John van der Schilden Image by: John van der Schilden
Fong’s fashion dreams started early: He created costumes for high school assemblies and prom dresses for friends. He studied film at Toronto’s Ryerson University but kept “dipping [his] feet into fashion on the side.” In 2004 he launched Vawk, a clothing line characterized by strong silhouettes and masterful tailoring. It was the beginning of his sartorial education. “I really like couture — handmade elements that you can’t mass-produce,” says the Toronto-based designer. “But if it only looks beautiful on the hanger, it’s useless. You need to be able to fit something on a body without having it look like it’s fitted on a body.”
To learn the finer points of craftsmanship, Fong trolled Holt Renfrew — flipping clothes inside out to see how they were made — and spent hours researching online for detailed images of Dior and Chanel designs to see how the masters nailed it. “Being self-taught built my confidence,” he explains. “I saw that Rodarte can get away with this or that — they don’t have to finish the hem if they don’t want to. You can create what you want.”
Then the first season of PRC was announced. Fong applied but didn’t make the cut. “I still watched the show, of course,” he says, laughing. “I saw Lucian [Matis] as my competitor. We have a similar aesthetic. From his clothes, I could tell which designers he admires, and I’m like, ‘Me too!’” Fong was in a fatalistic mood when he auditioned for the show’s second season. “I decided that if I didn’t make it, it would be time to close that chapter of my life,” he says. “And when I did make it, I took it as a sign that I had to stick with fashion.”
For Fong, whose disposition matches his first name, the drama of living in a fishbowl was eclipsed by the excitement of what would happen if he won. He kept his head down, learned to trust his design instincts and embraced his role as “house mom,” making breakfast for his fellow designers and bringing fruit slices to the studio. Still, the sniping wore him down. “When I like someone, I 100 percent like them. I get close to people really quickly,” he says. “I know it’s a competition, but I didn’t realize [the backstabbing] would start that early! It just doesn’t have to be that ugly.”
Of all the pieces he created on PRC, Fong is most proud of his Alexander the Great-themed finale collection. The idea originated at HMV, where he bought a DVD of Alexander (the Colin Farrell blockbuster) for $6. “I thought, ‘Okay, that could work,’” he says. He researched Greek armour and sculpture and Persian history. “I wanted it to be a little bit cheeky, not too literal — no togas!” he says. “It’s one thing to be inspired, but it’s another to make something that has already been made.” The result — jackets with recycled fur sleeves, black leather leggings and delicate, asymmetrical dresses — prompted Iman to term Fong “a superstar” and secured him the win.
Two weeks after the ELLE Canada photo shoot, Fong’s new-found celebrity is still sinking in. “I didn’t realize how much of a big deal winning the show is,” he says, sounding amazed. “People are hanging out of their cars, screaming congratulations, getting really excited like they’ve seen one of the Jonas Brothers!” People are emailing him from as far away as Hong Kong. “To me, I’m me, but to everyone else I’m sort of a big deal.”