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Seventeen-year-old Cashala Eugene, left, designed and made a prom dress for Rachel Vaillancourt, 19, a graduating student at Bloor Collegiate. The program was organized by PACT, a Toronto-based group focused on assisting young people. (DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail)
Seventeen-year-old Cashala Eugene, left, designed and made a prom dress for Rachel Vaillancourt, 19, a graduating student at Bloor Collegiate. The program was organized by PACT, a Toronto-based group focused on assisting young people. (DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail)

Dress for success Add to ...

Call it a prom dress with a purpose.

As their peers frantically scour malls and boutiques for the perfect frock, three Toronto students can nix that job off their pregrad to-do lists. They've each bagged a stylish dress, designed and crafted just for them by girls their own age who, only seven weeks earlier, didn't even know how to sew a button.

It's all part of PACTFashion, a program from the Toronto-based PACT organization, which helps at-risk youth, those in the court system and young people in need of a connection to gain marketable life skills and give back to the community. It's the first gender-specific program at PACT, which runs seven other life-skills programs, said co-founder David Lockett.

Under the guidance of Irene Stickney at The Make Den sewing studio, the girls learned to do a fashion illustration and the basics of sewing. Meanwhile, students at Bloor Collegiate wrote essays about why they wanted to win a free prom dress. The winners met with the PACT girls, came up with the dream dresses and the designers got to work.

Prom season was the perfect excuse to get girls into a community-minded fashion project, an idea that breathed life into the program's prom dress project, Mr. Lockett said. 

"It just fit in beautifully, it blended it because they could actually make a dress for a young lady who couldn't afford it," he said.

The girls harnessed talent they didn't know they had, added Ms. Stickney. "One of the girls said she hadn't drawn before," she said. "She was really proud of herself."

The girls modelled their new dresses at a finale fashion show Thursday night on the cusp of Canada's LG Fashion Week, which kicks off Sunday.

The recipient: Rachel Vaillancourt, 19

If the perfect dress didn't come for free, Ms. Vaillancourt doubts she'd have even made it to the prom. The vivacious student, in her fifth year of high school, works part-time at retailer Bluenotes and would have had to pay for a dress herself - a lofty goal with such an unreliable work schedule. She heard about the contest from her food studies teacher and submitted an essay after dragging her feet just a little bit (she admitted to being four days behind the deadline). "I thought it was a great opportunity, it was my last year, it'd be my last chance to go to prom, period," she said. The self-professed tomboy said she hates shopping, but found a greater interest in fashion after seeing the designs of the late Alexander McQueen. She visited her PACT designer with a few ideas and some photos of celebrities, their brainstorm session ending in a short, versatile bubble dress with a teal satin and lace bodice. After graduation, Ms. Vaillancourt plans to move to Montreal to work for a year before studying psychology at McGill University.

The designer: Cashala Eugene, 17

Walking into The Make Den for the first time was a little nerve-racking, Ms. Eugene said. She feared she didn't have enough fashion experience to come up with a stellar design, let alone make a dress. "I didn't know how to sew at all," she said. But learning how "benefits me because now I can alter my own stuff, if I have any clothing that doesn't fit." The program also opened her eyes to the fashion world, an industry she said she'd like to explore by perhaps creating her own shoe line. Her first love, however, is child and youth work, a career path she plans to pursue by taking classes at George Brown College when she graduates from high school this year. Ms. Eugene was referred to PACTFashion by a family friend who thought it would be a good community-building activity for the 17-year-old and her 12-year-old cousin.

A little help from a Project Runway star

Evan Biddell, the Season One winner of fashion design TV show Project Runway Canada, pitched in to help the girls craft the dream dresses during the third week. A friend of fashion and sewing instructor Ms. Stickney, Mr. Biddell talked with the girls about their designs, offered tips and advice and gave a glimpse of what would pass muster in the fashion world. "Mostly, I helped them with their confidence in the designs," he said. "I told them it's important to stick with what you started." Mr. Biddell opens his new Toronto fashion studio next week.

More about the prom dress project

The seven-week program kicked off with a drawing class by fashion illustrator Danielle Meder. "She took them step by step through how to draw a fashion [illustration]" Ms. Stickney said. "We had a live model and by the end of the class, they had these beautiful illustrations." Then they learned the basics of sewing - how to craft a hem, sew on a button and zipper and the ins and outs of details such as ruching and lace overlays. Co-founder Mr. Lockett said he'd like to find more, devoted sponsors for the program (PACTFashion is funded by Fabricland). While the prom dress project is the first PACTFashion initiative, Mr. Lockett has plans to run four cycles in a year. Since it won't always be prom season, the girls might make clothes for people in the community who need business attire for interviews or new jobs.

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