While her latest business endeavor, Orejen Fashion Lab, is a relatively new addition to the world of womenswear, creator Tonya Belle is no fashion rookie. A first generation Canadian of Trinidadian descent, Belle’s professional journey began as a retail store manager after studying fashion management at Seneca College.
From there she became a merchandiser for Tommy Hilfiger, before becoming the first merchandiser ever for luxury fashion retailer, Holt Renfrew. Persistent weekly calls to Holt’s human resource department finally lead to a merchandise associate position in their buying office where she began honing her love for supporting emerging brands.
She had additional buying stints at Sporting Life, Sears, TJ Maxx, and Target totally over 15 years of buying experience before she entered maternity leave and set her sights in a new direction…
How did Orejen Fashion Lab start?
My daughter Belle didn’t nap very well, only wanting to take 30 minute naps, which was brutal. I would spend an hour getting her to sleep and she’d sleep for half an hour. I wasn’t going to clean because I was exhausted so I went online searching for emerging designers and that’s kind of how it all started.
I started to realize how there were a lot of emerging designers, some of them culturally-inspired or inspired by things around them. I started to look into who’s really representing, who’s really supporting all of these emerging designers, especially in Toronto.
The market here, when you go into retailers, there’s a lot of names we know and are already familiar with.So I wanted to bring these new designers, curated for the Canadian market, present them to brick-and-mortar retail stores, and see if they were interested in carrying them.
Where did the name come from?
I wracked my brain for so many names and I decided that I liked the word origin, essentially meaning the beginning. I chose the phonetic spelling of the word, O-R-E-J-E-N. Basically it’s about meaning the beginning but also origin as in, coming from different places around the world. I really wanted to scour the market, scour the world, looking for different designers that are starting their career.
How did you decide which labels to carry that would fit your aesthetic, visions, and brand?
The first person I found was Demestiks NYC. I like Beyoncé and I had seen one of the outfits he styled for her so I looked him up on Etsy. I decided to reach out to him and when I did he was totally excited. I talked to him on the phone and flew to New York to meet with him. He was doing a pop-up shop at the time we met and I presented him with the idea of doing a pop-up shop in Toronto.I found Onyii & Co. which is beautiful and she actually debuted at African Fashion Week. After that I reached out to Studio One Eighty Nine, I just loved their whole aesthetic.
I think it’s really about having a passion for the product, passion for the designer. And I think a lot of it is around the slow fashion movement which is about small business, sustainable, or handmade. I think everyone cares about – I care about, where my products are coming from now and really having investment pieces that aren’t going to be here today and gone tomorrow.
Ever since I was at Holt Renfrew I’ve always wanted to have pieces that were investments in my wardrobe that I’m passionate about. My wardrobe is very edited down to things that I actually really want to wear as opposed to just a mass amount of clothing.
In talking to the designers, we connected.I like to think of Orejen Fashion Lab as a family where I offer my 15 years of experience to them. It’s kind of like consulting as well. The main idea of the company is being a wholesaler, selling the lines to brick-and-mortar stores. So the reason why I did my pop-up shop was to put my best foot forward and introduce the designers to that market before getting into retailers.
Was the slow fashion movement something you envisioned yourself being involved in from the start?
Not necessarily to be honest. I think it really started out with being passionate about the designers’ work and as it evolved it started going under that umbrella of the slow fashion movement. Some of the lines like Studio One Eighty Nine and Seek Collective are sustainable but a lot of it for me is also about other things like supporting small businesses too.
With events like Lagos Fashion Week and editorials like Models.com’s “Africa Rising” gaining praise and uplifting the voices of designers from Africa and the Diaspora, what are your thoughts on this movement being embraced by the fashion industry and how do you see Orejen Fashion Lab playing a part in that?
I think it’s a long time coming with African fashion. I feel like it’s always been there but it hasn’t necessarily gotten the platform to be displayed. I know a lot of designers have pioneered it like Stella Jean. She’s opened up a lot in regards to high end African fashion. Maki Oh does amazing, beautiful, stunning work.
It’s been a long time coming and it’s here to stay. People would say African fashion is a trend but it really isn’t and it’s always been around. I’ve always loved ikat prints which are traditionally African. Many retailers like Forever 21 use them all the time but it just isn’t under the umbrella of African fashion.
I think now it’s time for the culture to be embraced and to show what they can do which is a lot from a fashion perspective, a design perspective, a really unique perspective. I’m proud and happy that it’s starting to grow and I think there’s still a long way to go to get it out there to these Canadian retailers.
What has been your biggest challenge working as an entrepreneur?
For me I think the biggest challenge has been being a “momtrepreneur”. It was really challenging. When I had meetings I brought Belle along and people were ok with it. I think that’s the direction things are moving in, moms starting businesses.It’s been my challenge but it’s also been my drive, my journey.
She’s the one that inspired me to do this. While maternity leave gave me the opportunity, my goal was building something and showing her so when she’s older I can tell the story that I always wanted to do something and I followed my passion, starting it with her in mind. It’s just the beginning; I still have a lot to learn.
What would you say is your biggest accomplishment?
Visiting my pop-up shop was listed as #2 in Toronto Life’s article on things to do during Fashion Week which was huge for the event. Being on BlogTO gave my web site thousands of hits which was amazing. With all the time that went into it and all the people that helped, I think the biggest accomplishment was the event itself.
What are some memorable lessons you’ve learned so far having your own business?
Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. When I first started out I wanted to reach out to local sponsors but I was doubtful. Some people questioned it as well. But I went out, wrote a killer sponsorship letter, and started getting sponsors for gift bags, food, and photography. It just kept coming in.
Anything is achievable. Once you put your mind to something and you know that you can do it, it’s achievable. People may say that it’s not possible but you’re the one that makes something possible. You’re in charge of your own destiny.
Do you have any other passions or causes you support?
I sponsored 60 Million Girls as part of the pop-up shop so part of the proceeds will go to them. I have a daughter and I believe in the importance of education. One thing my parents instilled in me – literally since birth – was the importance of education. My parents were both teachers so when we came home from school they always made sure that our grades were up to par. I think a child’s education is very important and part of their success in life so everyone should have that opportunity.
What’s next for Orejen Fashion Lab?
I’d love to be able to take this concept to Montréal or another part of Canada and do another pop-up. It would be really cool to do a series of pop-ups.
Orejen Fashion Lab is Toronto-based showroom and marketplace which held its first pop-up shop in March 2016 during the Fall/Winter 2016 season of Toronto Fashion Week. Click here to see the brands they carry and here to keep up with them on Instagram.