Designer fashions personality and culture into clothes

Fashion doesn’t just dress women, it empowers them.

At Toronto Fashion Week, designer Saniya Khan chose to liberate women by covering them up. She draped her models in loose layers of bold fabrics that flowed past the knee and often to the floor.

Khan’s model, Ashley Sharman, believes that her combination of vivid textiles and conservative designs speak to strong, modern women.

“It’s very empowering to me,” she said. “(Her designs are) very layered… It’s form fitting, but it also allows people to cover up areas that some women might not want to show.”

Although Khan chose to cover women, her fashion has always been a way to express herself. Her latest collection expressed her Pakistani heritage in particular.

“I respect Canada a lot, but being Pakistani has been a part of me always… and for me this (collection) was a way of speaking up,” she said.

Khan showed her Fall/Winter 2010 collection at Toronto Fashion Week on Tuesday. She described her collection as a way to awaken parts of her ancestry that have been dormant since moving to Canada 11 years ago.

“There’s so much richness in the cultural heritage of mine and so much of it is lost that I would like to revive and have people see.”

Khan tells her own story through her designs. They reflect the aesthetic of her homeland, but they also recreate the feeling of community she had there.

“I get to enjoy the food and the family and the friends… We kind of revive all of that culture,” she said.

Khan said her clothes also speak to other women of diverse backgrounds. She began her career in the Asian and European markets and now her designs reflect the diversity of Toronto. They also allow women of different backgrounds to speak for themselves.

“They can vote to wear them pretty tight. If it’s a woman who wants to not wear a belt and let it flow, she can do that. So it’s the diversity that was the goal,” she said.

The diverse women at Toronto Fashion Week also believe that the seemingly simple act of choosing their clothes can be a path to empowerment.

Vahida Badhe, 21-year-old York University student and Fashion Week usher, feels autonomous in her decision to cover up, as Khan’s models do. She is the only woman wearing a hijab at the event, but feels confident in the image she chooses to present to the world.

“It’s a woman’s choice,” she said. “It’s about… keeping your dignity and not attracting too much attention to yourself.”

She also chooses to layer dresses over pants to cover up, much like Khan’s designs.

“As a Muslim, you’re not supposed to show too much skin, so I’m usually wearing pants,” she said. “I think there are lots of choices out there, so I just wear whatever’s comfortable to me.”

Khan’s new collection is designed to help women such as Badhe feel at home both in a place as diverse as Toronto and in their own skin.

“You can be yourself. I think the world is all together now. It’s pretty small. And you can wear whatever (you want) anywhere,” she said.