In the heart of Toronto’s Leslieville neighbourhood DORLY DESIGNS is your destination for unique designer jewelry and statement pieces you won’t find anywhere else in the city. Owned and operated by Fashion Designer Dorly J-Louis, her determination to bring you her collections is truly inspiring.
DORLY DESIGNS 1173 Queen Street East, Toronto Photo: Staff
I began by asking Dorly about her background.
Have you always been interested in fashion? Did you ever think about making a career out of it?
I took a Fashion Arts class in high school. It was my favourite class in grade 12. For my final project I made a strapless dress with a burgundy taffeta skirt and black velveteen bodice. I vividly remember struggling to understand some of the technical instructions from my first pattern: making adjustments and resizing it to fit my measurements. What the teacher explained made sense for two minutes, then I spent hours at home trying to figure out how to apply what I had learned.
So I tweaked [my project] and by trial and error I made it work. And better yet, I had the exact dress I wanted and otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford to wear to the prom. It wasn’t ‘perfect’ but my teacher singled it out and used it as an example to show the new students what they could accomplish in the course.
At the end of the semester we organized a fashion show for the school. It was such a success that my interest in fashion flourished even more. As a child, I used to sew clothes by hand for my dolls from scraps of fabric. And I could spend hours flipping through pages of magazines looking at clothes, jewelry, shoes and purses. Once I graduated from high school, I really wanted to go to Collège LaSalle in Montreal but the registration fee for their fashion program including living on campus was more than I could afford and I didn’t have any financial support. My father refused to sign my OSAP loan application to discourage me. So instead I applied to the Fashion Design program at the Richard Robinson Fashion Design Academy in my hometown, Ottawa. With only my mom’s blessing I worked two jobs that summer at minimum wage 7 days a week to save $7000 to pay for the 1st semester. The second semester and second year of the program would take care of themselves. I remember one day my mom looked at me and said: “You fear nothing.” And I didn’t because my plan had been to go to school. So I did.
What inspired you to open Dorly Designs?
Once I had graduated from the Academy I worked briefly as a Sales Associate for Fairweather. Ottawa is not a fashion Mecca like Montreal or Toronto, and the resources, government support, funding, jobs or opportunities in the industry were virtually nil so many graduates found work in the retail sector but not as designers. Setting up an internship placement in the field had already been challenging enough for many of the graduates. So to be able to compete in the workforce and make myself more marketable I went to university.
I got my Bachelor of Arts Degree in Mass Communication and instead of taking time off to travel the world like some of my friends or become a public servant, I came to Toronto to complete a post-grad in Journalism to make sure I was educated enough to never set foot in a classroom again. From there I worked in the banking industry, and other office-type jobs, but my love of fashion and media arts was always there. After years of working in Toronto at customer service jobs I loathed, I decided to change that.
Tell us more of the Dorly Designs story. How did you get started?
I resigned from a CIBC Call Centre job but not before I secured an agency to represent me for modeling and acting. Looking back, this was one of the gutsiest moves I made to date. My last day at work was a Friday. Monday came and it hit me – I had no job to go to. I went from working at a full-time ‘secure’ job with benefits, to not having any guaranteed source of income. I still had rent to pay, and was in need of gas to put in my vehicle, and food to put on the table. However, I finally had the free time to plan and research how to get my jewelry into retail stores. Money ran out faster than it came in. And at first, I went at auditions with no success. But the first gig I landed was a US National Commercial. I paid off my credit card and my student loans in full. Through various modeling and acting gigs after that, I saved and invested money because I knew too well what it was like not to have any to make ends meet. Without a ‘real’ job I also saved for a down payment to purchase my first condo to live downtown.
Still an unknown in the Toronto fashion scene, I approached independent boutiques like Fresh Collective, Fashion District, Purple Thumb (now closed) and Black Daffodil who carried products by local fashion designers. I was still modeling regularly for the Shopping Channel and acting to make a living. I stayed the longest at Fresh Collective; two years at their Kensington Market location working every other Saturday in the store to promote my line and try and build a clientele. I inhaled everything I learned and realized quickly that it wasn’t impossible or unattainable to own or run my own boutique. The first three stores had similar arrangements; I was paying over $800 in rent monthly to showcase my products – on top of my mortgage. It came to a point where the math didn’t add up against my sales and I decided I might as well open my own store instead of paying such a high overhead.
An opportunity came with the recession of 2008. A slew of businesses had left a trail of empty locales and by 2010 there was a lot of inventory to choose from. I had set aside $15,000 for the project which included finding a lawyer to review the lease, registering the business, paying 1st and last month’s rent, hiring tradespeople to retrofit the space, buying all the fixtures, supplies, mannequins and store furnishings, setting up all merchant banking, as well as services including utilities such as hydro and a security monitoring station. And thanks to my obsession with watching interior design shows on HGTV, and my experience as a frugalista, I did it within budget! No one will give you a manual that caters specifically to your needs or a step-by-step flow chart for how to get any of this done. Use your logic and make use of every good recommendation you receive. I embarked on this project without anyone knowing about it. So if it had crashed before its completion, that failure would have been mine to bear alone.
I had many potential locations to choose from; Queen Street West or Kensington Market? The Danforth or St-Clair Avenue? Mount Pleasant or the Beaches? It honestly came down to price. Queen Street East in Leslieville is where I found an ideal space which needed some love, but was perfect for a start-up. I will always remember the face of my electrician when he saw the original bare bones of the space. A month later he was in awe of the final results and said to me “I had no faith. You will do well here”.
How long have you been in business?
May 25, 2010, is when DORLY DESIGNS first opened its doors to the public. I never take this small success for granted. And I thank God for having been able to set it in motion.
What sort of items do you sell?
Bel Moun Collection is the house label jewelry line, which I create and manage. ‘Bel Moun’ means ‘beautiful person’ in Creole. It is inspired by a mix of mediums: semi-precious stones like turquoise, coral, agate, amethyst, jade, jasper, carnelian, black onyx, amazonite, labradorite and other quartz crystals. I love to incorporate freshwater pearls, brass, copper, gunmetal, or sterling silver in our work to create unique pieces—earrings, bracelets, and necklaces.
I also retail an upcycled line of accessories: shrugs, vests, totes, and arm-warmers, made in-house from 100% wool sweater scraps which have also been well received by our customers. I find the public responds well to the ingenuity of repurposing goods into something ‘new’ again. A favourite of our Beaches clientele is our soybean hand-poured candle collection, which is exclusive to the house label. Our penny cuff links and penny lockets were a huge hit this year ever since the one cent coin has been discontinued. We were sold out of the entire collection before the Christmas shopping season ended.
A Shrug of Many Sweaters – Upcycled sleeveless, above the waist, zip-up shrug. Made from 100% wool sweater scraps, felted, patched & sewn. Photo: Houman Photography
Rhythm & Blues Necklace – Blue Agate Lace round and angular semi-precious stones, plated silver & pewter duo chain links, crystals, stone powder clay floral, pewter leaf base. Bel Moun Collection. Photo: DORLY DESIGNS
Who is your ideal customer?
My ideal customer is, above all, a confident woman – whether she is 18 or 65. She is feminine and loves to accessorize. She is not shy. She can adorn herself with a statement piece and wear it. She doesn’t cower behind her imperfections. She is aware of them but also knows how to camouflage what others conceive as insecurities. She understands which colours looks best on her in order to accentuate her best assets. She knows she has a figure – not flaws. She is stylish, someone who loves and appreciates designer artistry not readily found anywhere else in the city. My ideal customer is a trendsetter who is fashion-savvy and is open to suggestions and advice to create and achieve a look that is unique to her—not the masses. I own an independent boutique. My ideal customer is also an independent shopper.
Triumph Necklace – Jasper stone medallion, freshwater pearls, crystals, copper bead caps and chain. Bel Moun Collection. Photo: Jineen Matar
Where do you see Dorly Designs in the next ten years?
The immediate need for DORLY DESIGNS is staffing. I have been fortunate to have had a rotating team of Fashion Interns to assist me and it’s a mutually beneficial program that I plan to continue. Right now I am looking for Fashion Interns for both Winter and Spring semesters. I am also keen on business growth in the form of collaborations or partnerships in the beauty or service industry. I am also committed to staffing the jewelry and clothing production aspects so that I can dedicate more time to the creative and management side of the business. An online store presence this year has helped us gain a new following beyond city boundaries. Where will we be in the next ten years? You and I will have to sit down again and recap what I’ve accomplished then.
For further information on Dorly Designs, visit their web site. If you are in Toronto, the boutique is located at 1173 Queen Street East. Feel free to drop by.