooden beams. Another model in all-black accompanies the setup. These models are in a state of tableau, as if they are extensions of the sculptures themselves. 


Closing out the first presentation is World of Folklore, who’s interpretation of traditional Indian craftsmanship fused into romantic, modern styles gives their work a distinct and enchanting edge. Working with luxurious fabrics like velvet and lace, their pieces are all handmade - embroidered stitch by stitch to emphasize their whimsical and elegant charm. World of Folklore has been a long-standing staple of Fashion Art Toronto seasons, also having participated in the 2020 Virtual Series alongside many of the night's featured designers.

For designer Sana Sapra, design is "a soulful journey" of "exploring, experimenting and connecting". Writing on Instagram, she says that "weaving is a cultural identity" and that "Folklore expresses heritage, traditions and belonging, forging connections through creative explorations." Rather succinctly, she describes the ethos of her brand as "vibrant threads of cultural stories, weaving rich tales in the fabric of tradition, a visual symphony echoing heritage's timeless melodies."

Left: Model Dana poses by the piano.

Right: The models for World of Folklore. Photos by Seppid.

At The ROM, Sapra showcased “a blend of sustainable and exclusive high street fashion” that has made her work so notable. “The designs aim to merge innovative designs with sustainable technique of clothing to make fashion not just chic, but also eco-friendly.” Almost intuitively, as we saw with Khánh’s cranes, Sapra themed her models around another bird of wonder. The peacock, she says, is “a bird so beautiful [that] it looks like an art creation of God.” 

To represent the impression of inherent divinity within the animal, Folklore’s models were adorned with crowns of feathers, attached to their hairstyles with bundles of flowers. It immediately gave a "Showgirls" sort of vibe, conjuring images of the extravagant headdresses often work by cabaret performers. The looks were completed with a smattering of vibrant eye-shadow, corresponding with tones in their outfits.

These models were fluid in movement, in contrast to the stoic stillness of the show before. Model Dana perched atop a podium appearing to literally float in the air, her arms moving with such grace that it seemed as if she was underwater. 

We can truly see the modern influences in World of Folklore’s work - while we have more form-fitting gowns, some of the models wore form-fitting pants and a mini skirt that could easily be worn off-the-runway. Checkered woven patterns took up a majority of the textiles, giving the appearance of braided rope. Shades of blue represented the peacock - mostly teal, lapis and cerulean, either worn together or contrasted with hot pink or accentuated with a golden yellow. Regardless of combination, the colours chosen to interweave together were expertly picked - even when they visually divergent, there was always an undeniable sense of harmony. 

c5 LOUNGE - IMAGO Millinery 

Through IMAGO Millinery, legendary FAT model Sebastian Blagdon constructs whimsically inventive and experimental headwear. Inspired heavily by vintage fashions of decades gone by, the hats and headpieces they produce are an exemplary standard of the intersection of fashion and art that this event will convey. In the last 2 seasons alone, IMAGO Millinery has appeared on the Fashion Art Toronto runway four times - topping off collections from L’uomo Strano and Brandon Keir (the latter for 2 consecutive seasons), as well as debuting a line of masterfully crafted head sculptures for the TMU showcase. 

These aforementioned 5 masterfully constructed headpieces were once again displayed at The ROM, this time being featured all on their own. For Blagdon, showing at The ROM was a full circle moment. “I moved to Toronto almost 12 years ago to pursue design,” Blagdon enthused. “I went through all the phases of doing hair, modeling, styling, working with designers, and am finally showing my own collection.” 

Left: Designer Sebastian Blagdon and one of their models. Photo by Alla Prynda.

Right: The models for IMAGO Millinery. Photo by Chris Cheung.

To a hypnotic electronic compilation of songs by the Swedish pop singer Robin, the IMAGO models - clad only in white underwear with the hats balanced on their heads - presented at the space formerly used as the c5 (abbreviation for Crystal 5) restaurant lounge, where guests were seated at tables crafting high-fashion paper dolls. On these higher stories of the building, the inside of the Michael-Lee Chin crystal is on full display, with angled glass walls revealing a beautiful panoramic view of the city. 

Tonight’s setup was arranged so that the models could walk the perimeter and then directly through the center of the room, while attendees sat to craft and converse - fully immersed in the show environment. “There wasn’t a bad seat in the house,” notes Blagdon. “Everyone got to see everything.” 

“I liked the space because as it was not a part of the main environment, we could control it,” he elaborates, noting that . “I chose the colour of the lights that flooded the space and walls, as well as curating my own music.” Everything was intentional for Blagdon, who’s inherent creativity allows them to see the full picture of a final result in their mind’s eye. “We used a blue-indigo tone for the walls, and the runway portion had a couple of floodlights in a cool white. I liked how the hats were photographed at Fashion Art Toronto last season - I wanted the hats to look super crisp with no warmth.” 

When looking at the creations by IMAGO Millinery, one can’t help but marvel at the meticulousness that goes into each design - of which Blagdon’s lifelong interest in architecture plays a major part. “I’ve always loved a structured garment, something with interesting angles, and I love creating shapes,” he says. “My work is a segue from loving architecture - dressing buildings versus dressing oneself.” 


Narces has made a name for themselves not only in Canadian fashion, but in the global space as a whole. Designer Nikki Yassemi invents high-fashion couture for anyone with a fun, playful spirit. Whether it be tailored pantsuits, sexy slips or elegant gowns, Narces’ use of textile and colour creates an impactful influence. (Read our promotional piece for Narces’ first Fashion Art Toronto collection here.)

Eaton Court, the segment of the museum where the Narces runway was held, is a part of the museum’s impressive collection of European artifacts - trophies, vases and suits of armor. “Every section of the ROM can make you feel something different,” Yassemi says on why the stately, regal area served as a perfect backdrop for the bright and bold designs of Narces.

Designer Nikki Yassemi, front and center, with her models. Photo by Hooman Zahedi.

The room itself was packed to the brim with fashion enthusiasts from around the city - while we had seen the large crowds all night, the tight space really emphasized the draw that the evening had amassed. Suddenly, the sound of a string arrangement began to softly play from the speakers, accompanied by the echoes of delighted chatter which reverberated off the walls. You could almost taste the anticipation in the air. 

We open with a red dress - sheer and adorned with petals, giving the illusion that they are trailing away in a wisp of wind. Another similar look is infused with a muted blue pastel. The gowns of silver intermingled with those of a striking, vivid red. Model Naaliyah wears a shift dress of silver metallic fringe, sparkling and shining as if the treasures secured in the glass displays had come to life. Model Vini closes the show in a shiny red suit that screams David Bowie, his slicked back hair and dark eye makeup accentuating the impression. 

While the previous shows had been performances, this one was structured as a traditional runway. The entire layout of the gallery was utilized as models would disappear only to emerge again on the opposite side. For the finale, models lined up and walked the path side-by-side as one cohesive unit, representing the unity of the collection. 

For the night, Yassemi was allotted 6 pieces and had to choose from her upcoming FW24 collection, the extent of which comprises 30 complete looks. Narrowing them down for this sneak peek into her collection was difficult for her. “I had a really tough time choosing what to show,” she says, elaborating that she had to pick pieces that could work together as a 6-piece presentation as well. 

While red may have dominated the stage tonight, Yassemi’s full roster has a lot more colour that we didn’t see. “We have darker greens, more blues and whites, and there's a bunch of silver that we didn't use.” She notes that she chose the lighter colours to balance out the harsher ones, to give the audience an idea into what the bigger picture of the total collection will be. Despite her trepidation she seems to have succeeded, as it was apparent that her selection left the impressed audience wanting more. 


Mario Fugnitto has mastered the art of form for his eponymous label, Fugnitto. Working with primarily leather (but not afraid to experiment with denim, yarn, sheer mesh, etc), he fits material to mannequins for a skin-clad finish, emphasizing the curvature of the body. The result is an amalgamation of sculpture and fashion, with many of his models resembling marble statues from the neck down. 

In the Gallery of Greece at The ROM, the models of Fugnitto were set up in the center of a curved semi-circle created by busts on pillars in the middle of the room. This is when the night took a different turn - one that was decidedly darker and sexier than what we had seen so far. 

The models for Fugnitto. Photo by Jeanna Ivaniuk.

To thumping music, three Grecian goddesses appeared. Paired in trios, the first batch of models to come out were decidedly regal in their costume. Model solo was wrapped in a silver corset, with a life-size human hand sticking out as if reaching for her ear. A black sheer skirt was draped around her lithe frame. Lise donned all white in a draping toga-like gown, a dichotomy of sultriness and purity. Amelia wore a red leather corseted dress, the back of which was split to reveal a black thong and laced up with thin black rope. 

The next batch were in all black, flowing fabrics mixed with the signature Fugnitto skin-tight. The models were quick to make full use of the podiums - stretching, lounging, and frolicking about. For the audience, the tangle of leather and flesh was a glimpse into an enticing, amorous world, harkening to the notoriously erotic celebrations of the ancient Greek. 

For both groups, hair was braided and twisted along the crowns or their heads in a loose and flowy manner - slightly messy, as if they were just pulled from a Dionysian dream of revelry and excess. On model Kristen, we see an almost Edwardian hairstyle, played up by her black choker and delicate pearl earrings. Edgy accessories like chunky platform boots, long leather gloves, zippers and chains reminded us that this was, indeed, a Fugnitto show. 

Fugnitto described this set as an “archival” of his previous leather forms, with some new ones added in as well. The newer pieces were fresh out of a week-long freezing process, custom-made with the models’ measurements. Fugnitto has built something of a family out of the models he uses, and you’ll often see many familiar faces at his shows. Backstage before the show, he muses about his muses and the sense of support and comfort that they bring to his work. “We’re fortunate that FAT gave us a safe space and now it's our responsibility to maintain it safely. That’s why I focus on the community and friendships because, at the end of the day, we're not caring cancer. This is fun! It’s supposed to be fun!” 


L’uomo Strano is spearheaded by industry icon Mic Carter, who describes their brand as a “very queer, black owned fashion brand creating affirming wardrobes for gender non-conforming folx and their allies.” Hallmarks of their creations include excessive drapery and experimentation with silhouette, all with a distinct punk-rock edge. (Catch up on L’uomo Strano’s evolution with our highlight on their 10-year Fashion Art Toronto retrospective here.)

The mosaic-tiled vaulted ceilings of the Queen’s Park Rotunda served as a dramatic and baroque setting for the show. The Strano models, recognizable all-stars in a league of their own, began to fill the space to operatic music with a hard techno beat. 

Left and Right: A bird's eye view of the L'uomo Strano show, taken from the balcony

of the Queen's Park Rotunda. Photos by Chris Cheung.

For Carter, a major source of inspiration for the collection was the venue itself. “When Vanja [Vasic, Fashion Art Toronto’s Director] initially detailed the FAT x ROM event, she encouraged us to think of it as our own little Met Gala,” Carter says, adding that this “resulted in a sartorial exploration of the intersection of queer aesthetics and Rococo creativity. As such, the collection was playfully and informally titled “META GALA MIC: Rococo Bussy.” 

Carter leaned into the Met Gala concept as well. For the uninitiated, the Met Gala is an annual event held on the first Sunday in May at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The infamous dress code theme coincides with the opening of the Costume Institute’s newest fashion exhibit. Often referred to colloquially as “the biggest night in fashion,” costumes worn by the celebrity guests are heavily discussed for weeks, sometimes years, afterwards. 

“Because this year’s Met Gala theme revolves around among many things [like] magical botany, several silhouettes referenced abject floral physiology,” Carter continues. “Other thematic elements of the collection were influenced by Patrick Kelly, the first American to be admitted into the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, as well as the taxonomic hybridization of mythical beasts, nerdy world-building, and self-reflexivity.” 

Designer Patrick Kelly was arguably at the height of his success at the time of his untimely passing from AIDS complications in 1990, at the age of 35. An early advocate for size inclusion, he is often credited for revolutionizing fashion with what Vogue describes as a "playful and political" body of work. As Carter mentions, his 1988 admission into the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode (Federation of Haute Couture and Fashion), the French fashion industry's governing body and the organization behind Paris Fashion Week, made history.

The Strano models - with delicately flushed cheeks and glossy, parted lips - moved in a pattern, weaving past each other in a methodical motion. It called back to L’uomo Strano’s show for the FAT Virtual Series in 2021, where a similar sequence was utilized at Union Station. While they strode about the room, one model at a time would perform a powerful catwalk down the red carpet affixed to the floor, walking through the audience to the camera pit at the end to take their pose. They would eventually rejoin the group, flouncing about while their gowns trailed behind them, moving as one.  

It almost felt like a sacrificial procession - the ruffled and heavily-layered robes, some with long trains reminiscent of ball gowns, made us feel like we were watching a gathering for the most glamorous noble court in history. Fittingly on theme, a model even wore a white pouf wig harkening back to the French nobility of yesteryear, adorned with delicate black bows. 

It all seemed to work to a climax, as the music cranked up, and a daunting lion’s roar echoed through the space (a nod to the mythical beast element of the collection, perhaps?). Strano shows are always known for their theatricality, and Carter has developed a reputation for pulling out all the stops. The designer themself could be seen blending in with the crowd, watching over the show like a proud parent. It was the perfect sendoff for the audience - powerful, strong and unforgettable.


The Currelly Mainstage at The ROM After Dark: Fashion is Art.

Fashion Art Toronto’s collaboration with ROM After Dark was a beautiful harmony between all forms of artistic expression, represented in a tidy package for the audience. Playing out just 2 weeks before FAT’s Spring/Summer 2023 1664 Fashion Week (which runs May 2nd to 5th at the Black Creek Assembly), the show was a dedicated amalgam of what makes Toronto fashion so intriguingly unique on the world’s stage. 

To experience more of the idiosyncrasies the city’s fashion scene has to offer - tickets for the upcoming iteration of Fashion Art Toronto are available here.


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