What do you get if you mix the work ethic of Karl Lagerfeld with the design aesthetic of Alexander McQueen and season to taste with a dash of BadGalRiRi? A bold, young bridal designer who’s one part Indian, one part Canadian and all parts #GIRLBOSS.
Mani Jassal and I are sitting in a busy, cramped Starbucks in downtown Toronto on Queen Street West. With celebrities like R&B artist Ashanti to singer Miguel’s longtime girlfriend Nazanin Mandi wearing her designs, it’s nice to catch up with another fellow Ryerson University School of Fashion alum who is quickly making a name for herself only a few years post-graduation. I imagine it must have been a bit of divine intervention that has put her where she is today as Mani tells me about how she almost took a different career path.
Turns out Mani and I have some things in common. We are both immigrants of ethnic backgrounds who came to North America when we were young and grew up with traditionalist parents. She tells me about how her South Asian parents had wanted her to be an engineer or a doctor and at the time it was something that she had accepted for herself. She applied to the University of Toronto’s aerospace engineering program, the University of Waterloo’s chemistry program, and then the wild card, fashion design at Ryerson University.
Ultimately, her fate would settle on Ryerson and align with her childhood dreams of being a fashion designer. “I’ve always wanted to be a fashion designer since I was 12,” Mani recalls, reminiscing on how she used to always carry her sketchbook with her. As many fashion students feel when they first start school, for a time Mani questioned her place there. It would be a chance moment flipping through Vogue India just before her final year that would truly put her on the path to where she is now.
Scanning the pages, Mani noticed that the way they presented Indian fashion was very different from the style she had learned about from her mother. She was inspired to try an experimental approach for her graduating collection and held steadfast to her views no matter what anyone else thought. “I used black in a bridal collection which, during my project thesis presentation, I lost marks …and I still moved forward. And then two years later I picked up another issue of Vogue India and black was the new bridal color.”
While Jassal embraced fashion at a young age, embracing her cultural heritage took more time. Born in India, Mani moved to Canada at the age of 5. “Growing up you don’t pronounce your name the way you’re supposed to. You say it in a whitewashed way. You’re kind of embarrassed… Yeah I’m Indian but I don’t wanna talk about India,” says Jassal of her childhood days. However, as with many youth of ethnic backgrounds who grow up in Western culture, with age comes acceptance and pride.
“As you grow up you meet more people, you build more of a community, and you accept it and it is what it is. Being Canadian-Indian, you kinda develop your own culture. You’re like this new culture and I feel like there’s a lot of us here that are that culture. We’re creating a new culture. Even my clothes, I know there’s a lot of Indian designers in India that are trying to do Western fusion but I don’t think they do a very good job at it. Personally, I still feel there are some elements that just don’t relate with Canadians or North Americans. So with my style you’ll still get your traditional silhouettes but it’s the fabrics, the colors, and the cuts that make it modern.”
While designing for the bridal market can be a lot of pressure, Mani takes it in stride. “It’s a big day for them so you wanna make it as perfect as possible. It’s almost like an honor as well to design for them. I had a bridal client a few days ago who was like ‘Can I just hug you? This is such a special moment for me.’…It’s a big deal. I take it very seriously.”
With such a badass take on Indian bridal, it’s no wonder she pulls inspiration from Queens of Badass Behavior like MIA and Rihanna. She also counts hip hop and travel as being other big influences of hers. She specifically cites the time last year when she quit her job at a luxury fashion retailer to go to India for 6 weeks. On an Eat, Pray, Love-esque quest for further self-discovery as a designer she spent time in Udaipur which ended up being the inspiration for her last collection, Udaipur Tea Party. She fell in love with the city and the rest was history.
While traveling for inspiration may be a more glamorous side to Jassal’s life, as an emerging designer she faces many challenges too. Marketing. Manufacturing. Funding. Time Management. Running a one-woman show can be very overwhelming at times, especially considering that she hand sews all her pieces. “You want to produce art and people expect you to be producing more collections. I get orders but I have to put that money right back into fabrics, doing a show, doing a photoshoot.”
A common dialogue among artists in Toronto (myself included) is the struggle for support from within the city and Mani’s experience has been no different. “Designers have kind of given up on the Toronto fashion industry. I hate that. I’m all about supporting local designers. I try my hardest…to buy Canadian as much as possible.” Unfortunately it took Mani’s garments finding a home in LA at Showroom Joplin where celebrities have embraced them for her own hometown to begin taking a greater interest in her work.
When she’s not navigating the challenges of running her own business, Mani often finds herself navigating criticism from all sides. While the Internet has been a great place for Mani to showcase her work, she candidly shares that it has also been a source of negativity from online haters, specifically on Instagram. She explains that in her most recent collection, Udaipur Tea Party, she incorporates various bralets and bustiers that seem to be causing an uproar among Indian traditionalists who think it’s too risqué. Her mix of lingerie and lehengas (pronounced ‘leng-uhs’, the traditional full skirt), has garnered heated responses. “You don’t know how to design,” she’s been told. “You should go to India to learn.”
If not that, then she’s probably being accused of culturally appropriating, get this, her own Indian heritage, simply because of her use of non-Indian models. “Clothes are clothes. Who’s to say, if I use a white model, she’s not getting married to an Indian man? When I’m choosing my models, that intent is never in my mind.” So what about when she uses an Indian model? It’s all good then, right? Not so fast. When she uses light-skinned models she finds herself accused of colorism, and when using dark-skinned models, accused of using them in a token way.
Jassal also attributes some of the hate to be due to a change in the way people view culture now. She notes how her parents’ generation positively viewed non-Indians embracing Indian culture (ie wearing bindis) but now, many people like Internet personality Sanam Sindhi consider it disrespectful. “When I design, it’s an art form and I will use any model I want. I use every ethnicity of model. You’ll never make everyone happy so just keep doing you and don’t listen to them.”
When we start chatting about her passions, I find there are even more social issues concerning Mani’s designs that deserve discussion. In addition to striving to break barriers and carve out a new niche between Indian and Western culture, the topic of ethical production is also at the top of her list. She takes me back to her trip to India, specifically witnessing the lives of those working in the garment industry.
“When I saw their living conditions, I was like ‘No way’. The most tightest space for a family of five. Four little children. This is not what I want. I want everything to be produced ethically. I want people to be paid fair wages. With the Indian market, people will get these heavily embroidered pieces for $1500 but if a piece like that was produced here in Canada it would be $10,000…A lot of people don’t understand [my garments] are made here ethically. There’s no little children working on it, unfair wages. But people don’t care about that. People are very price-oriented so they’re going to go wherever they can get something for less… I tried explaining [this] to one of my clients and she just laughed at me…I’m going to make people aware of how things are produced but if they want to buy into that then it’s on them.”
Mani’s designs create discussions that begin in fashion but transcend to deep social issues and ultimately that can only be viewed as a positive.
Is there any rest for a socially-conscious Indian bridal designer with her third eye wide open? Not really. But luckily, she’s doing what she loves so she doesn’t need random hobbies to escape into. In the little bit of off time that she does have, her inner foodie comes out and she enjoys trying out new restaurants. What’s at the top of her cuisine list? Chicken and waffles. If you’re in Toronto and looking for a good place to indulge in the beloved twosome, try out her top recommendation, Harlem Underground. Tell them Mani sent you.