Mani Jassal does not make saris. “What I do is lenghas, which are separates, like a crop top with a ball-gown skirt,” says the 25-year-old Toronto-based designer. “But saris are the typical garment that people think of when they think of Indian clothes.”
When Jassal began studying fashion at Ryerson University in 2009, her intention wasn’t to design lenghas. Instead, she planned to concentrate on red-carpet and evening wear. Jassal hadn’t grown up with much interest in South Asian clothing — most of her exposure to it came through Bollywood movies, which she says didn’t impress her. But then she picked up a copy of Vogue India and saw the skill and craftsmanship that went into the designs. Thanks to that magazine, Jassal decided in her final year to experiment with non-traditional bridal wear for Mass Exodus 2013, Ryerson’s student-run fashion show. “I incorporated laser-cut leather and unconventional colours like black, which is a faux pas when it comes to Indian weddings,” she says. The collection was a hit, and Jassal found a new path.
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Now she has showrooms in Toronto and Los Angeles and has produced five collections, including her Mass Exodus show. Jassal’s work continues to blend her two cultures, and it’s been featured in Vanity Fair and gained red-carpet notice at the BET Awards and Emmy Awards. Her spring/summer 2017 collection, alamārī, takes its name from the Punjabi word for “closet” and is a response to the demand from the South Asian market for variety in evening and formal wear. She’s not the only young designer drawing inspiration from non-Western fashion, which generally skews more modest: Sara Elemary, a Harlem-by-way-of Egypt fashion designer, has garnered attention for her highly covetable harem pants.
But while demand from shoppers for distinctive wardrobes is growing, designers — especially those inspired by diverse influences — still face an uphill battle. “The Canadian market isn’t very adventurous,” says Gail McInnes, owner of Magnet Creative Management and the editor-in-chief of Pull, a fashion magazine. “Bloggers wear colour during fashion week to get photographed, but the rest of the time we wear a lot of black and a lot of neutrals.”
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Lisa Tant, who spent nearly nine years as the editor of Flare magazine and is now a sales director at Nordstrom, agrees, saying that Canadian retail doesn’t stray too far from standard fashion. “There are boutiques here and there that are very innovative, and there are certain people who will wear anything, but in general, Canadians veer towards the conservative,” she says. “It has to be a global trend before it takes hold here.” That might be why Canada struggles to keep its home-grown fashion talent: many well-known designers make their names abroad — Erdem achieved success in the U.K., for example, and Tanya Taylor and Jason Wu, both of whom have dressed Michele Obama, are based in the U.S.
Though her collections can increasingly be found on red carpets and in magazines, Jassal is still working to place her clothing in a major store. “I’m a Canadian Indian, but I feel like the fashion industries in both countries don’t accept me completely,” she says. “When I take my designs to the Canadian industry, they’re too exotic, too Indian. But I applied to Bombay Fashion Week and was told, technically you’re not Indian, you’re Canadian now.”
There are signs, however, that those distinctions are starting to matter less. “I find that because the world is such a small place now, thanks to social media, people are much more interested in other cultures,” Tant says. And Jassal has noticed that fans of her line will mix and match pieces with their existing wardrobes, pairing colourful, full-length, embroidered skirts with leather jackets, and cropped tops trimmed with feathers or tassels with trousers.
And this past February, Uniqlo — a Japanese brand best known for its affordable, minimalistic basics — launched a collaboration with Hana Tajima, a British-Japanese Muslim fashion designer, that includes hijabs, abayas, and baju kurung, a traditional Malay form of dress. Fifteen countries have featured the collaboration, including Canada, which assistant PR manager Catherine Couturier says was specifically chosen because of its diverse population. In March, Nike, announced that its Pro Hijab would be available in three colours starting in spring 2018.
As for Jassal, she’s now more focused on carving out a niche than fitting into one. “What I have found is that there are more girls who relate to what I am feeling, and that’s why my clothes resonate with another type of market,” she says. “It’s a market that isn't completely Indian but not completely Canadian — or, better said, it is the perfect mix of both.”
Renée Sylvestre-Williams is a writer living in Toronto. Her work has been published in The Globe and Mail, Canadian Living, and Quartz.