There’s something inexplicably paradoxical about the colour red.
Before anything else, red is militant. It is the colour of combat and of violence; of blood bubbling beneath an open wound, threatening to acquaint itself with the outside world. Our prehistoric ancestors may have seen it this same way. When they saw red, they saw blood. But beyond this primal binary, red is is something more. Its discordance invariably succumbs to the thoughts of passion and desire it inevitably summons.
For many, red is love.
On November 14, red is the colour of Rihanna’s mouth, snarling as Bitch Better Have My Money rings through Buddies in Bad Times Theatre on a Tuesday evening in Toronto. Her voice invites Ryerson University students to an improvised dance session, swollen with militant demands for liquid payment, before the Parallels fashion show.
The lights in the theatre bleed red. From the incandescent glow of the beverage dispensing machine behind the bar, to the Christmas lights snaking up the railings of the staircase in the middle of the wooden floor, the models are soaked in a vermillion glow. They are passionate. They are combative. They are here.
All photos by Justin Martin.
When Riri’s scratchy ransom tune closes off, another anthem creeps in to replace it. Suddenly, drag performer Sissy Nein is prowling down the staircase toward the stage, lip synching to Rihanna’s Diamonds, her red dress sparkling as though it, too, were home to dancing precious gems.
“It’s my proud honour and pleasure to introduce what you’re all here to see,” she says when her performance ends, “which is the Parallels LGBTQIA+ fashion presentaciòn.”
She emphasizes her last syllable, as though it were Spanish.
Parallels is an entirely student-run Ryerson fashion presentation, a project born from 10 weeks of “ideating” and “failing” that would eventually become a show focused on “elevating LGBTQIA+ people in the fashion industry and demonstrating the power clothing has in defining and shaping identity.”
It isn’t a traditional fashion show. There aren’t any designers. The presentation is about more than clothing — it’s about the people underneath.
“[The LGBTQIA+ community] is something I’ve been really focused on learning more about,” says Jarrette Stoll, a second year Creative Industries student who modelled for the show. "I'm from a very small town, so coming to Toronto and being able to say, 'Yeah, let’s embrace the fact that we’re queer and we’re here' was this new, elevated part of being queer.”
A diverse troupe of 24 models, each identifying somewhere on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, are clad in garments from their own closets. They take turns storming the runway and posing together in pairs on-stage. Some models half-turn to serve their best angles; others, like Demiyah Perez, drop into the splits or improvise Teyana Taylor inspired choreography.
“It’s a celebration of life. That’s what this is,” says Perez, a second year Creative Industries student. “I just finished transitioning, so this is almost like my version of welcoming myself into the world and just being free.
“To me, personally, this night was just a celebration of everything I’ve gone through for the past five years.”
Each model, selected primarily for their personality and how they represent Toronto’s LGBTQIA+ community, bring their own personal history to the runway. Their walks become vehicles for self-expression. Their bodies, swathed in the comfort of familiar clothing, dismantle restrictions of gender; of sexuality; of body and beauty standards. The message of the show is clearly a political one — we are here, see us. The audience is hailing; a homogenized sports crowd cheering and screaming all for the same team.
All photos by Leah Chan.
“All my work is about advancing social causes and changes,” says Daniel Drak, who teaches the Fashion Event Planning course that produced the presentation.
“[T]here’s a lot happening socio-politically around the world, from politics in the States, to politics here, to politics everywhere. So, really, anything we can do to inject a political conversation into a class is really just a nice way to say that we can be political in everything that we do.”
Rihanna's voice returns to the room, exploding from the speakers as it had before the show. In Australia, on the other side of the world, 7 million people have just unequivocally voted in favour of a referendum on gay marriage. The country burns red with adventure. Rihanna’s voice must be ringing there, too, demanding a community get what is owed to them.
As the show closes, models and organizers unite on the theatre stage. But now, they’ve shed the clothing that made their bodies different. Their outfits have been replaced with white T-Shirts, printed with boldface type. Emblazoned across the front, half read “crushing gender roles,” while the other half simply confess, “human.”
The room is red with love.
Written by Connor Garel
Video by Maxine McCarthy