It’s a long way from putting the finishing touches on drag queens’ gowns at the Red Spot (now Papi’s) six years ago, to making waves at Toronto Fashion Week. But success for 26-year-old lesbian designer Alia Juma is about taking inspiration from wherever it arises.
“I was doing custom clothing first. I used to design gowns for drag queens and then went into goth clothing,” says Juma. “I think in your younger years you’re always experimenting with different things and you’re growing up.”
Her and her brother Jamil’s eponymous label, Juma, debuted its 2007 spring/summer collection at Toronto Fashion Week last week, a show that maintained the label’s forward momentum. Having previously been featured in prominent Canadian titles like Fashion Magazine, FQ and Elle Canada, Juma is now selling at exclusive boutiques in New York and Japan. Just this year, Los Angeles-based luxury retailer Fred Segal picked up a few pieces from both Juma (the luxury end) and Movement Juma (the more casual side of the label).
This season Juma experimented with different silhouettes and fabric combinations; the colourful beaches of Mombasa were an influence. The result was a sophisticated, seasonless, fashion-forward line, eclectic enough to wear casually in daytime and yet elegant enough for evening wear.
“We’ve actually taken in a few of our dresses and tops with two contrasting fabrics and mixed them together. It just works so beautifully,” says Alia. The cuts on the dresses and pants are crisp, and the pieces have intricate details like wrapped strings and contrasting bamboo and silk fabrics. Former Canada’s Next Top Model contestant CiCi opened the show, wearing a blue tank, silver pumps and an organic lined stretch skirt.
Many thought that the ’80s post-punk mix print chiffon bubble dresses à la Diane Von Furstenberg and the bamboo jersey hooded tops were the standout pieces.
“It had elements from before that define Juma, mixed with their interpretation of what’s now,” says Marlene Shiff, a fixture in the Toronto fashion industry and owner of Boutique Le Trou, which specializes in Canadian designs, including Juma. “The textures and silhouettes are extremely wearable, and although it may seem like it is for young people, my customers aged 50 also wear it.”
Given the star power of these designs the label can only shine brighter. But it’s hard work more than glamour that has taken the Jumas this far.
“Fashion is a difficult, difficult thing to get into. You have to be prepared for long days and long nights,” says Alia. “You have to be ambitious, you have to really want this, you have to constantly be pushing yourself.
“You can’t think that fashion is this glamorous thing. It’s long hours, it’s hard, it’s tedious. But it’s also very rewarding and if you love being creative, then it is definitely something that you should get into. But you have to be prepared for 14-hour days, missing meals and not having a social life.”
After graduating from fashion design at George Brown College, Alia worked as a production design intern at Peach Berserk and Damzels In This Dress, while brother Jamil, with a degree in biosystems engineering from McGill University, worked as an investment strategist. Sibling rivalry was never really their thing, and it was just natural evolution to work together and start their own company three years ago, with the help of the Toronto Fashion Incubator, a not-for-profit fashion organization which nurtures young designers and entrepreneurs.
Alia’s focus is on sample making, development of the garments and production, while Jamil acts as a creative director and oversees the business and marketing aspect of the label; both co-design the collection together.
Alia — like fashion, itself — has kept moving. She was born in Los Angeles and has lived in the US, Vancouver, Kenya and Dubai. She cites these international destinations as inspiration. “Fashion is ever-changing. You’re always changing, creating and innovating. You get to travel and meet people constantly. It’s always something exciting, and that’s why fashion is amazing.”