Haitian born, Montreal-based, fashion designer Ralph Leroy comes across as a confident, flamboyant and irrepressible character. These are all the qualities he’s needed to earn his stripes in a notoriously tough business. Kreol editor, Georgina Dhillon, caught up with him back in his native Haiti, where he was showing his latest collection in the sumptuous surroundings of the island’s Sans-Souci Palace.
Spoke to Ralph Leroy against a backdrop of loud music, people coming and going, and life generally flowing all around us. Far from being distracting, however, it is this kind of scene that he finds inspiring. He summarises his approach with the words, “Everyday life inspires me, being in the street, seeing people, architecture, food, including the
smell of the food – it’s all inspiring. My biggest inspiration, from the beginning, is my country. I come from a beautiful country, where there is so much colour.”
When he mentions the land of his birth, Haiti, he calls it, “A country of struggle”. It’s obvious that, although he may not have lived there for more than 12 years, Haiti remains with him wherever he goes. His interest in fashion started when, aged 11, he was put to work on his mother’s market stall where she sold the clothes that she made herself. As well as instilling in the young Ralph a sense of self-reliance (he was encouraged to make his own living from the stall), he says he inherited his passion for fashion from his seamstress mother, although his path to becoming a designer was still a long way off in the future.
His first career was in marketing and Ralph had his own successful advertising agency in Cap-Haitien, in the north of the island, after which he started a modelling agency. By 2004, however, the violence of his ‘country of struggle’ made him decide to leave. Settling in Miami, he studied gemology (precious stones), but then moved to New York, where he did some modelling. Life was a constant battle during this period and it was hard to find paid jobs. The way he carried himself was considered too European for the US market.
“I was rejected many times because they didn’t see me as the type of black man they were looking for. It was difficult to survive,” says Ralph. Still harbouring dreams of becoming a fashion designer, the turning point came when he landed a modelling job that required him to wear boots that were too big, and extra large pants. He realised that as a model he had no say.
“It was an insult to my community and to me as a person. I was motivated. From that moment on, I wanted to have my own line. Fashion was a way to express myself,” he states.
Financing his dream of making it as a fashion designer was another matter and, by his own admission, Ralph didn’t really know what he was getting into when he started. He moved to Montreal but, by the end of his first season, which included a show at the Montreal Fashion Week, he was completely bankrupt.
He recalls, “I spent a year eating bread and peanuts. It was difficult. I had to learn how to survive, but I never gave up on my dream. I don’t pay attention to negativity. My parents taught me that no one on earth gives you your spot. You have to take your own spot, you have to earn it. You act like what you want to be and you will become what you dream of.”
Despite the hard times, motivation has never been lacking for Ralph and while other people live by the mantra of the sky’s the limit, he likes to go one better.
“For me, the galaxy’s the limit!”
A man of show
From the very start, Ralph was determined to show colours on stage but as important as his designs were, everything contributed to the show, including the music, the drama, the models. “Each show is a story,” he says. Since that first one in Montreal, there have been many others. He has gradually made a name for himself on the international stage, with shows in Europe, Asia, and throughout the US. His work is becoming more recognised and his team help to spread the word through social media. Clients now travel to come and see him to order their clothes.
I asked Ralph to talk about his favourite fabrics, colours, and the design process.
“Silk is my favourite fabric – I’m high maintenance – but I like to work with cotton as well. Red is the colour I love the most. I see red as life, passion, emotion. Pink, is the colour I hate the most – it just doesn’t call me as a colour! I love the drama of colour, so not pastels, although I can mix. I can play with colours – I dare to try.”
He discusses colour choices with clients and will sometimes try and persuade them to choose a colour they wouldn’t normally wear, and not just colour.
“Each client that comes to me has a story. Maybe they want to make a man jealous or get one back that they’ve lost! You have to listen to the person, study their anatomy and tell them what will fit. You also have to be honest. If I don’t think I can help a client, I say so because I want them to look good when they wear my designs – each client is an advertiser!”
When it comes to deciding on the pattern, the process will often start with the story. Next, comes the drawing, followed by the colour choice and then, finally deciding on the fabric – and that can also be another story.
“The fabric talks to me, so I give them my attention.”
Designs for all
Ralph Leroy made his breakthrough with designs for men, although he refuses to be pigeonholed and has since also designed for women and children. At the moment, he is more motivated to design for women because of the clients he has. He likes to make women look majestic but at the same time designs clothes that give them freedom and allow them to be active.
“First, I was a male fashion designer, but now I just go with the moment.”
Going with the moment and the season also means branching out into other areas.
“I’ve always been in love with handbags and make limited editions of them. I love cotton in bags, but also leather. I also do a lot of couture in leather. Making shoes is something I dream of, but I do other accessories like belts, jewellery – everything’s limited edition.”
Ralph has been a fashion designer for over eight years and says he still doesn’t take it too seriously. His aim, he says, is to have fun with it, although designing has helped him through some hard times too, including the deaths of his mother and, more recently, a close friend.
“I’ve found that to keep going, I have to create.”
We finished on a light-hearted note by asking Ralph to name his three wishes for the future, and were surprised by his reflective reply. Without hesitating, he said, “Being happy was more important than anything else.” His next two wishes both centred on his beloved Haiti. His second wish was to help change the mentality of people on the island by providing children with a better education and his third wish was to set up a fashion school on the island, to provide work and opportunity for “My people.”