Last weekend, Toronto’s nightlife circuit was all about the youthful risk-takers and their rewards. Get to know Chinedu Ukabam and Stefania Yarhi, two freelancers making a name for themselves any and every way they can.
“If you ain’t got no money, take your broke ass home.” My daddy told me so. Or wait… maybe that was Fergie.
I think about that line all the time, when I’m bobbing along on my bicycle, zipping through cars I won’t ever own, or trying to outrun the streetcars that I won’t pay to ride (because, really, sometimes $3 for a 20-minute trip in heat-alert hell is a lot). I won’t say it’s hard to be “young.” At least I won’t say that anymore, not since, as one friend put it, I’m a month away from “crossing to the dark side of quarterlife”: That side of youth where you expect yourself—or at least someone expects you—to start taking responsibility for what has/hasn’t happened for you (yet), when it feels like now or never, or when you realize whatever life it is you’re living may, in fact, be your life as you never planned it. I think, more appropriately, the only thing hard about being young(er) is actually doing what you want with said life, something I’m not quite sure gets harder with age as you conform to squandering opportunity. In magazine/movie/after school special-talk, it’s called “following your dreams.” In this world, I think I’d rather just call it “taking risks and trying not to fuck it up.”
This past weekend was all about risk-takers and their rewards. I know a lot of these young, risky, freelance-y, dream-fueled, creative types that ferment below Bloor Street. On Saturday, it felt very much about celebrating them, and all those producing work that enriches our city, saves its citizens, and gives us a meaning and a message beyond, say, Rob Ford tomfoolery. On Queen West, at the recently renovated, multi-purpose gallery space SixTwentySeven/Creatures Creating that last hosted that Dudebox fundraiser, Chinedu Ukabam was launching the third instalment of his Supafrik pop-up shop inspired by “urban contemporary Africana.” It’s also a temporary storefront for his fashion label, Chinedesign. Ukabam started the line in 2003 as a graphic design firm, and soon found himself enthralled with the style side of things when he started designing graphic tees to promote the music he was working on. (Yes, Ukabam also doubled as a music prodigy under the stage name Eye Plus Eye.) “I started out doing it on the side while working a 9-to-5 job in the IT industry,” he told me. “Until I made the decision to go with my heart and go ‘all-in.’”
And all-in he went. Ukabam soon began to meticulously craft his collections, and, when he conceived Supafrik, he travelled to New York, Paris and London collecting unique items for the shop, all documented on his blog.
In his pop-up shop, which runs until Aug. 4, you’ll find the Chinedesign’s Afrotropolis collection and U.K.-based Chichia London, a line manufactured ethically in Tanzania using traditional textiles, homewares and fabrics from South Africa, and so much more. The walls around the garments come alive, with art by Gabrielle Lasporte (whose work is “inspired by Maasai patterns and aboriginal dot art”), and shelves stocked by A Different Booklist, who curated a modest library of works from African authors. The opening jam also included DJ sets of Afro-house tunes and a food-tasting event to sample Ukabam’s Afro fusion “designer” food menu.
Meanwhile, a little ways northwest, in Bloordale hideaway Daniel Faria Gallery, Stefania Yarhi welcomed guests for the celebration of the fourth anniversary of her photography website-cum-style blog Textstyles. There was candlelight to guide you through, jumbo Kit Kats linking the tables, and a wall that turned into one big guestbook, with scribbles of inside jokes and drawings of Fashion Week front rows. There was a live splatter installation set up by designer Ashley Rowe (who forms one-third of the newly-opened Trinity Tuck Shop), where you could fire a paint gun at a wall to create a Pollack-esque piece of art you can wear. An illustrator was drawing the crowd, which consisted of PR power players, fashion girls from Holt Renfrew, party girls, designers, editors, Yarhi’s family and friends. They were all there, celebrating a sister doing it for herself.
Yarhi started her online outlet when she was fresh meat in the publishing industry working as an editorial assistant. “I’d always wanted to get into fashion, but the industry terrified me,” she confessed. “Blogging four years ago was ubiquitous, but not as mainstream and commercial as it is now. It seemed like the perfect platform to get my feet wet, and a virtual way to introduce me into an industry.” Now, she works for herself, calling the shots on her own career, parlaying a hobby into work for FASHION magazine, The Kit, the Toronto Star and more. Yarhi says she devotes about two-to-five hours to her blog each day, in addition to her freelance assignments, and all the content is original, from the photography to the words.
“Over the last couple years, I’ve begun to ‘monetize’ the site by enlisting the help of an online ad agency first and now bringing on someone to do marketing and sponsorships for me exclusively,” she explained. And people always forget there’s hard work behind it all: “As a freelancer you are always working—always.” Like Ukabam, Yarhi has also dabbled in the pop-up shop world as a way to engage readers, teaming up with New York/Toronto-based Corduroy magazine in 2010.
But that doesn’t mean it’s getting easier to make any money, or that doing what you love is any easier in a coming-of-age city like Toronto. In fact, Yarhi calls it “terrible.” No, being a “creative” in Toronto isn’t, as Fergie Ferg would say, g-l-a-m-o-r-o-u-s, even if the industry is fashion. “On one hand if you’ve got a big mouth, deep pockets and the right wardrobe, or wear sunglasses indoors, everyone knows who you are in a second,” reasoned the vivacious Yarhi, who wore a pink paint-splattered men’s top at her party c/o Rowe. “But, making a living in a small community, with even smaller budgets and a line-up of people vying for the same jobs, can be truly excruciating.” Yarhi told me about an editor who once gave her the advice on the two types of creative people: There are those who have to create and there are those who desperately want to. “The former always has something to say, that needs to come out, and—no matter the hard knocks—will continue because they must. Being creative is not glamorous, it’s just the only way you know how to work.” As for doing it in the 416? “That has zero relevance. If you can’t be creative somewhere, it’s not the place’s fault, it’s your own.”
Ukabam has found that there’s been no lack of work over the past few years, but that Toronto has become a more expensive city to live in: “For the creatives that work outside of the 9-to-5 structure, that often translates to working twice as hard just to maintain the same standard of living.” For him, the idea of “making it” and gaining recognition can go two very distinct ways: “Having your name ring a bell does not guarantee the cash registers ringing. The fashion industry here is too small to rely on any one avenue. I still have to do trunk sales, set up pop-ups, sell directly to boutiques,and produce a whole lot of ‘made-to-measure’ pieces.”
Sure, there’s flexibility and freedom, but there’s also that fear, the uncertainty, or, as Ukabam put it, “Not knowing how your ideas will be received until it’s way too late to do anything about it.” Yarhi said that, even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good. But still: “The idea that you have zero control over your own career is frightening. Especially, when you love what you do. As a freelancer, I have a mercurial sense of control, whether I land a gig or not, how much I get paid this month, who I work with. It is all my responsibility.”
And then sometimes the city gets the best of you. Saturday night also saw the closing of the Forgetus Collective gallery and event space on Sterling Road, just on the other side of the tracks from the Textstyles bash. Done in by recurring noise complaints, founders Cia Mellegers and Dylan Thompson decided to call it a chapter with the gallery’s final show featuring artist Felix Kalmenson (who grew mold on 35mm film) and music by DirtyMags. I always admired what Mellegers and Thompson did with their space and their initiatives (often from afar), from dance parties to book launches to exhibits by upcoming and local soon-to-be-art-famous stars. I hear they’ll be back in a different space, and that it’s not truly the end. Maybe. The dreams, of course, still live on.