Growing up in Djibouti, a tiny country in the Horn of Africa, Jamal Abdourahman’s big dream was to travel the world as a diplomat.
Inspired by kin, who were in faraway lands representing his nation, Jamal’s journey took him to America and then later to Toronto in 1990, first as a refugee and then as an international student.
Here, to help pay for his studies, Jamal began working in a nightclub, where one day the owner asked him to help with organizing a “what’s in your trunk” fashion show.
Soon enough, the aspirations of being a diplomat gave way to the passion for fashion, as Jamal began to travel to all corners of the world to build his runway for success.
“I have racked up more than a million travel miles going to the fashion capitals of the world,” said Jamal, the founder/producer of Vancouver Fashion Week (VFW), which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, who prefers the use of his first name.
With a total of 35 seasons under his belt, the next one will be held between April 16 and April 18 with 18 designers from 13 countries including Canada, USA, UK, France, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Bolivia, Peru, Australia, Taiwan, Japan and Korea. Like everything else impacted by COVID19, this will be a digital production live-streamed globally.
Today, Vancouver Fashion Week is the largest and longest-running event of its kind in Canada and the second-largest fashion show in North America, right after New York Fashion Week.
Jamal and his team have also initiated the Global Fashion Collective (GFC) to provide a bigger stage for young and promising local designers. These special events run alongside shows at the New York Fashion Week, Tokyo Fashion Week, and Paris Fashion Week. VFW also has a special Kids Fashion event.
Diversity and Culture as Strength
“Canada’s diversity is its strength when it comes to the fashion industry,” said Jamal, a polyglot who speaks five languages fluently and is conversational in six others.
“We have great local talent who use their cultural backgrounds from all over the world in their designs…These designers take a lot of pride in their work and use high-quality materials and production techniques.”
“We at Vancouver Fashion Week aim to showcase these designers locally, nationally and globally,” said Jamal.
And that’s exactly what the event did for Vancouver designer Grandy, who made her debut at VFW 2014. Within four years, her collections were being showcased at the Amazon Fashion Week in Tokyo.
“Jamal put Vancouver on the global fashion industry map…like me, there are so many designers who got their first opportunity to showcase their work at VFW,” said Grandy, who operates a luxury womenswear boutique called Grandi.
Since her debut at VFW, Grandy’s bespoke atelier service has garnered much media attention – including coverage by VOGUE UK, Glamour UK, Forbes UK, WWD Japan, as well as on the red carpet at the Academy Awards and Cannes Film Festival.
“Jamal’s got the energy of the toddler and uses every bit of that to promote designers every chance he gets,” said Grandy.
The testimonials on VFW’s website pay tribute to this sentiment.
“VFW has opened many doors and new opportunities for us,” writes designer Tran Phuong My whose flagship store is in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Dania Shinkar, a Saudi Arabian fashion designer showcased her Spring/ Summer 2018 handbag collection on the runway at Vancouver Fashion Week.
“Vancouver Fashion Week has allowed me to gain exposure on a global scale, increase brand awareness and reach a wider audience.”
Immigrants in Fashion
For Jamal, the success and kudos come from years of turning obstacles into opportunities to triumph over adversities.
“It is never easy in this industry and even more harder if you setting out as a new immigrant,” said Jamal, who traces his ancestry to the Afar ethnic group, whose traditional territories borders the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
“When I was organizing my first few shows, I could not get any attention from the fashion writers in the mainstream media, who were quite snobbish…they preferred the flagship shows in Paris and Milan rather than something close to home.
“So I went and got coverage from overseas-based media houses and magazines which eventually helped move the needle a bit locally…working with charitable groups like showcasing designers with their collections being modelled by breast cancer survivors also helped,” said Jamal.
Then came a few allegations of inappropriate behavior by VFW staff which were never proven but left a stain on social media.
“There is so much close contact in this industry between models, designers, photographers and stylists and we have a strict zero-tolerance policy when it comes to inappropriate behaviour.
“I always encourage anyone, especially the women involved with VFW, to speak up and speak out against any form of harassment.”
Coming out of Covid, Jamal is busy preparing to stage shows with more local talent sourced from Vancouver’s ethnic communities
“Athletic wear and outdoor clothing are big on the Westcoast but there is also a street-style fashion sense that is growing here, especially in the East Asian communities with unique Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese influences.
“And we have the colourful vibrancy of the South Asian and Latin American communities …when you bring all these things together, Vancouver is a fashion designer’s paradise.
“Our mission at TFW is to showcase these designers to the world and give them a platform for their craft with ongoing opportunities for commerce and growth.”
“I see fashion as an instant language…a language that can help project Vancouver’s attractiveness on a different level and for that reason I would like the world to see Vancouver for what it wears,” added Jamal.
In 2016, then Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson officially declared the week of Sept 19 to Sept 25, as Vancouver Fashion Week in a City Proclamation.
It is but one of the many public tributes that acknowledges Jamal’s runway success story.