Like many girls who become women who go on to become mothers, Grace Leong, 29, found her sartorial leanings evolving from the thrill of blowing every pay check on her teen wardrobe to the lure of designer labels and A.D. (After Daughter) landing at the helm of kids fashion. Launching her own clothing line Ballerinas and Boys in 2014, Grace’s observations of the contrast between her dance and dress-up-loving daughter Soleil and her “polar opposite” two year old son Zayn provided the inspiration for her brand name and aesthetic, “I like to design and make things I would dress my kids in,” she says.
Learning how to sew from her mother-in-law, who worked as a mechanist in a factory when she first came to Australia from East Timor, Grace recalls “she would sew day in, day out and when I first took an interest in sewing she helped me pick my first machine and has been an amazing font of knowledge.” Starting out small, Grace graduated from simply making pieces to dress her friends’ children to displaying her wares at various markets. “I was always so nervous putting myself and my designs out there but I started getting repeat orders which really motivated me and I kept going,” she says. “It’s all been a massive learning curve, and I’m still learning.”
Spreading herself and her work out across her in-laws house while she and her husband await the construction of their own home, each Ballerinas and Boys design starts out life via the simple marriage of pencil and paper. Sketching the pieces she visualises, Grace’s line takes shape through trial and error as she explores patterns, silhouettes and designs, “for me this is the longest process, getting everything right,” she says.
Offering a glimpse into her creative psyche, the designer reveals that a new cohesive collection is in the works and one she is immensely proud and excited to share with her loyal fan-base. “I’ve been lucky enough to work with some very talented ladies who have allowed my ideas to come to life,” says Grace. “This time I’ve tried to believe in myself a little more and have hand-drawn some designs that I have had floating around my head for some time. It’s been surreal seeing them come to life as actual garments.”
Divulging a little of what we can expect to see from her upcoming collection, Grace attests that five year old Soleil is her muse for inspiration. “My daughter has always been extremely girly girl, refusing to wear anything but pink!” she says. “But lately she has been bit more daring and will wear black, camo and boots. So I am running with that a little bit.” Describing the increasingly collaborative relationship she and her daughter share over her creative process, Grace asserts “she has been working with me a little bit and will let me know what she likes and doesn’t like and I have to say I am loving it!”
The week blurs in a crazy bustle as Grace balances the demands of Ballerinas and Boys with her day job at a bank as well as assisting her husband in the running of his business. “We definitely have our hands full,” she says. However, she admits that’s where living with her in-laws provides much temporary relief but come Friday night it’s all about family until the dreaded Sunday night tolls with the promise of another week.
With numerous responsibilities to negotiate Monday to Friday and a third addition to the family on its way, Grace is a self-confessed deadline-diva. “DEADLINES! Always follow deadlines, and don’t over commit,” she says in warning to her fellow mum-makers. “I’ve had to learn that sometimes I have to say no.”
Taking comfort in and inspiration from fellow Australian designer and mum of two, Collette Dinnigan, Grace confesses her love for Dinnigan’s story. “Working in her shop during the day then spending the nights designing and sewing; that hard work and dedication that she employed from early on is very inspiring to me,” she says. “I also love the direction Aussie kids fashion is going in. Women and Mums in Business out there making a name for themselves and their brands. I take a lot of inspiration from hard working Mummas!”
A staunch supporter of strong female role models, the Ballerinas and Boys creator is a huge fan of comic Hollywood actresses, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, “I just love their determination and drive to make it in such a sexist industry,” says Grace. “I love the way they discuss it so openly and honestly. Watching them present an award to George Clooney was hilarious, “Amal is a human rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, who was an advisor to Kofi Annan regarding Syria, and was selected for a three-person U.N Commission investigating rules of war violations in the Gaza Strip, so tonight her husband is getting a life time achievement award” I just love them!” she laughs. “Maybe one day I could make a romper for their kids.” The freedom to create whatever comes to her mind is, Grace says, one of the most significant draws of her chosen vocation, not to mention the pride that comes with seeing her designs in action. “I love seeing how the amazingly clever mums out there style my pieces on their little ones. I get a lot of joy out of that,” she says.
Asked to choose her favourite piece in her current collection, Grace is quick to point out the snake back tees being snapped up on her recently revamped website. “I am loving the black and white and the combination of the soft cotton against the black shiny snake skin,” she says. And what would she love to design given the chance? “What I would truly love is to have the knack and skill to design clothing and costumes for children that have disabilities,” the designer says. “I once met a mother who had a child in a wheelchair and she explained to me it is quite difficult to dress her child in cool on-trend clothing that other kids are wearing as they are too difficult to get on and off. We also talked about how awesome it would be to have Halloween or dress up costumes that could be incorporated into the wheelchair. I often think about that conversation.” Certainly a conversation to continue down the line as her brand continues to grow and evolve.
Establishing her place in a sartorial community populated by talented women juggling the demands of family and business, Grace has an immense appreciation for her fellow hardworking mums, many of whose wares can be found in her own children’s wardrobes. “If I can only mention a few I have to say Crowning Cash. All their designs are original and Rachel is just lovely and is very hands on. They do it all themselves from designing to printing and they also offer a lot of unique custom work which I love,” she says. “Another store I have bought from recently and I’m so happy with is Mylo_andco. She is so unique with her designs and her sewing is amazing! I also absolutely love Project_tbear. Her designs are original, fresh and executed extremely well. I feel her next range is going to blow us all away.”
From established brands to rising stars, Grace is quick to shine the spotlight on emerging talent and with the nature of Instagram serving as a platform both for businesses and individuals to reveal and promote their unique talents, the Mummy stylists are certainly moving into the fore as ones to watch. Grace notes a particular fashion-savvy Mummy, Talisa whose styling of her son Koa grabbed the designer’s attention. “She NEEDS to have her own online store,” gushes Grace. “It would hands down be AMAZING!!!”
With an endorsement like that, I sense a rising star in our midst, and on that note Grace has some words of wisdom to those hoping to pursue a career in conjunction with their parental duties. “I would have to be honest and say it’s not as easy as it looks”, she admits. “You have to do it on your own terms. Keep in mind what your motivation is to start and keep that as your driving force. It’s a tough gig at times, especially when you’re a one-man show, but the friendships you will make along the way are priceless! Everything has a way of falling into place and if it’s something that you really want to do you will make it happen.” Negotiating two equally demanding areas of her life, Grace jokes that the key to balance is to “just sometimes bask in the chaos.”
Whirling along on this crazy, creative chaotic ride, where does the designer see it taking her and the Ballerinas and Boys brand? “Where do I begin? I would love to have a little Daddy and me range, and a Mummy and me range,” she says. “I would love to be settled into my dream home with my office set up. I would love to bring all the ideas I have floating around my head to life… and I would love a couple more hours in the day.”