How the COVID-19 lockdown helped this fashion designer overcome tragedy and create a new show

Kadeem Faustin, 27, lost his mother a decade ago. Months later, a temporary paralysis ended his dance career. But this year, the COVID-19 lockdown gave the fashion designer the time he needed to come to terms with his grief and rethink his new show, which premieres Oct. 21 during Fashion Art Toronto.

Kadeem Faustin's latest collection, Labou, premieres Oct. 21 during Fashion Art Toronto

Kadeem Faustin says he's 'grateful that COVID came so that I got the chance to sit with myself and know myself.' (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Kadeem Faustin says he's finally "working from a place where tragedy does not exist."

It all began a decade ago with the death of his mother in his home country of St. Lucia, a French-speaking island nation in the Caribbean, and then months later a temporary paralysis ended his dance career.

"I used my tragedy as inspiration. Oh, it was beautiful. I loved dwelling in that," the Toronto fashion designer told CBC News. 

But after 10 years, Faustin believes he's turned a corner and is merging his two disciplines — art and dance —  by creating his new collection Labou, which will premiere at Toronto's longest running fashion week — Fashion Art Toronto.

Faustin, whose brand Kyle Gervacy is inspired by African and Asian influences, partly credits the stay-at-home order issued in the city at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic for helping him come to terms with his loss.

"I was spiraling. I felt like I was just running for five years. It was just a collection after collection, show after show," he told CBC News.

WATCH| Nazima Walji talks to Toronto fashion designer Kadeem Faustin about how COVID-19 gave him the time he needed to overcome his grief:

This Toronto fashion designer turned personal tragedy into inspiration

CBC News Toronto

5 months ago
Nazima Walji talks to Toronto fashion designer Kadeem Faustin about how COVID-19 gave him the time he needed to overcome his grief. 2:18

The enforced break from work gave the self-taught designer the time he needed to reflect on what is really important and get back to the basics of creating.

That's where Fashion Art Toronto comes in. It's been a platform for artists and designers to experiment, create and find their voice for the past 15 years, says founder Vanja Vasic.

Vasic, a former fashion student at Ryerson University, says she began the festival to fill a gap she saw in the fashion industry and to push boundaries in a way that challenged the idea of traditional fashion weeks.

"We are all about presenting diversity in fashion, body types, different cultural backgrounds and also breaking gender norms," Vasic explained.

'Kyle Gervacy is bold and drama. When you see the brand you know the drama,' Faustin says. (Kadeem Faustin)

As its executive director, Vasic says the event also encourages multimedia art performances, including the integration of music, video and dance alongside the fashion show, helping to create an immersive experience that allows designers and artists to tell a story through their work.  

Finding his voice

Faustin's background in both dance and design allows him to easily merge his two disciplines to create a show and FAT is giving him the space for him to find his voice, Vasic says.

"I think the way Kadeem creates, he uses a lot of expressive ideas like dance and movement in his pieces and that allows him to break through that tragedy in order to move to a new space that is more positive and uplifting and you can see that in his work and in his fashion," she said.

Fashion Art Toronto is a five-day showcase of experimental, multi-sensory, art-influenced fashion presentations, performances, art installations, photography and short film. (Fashion Art Toronto/2019)

Faustin describes his latest collection as "a visual diary" that he says takes him back to place of childhood. 

Labou is the French Creole word for mud, said Faustin, "To me, mud is a place to create, a space without judgment." 

He plans to tell his story by showcasing 18 models wearing his designs, a choreographed routine featuring four dancers, including himself, and music he composed influenced by his St. Lucian roots.

"I've never created a track. I sat and tried to figure out what elements that I like and I love a drum. I love the percussion," Faustin told CBC News.

Fashion Art Toronto goes virtual

COVID-19 meant festival organizers had to rethink the venue for an event that would normally host as many as 6,000 people across five days. They made the shift to hosting it virtually.

They plan to tape shows across the city by using streets, urban alleys, industrial pathways and gardens as their catwalks and will stream the event live over Instagram.

Labou will be shot at the Scarborough Bluffs.

"I think that the designers are excited to be back and doing their collections and the models are also excited to be a part of something creative," said Vasic.

It's somehow fitting that the virtual fashion event is giving Faustin a chance to showcase his new work, since the COVID-19 hiatus helped him overcome his grief and rethink his newest collection. 

"I'm working from a happy space. A happy place."


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.