A Conversation with: Dorian Who
Toronto-based designer Dorian Who has taken Canada’s fashion world by storm. Since launching her eponymous brand in 2019, she has been consistently breaking barriers with avant-garde streetwear aesthetics, inspired by her Iranian heritage. Born and raised in Iran, moving to Toronto in 2015, Who uses fashion as a means of expression, with her brand being for those “Who dare to be different.” She recently launched her latest endeavour, Noor, in February of this year. A powerful and impactful collection, Noor is inspired by the “Woman Life Freedom” movement, using genderless clothing to uplift the Iranian heroes fighting for the lives of the women of the nation.
We got to chat with Who all about her design journey, from a childhood love of fashion to the uphill battle she faced in Toronto to the launch of her latest collection.
Take me through what sparked your initial love of fashion. Where did your passion for the form come from?
I was born and raised in Iran where it’s very restricted. All we saw were these women and men wearing black, completely covered up, very conservative outfits, so the style was not super fun. My dad, who would do exports to Germany, would travel all the time and bring magazines for my mom. I started to look at them and it was then I discovered this whole other world, one which was colourful and fun. My mom also used to sew clothing for me because we didn’t have access to brands at the time. She’s very stylish and is another reason I started to love fashion.
I know you ended up studying fashion. Take me through your time as a student.
I studied fashion design through a Montreal-based school called LaSalle. They had international schools, so I studied in Istanbul, Turkey. It’s not easy, the discipline they ask you to have, forces you to see if you really love fashion. People think it’s very glamorous, designers have a simple lifestyle making money all the time, but this isn’t the reality. It’s very tough work, and this school was a good beginning for me to learn this fact.
Let’s jump to the beginning of your Toronto journey. What brought you to the city?
My family applied in the 2000s and it took us nearly 16 years to arrive. We moved as soon as I graduated in Turkey. In Iran, there are very few opportunities, especially in a field like fashion. Of course, if you’re very lucky and get some funding, you can be a successful designer making money with local products, but that was not my dream. I wanted to do something big internationally. It’s been very challenging, however. When I first arrived, I hated Toronto. We moved in January, and my body didn’t accept the cold because I grew up in the Middle East where the summers reached 42 degrees celsius, so this felt like another planet.
I went job hunting and looked for internships and there was nothing for me. I started from ground zero, working retail jobs. On the side, I would post my personal style on Instagram, which started opening doors. I got involved in projects, I was making my own clothes and posting them, and then after years of working in different places as a stylist, digital creator, and visual merchandiser, I launched my brand in 2019.
How has it been since launching DORIAN WHO?
Starting a clothing line is difficult in Toronto because it’s a very expensive business. I started something sustainable, not working with factories who would make 1000 pieces for me, and it’s been challenging. It’s locally sourced and produced, and because I have to spend so much time selling myself, it’s hard to exercise my creativity. One of the biggest issues is the government doesn’t really have grants for fashion to help out. When you can find funding from a certain place, it’s for a specific community, so if you aren’t a part of the community you can’t apply.
I’ve been able to manage with the support of people around me and my customers, however, and I am happy I started this brand. If you have the passion to do something, you should do it. I was struggling to find a job, for two years I did interviews and wasn’t getting hired, so I started my own thing. One of my goals was to start a brand for people who also find it hard to get those opportunities, so when I hire my interns, I don’t judge them on a lot of things, I just see if they can help and if I can help them.
I want to jump to your latest collection. What was the inspiration for Noor?
The biggest inspiration was the “Woman Life Freedom” movement happening in Iran. I felt responsible to use my platform, to speak up, and share the voices of the people fighting. I watched the news and it’s heartbreaking. It was hard to find any other inspiration. I was moved by all of the girls who were fighting, I found it super brave, and I saw myself in them because I was one of them.
One of my first inspirations was a girl wearing an army outfit. She had on combat boots and just looked super powerful, super sexy, and super feminine. I was inspired by all of these young girls, but I additionally wanted to include men who were also fighting, getting killed or executed for no reason. I really wanted to work with this feminine/masculine energy. I often work in genderless clothing, so I wanted this collection to be genderless.
I started working on Noor in late summer 2022, and it took almost four months to launch. It’s been very busy, I haven’t found time to take a break, but it’s exciting.
What’s your vision for DORIAN WHO going forward?
It’s hard having long-term goals after COVID, but I hope I can grow every day. One thing I really want to do is extend my brand’s reach outside of Canada and present it internationally, get more exposure and reach a bigger audience. I hope DORIAN WHO can be a platform for a lot of people so they can use it as their voice, to get out of their comfort zone, out of their skin and just be who they really are.
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Thomas Publow is a contributor at Glossi Mag. Currently finishing his degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University, Thomas considers himself an expert in all things VMAs and Beyoncé.