RISK: Mani K. Jassal Designer blends cultures to create something new

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Among the many South Asian designers in the greater Toronto and Hamilton area, one shines out with her ability to blend the splendour of the culture with the modern looks of Toronto: Mani K. Jassal.

Situated between a small biryani shop and a skating rink in the heart of a small subdivision in Brampton, Jassal’s showroom stands out with a bright white sign announcing her name. The showroom itself is full of vibrancy and colours ranging from royal blue to neutral beiges, with different collections adorning the all-white room. Hidden away in the storeroom and garage, multiple sewing machines and a full-size cutout of Toronto singer and rapper Drake idly sit.

The collections themselves at first appear to be traditional South Asian bridal wear, but upon closer inspection, one notices a few distinct deviations: bustier tops as opposed to the typical cropped t-shirt, deeper plunges and the use of leather in place of cotton all deviate from the traditional styles, but work well with the pieces. Jassal herself stands behind a small desk, contrasting the colourful room in a black t-shirt dress and a pair of Birkenstocks.

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The Mani K. Jassal brand is wildly popular among the South Asian diaspora in North America; she currently has a showroom in Brampton, Canada and Los Angeles, USA. She typically sees three to four clients per hour, and has recently expanded her business by hiring others to help her with consultations. While Jassal maintains a serious evening wear brand, she’s still tongue-in-cheek; her Instagram page features both her work and pictures of her and her Drake cutout, modeling her latest designs.

Jassal, the daughter of Indian immigrants, began designing at the age of 11, sketching out designs for characters she admired like Cinderella. It was during high school when she decided to learn how to make clothing herself, both from her seamstress mother and the fashion design classes her high school offered. Despite her clear talent, Jassal originally did not plan on going into fashion design.

Jassal experienced a similar predicament many South Asian creative youth go through when deciding their career path; on one hand, she was invested in succeeding and creating a stable life for herself within Canada, but found herself drawn to the risky arts.

“I was really good at math and science… [my parents] wanted me to be an engineer or a lawyer. I thought fashion design was a dream and applied for engineering programs,” Jassal said.

Jassal ultimately applied to the notoriously difficult fashion design program offered at Ryerson University, which is rated as the second most difficult program at the school, after electrical engineering. Once she was accepted, Jassal took it as a sign and decided to take the plunge and pursue fashion design seriously.

“I used fabrics like leather, techniques like laser cutting and used unconventional colours like black and white.”
Mani K. Jassal
Designer and Owner, Mani K Jassal Showroom

Interestingly enough, Jassal did not initially plan on focusing on South Asian bridal wear. Before her fourth year at Ryerson, Jassal planned on going into evening wear, focusing on couture dresses. But after being exposed to the sartorial world in India, she decided to do her final collection on Indian bridal wear. Her work was an instant hit; her use of experimental, non-traditional colours and sexier silhouettes reinvigorated the market and changed the way people view South Asian bridal wear in general.

“I used fabrics like leather techniques like laser cutting and used unconventional colours like black and white. Maybe not now, but at the time, more scandalous silhouettes,” Jassal said.

Following her undergraduate degree, Jassal was faced with a choice: either move out of the province to take on a job in Montreal or Europe, or stay and create her own brand.

“I tried looking for a job in design and it’s so hard in Toronto unless you move away, and even then, you’re not going to get paid,” she said.

Jassal opted for the latter option, and opened up her shop about a year following her degree. Since then, she has been met with immense success.

All her pieces are all ethically made within Canada, and Jassal uses a range of design techniques such as laser-cutting to create precise designs. Her prices mirror those of most ethically produced clothing stores, such as White Elephant, where a blouse goes for about $160.

Jassal’s brand is unique in the bridal wear world for its experimental colours and palettes and always wanting to push boundaries.

Typically, South Asian bridal wear consists of crop top and full-length skirt, called a lengha or sari depending on the region. The colour palette sticks to auspicious colours such as red, yellow and green.

“I really do want to push the boundaries because when you go into Indian stores you see the same stuff again and again,” she said. “And we would wear bustiers with our western wardrobe, so why not be a little sexy with our Indian wardrobe? I do have other options, but it’s just about being different,” Jassal said.

Much of Jassal’s clothing and presentation contrasts the more traditional pieces which come from local South Asian tailors and seamstresses. While their designs tend to be loud and full of multiple colours, Jassal’s pieces follow stricter colour palettes and include unconventional colours such as black, white and neutral shades. Her influences span from the architecture of the Rajasthani city of Udaipur to Drake and M.I.A., which she cites to be the reasons why her work feels so fresh. Jassal still maintains much of the integrity of the traditional styles; she just adds something new to it.

“I incorporate two cultures into [my work]; I’m Canadian and I’m Indian and so it’s like both worlds,” she noted.

I really do want to push the boundaries because when you go into Indian stores you see the same stuff again and again.
Mani K. Jassal
Designer and Owner, Mani K. Jassal Showroom

The two cultures are strikingly clear throughout her work. While Jassal is officially a South Asian bridal wear designer, she by no means wants her pieces to be limited to that label. For example, the styling of all her pieces in her Los Angeles showroom drastically differ from the styling of her Brampton showroom, where the pieces are styled as gala outfits as opposed to bridal wear.

Much of her latest collection deviates from most, if not all, traditional bridal wear. Her latest bridal collection incorporates the traditional red South Asian brides typically wear, but the pieces themselves include tufts of fur and fringe and are cut in a way that teeters the line between outerwear and lingerie.

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Jassal plans on venturing into other markets in the coming years. She hopes to expand into menswear, homeware and lingerie and eveningwear in the near future, and eventually have a shop in every major city. But her work remains the talk of the South Asian diaspora in the greater Toronto and Hamilton area, with her evocative, elegant designs.

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