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Naga designs wow Toronto

Hoihnu Hauzel 23 Jan 2014

Benn Subong is very much at home in Toronto where she has been living for the last 40 years. This fashion designer from Mokokchung, a district in Nagaland, came to Canada so that she could achieve something. Today, she is a successful fashion designer who went on to do home furnishing with her own label which has a big following. When not designing, Subong plays host to homesick fellow Nagas new to the place by dishing out delicious meals for them. In a freewheeling conversation in Toronto, she looks back at her journey.

What prompted you to leave home and travel to a distant land?

I always had a desire to study ‘abroad’. So, I enrolled in Northwest Baptist theological college in Vancouver for religious education. During the one and half year course, I felt lonely and homesick. The culture was so different and new to mine. But I stuck on. After I completed the theology course, I took a break to do something that I had always secretly wanted to do - designing. I took up a part time course and appeared for a test that assessed my interest. I was told that I could opt for either a writer’s or an artist’s course. I went to Ryerson University to study Fashion Design option, saved some money and then went to a fashion institute.

When did you fall in love with designing?

When I was around six years old I started making dolls’ clothes and that is when I decided that I would like to become a fashion designer.

How did you start working on your label?

I worked with few companies and felt that I was not doing enough to use my creative talents, so I decided to start my own business from home by  doing freelance work for a few companies for a some years. And then, I finally decided to open a store under my own label.  It was hard to start one’s own business. I had a lot of support from my friends who volunteered to set up my store and that were how Subong studio was born. 

Who was your first client? How did you market yourself and your products as a brand?

My first clients came to me after seeing an ad for bridesmaid dresses for an early summer wedding. I still have those clients. Once someone likes one’s work they stay loyal.  That experience boosted my confidence. Further, word-of-mouth publicity I was able to market my brand. My friends and clients encouraged me further. Also, interviews in the media helped me to showcase my collections to a wider audience.

Do you use any elements from Nagaland’s rich heritage in your designs?

Yes, sometimes I use them to express the ethnic lines. I incorporate the motives in cloth making and designing. But, of course, not in Western style jackets, skirts and other outer jackets. I like details with a little touch here and there. Only those who wear them will know the subtle touches of detail. My clients are mostly professionals in the age group of 30 to 60. And my clothes are priced from USD 70-300 onwards.

Did you work anywhere before starting on your own?

To gain experience, I worked at Heidi Designs, a prominent studio-based practice in Toronto specialising in the design and production of handcrafted. Later, I apprenticed with a Canadian designer Eve de Rouge. I also worked as Assist. Designer for a Style craft outer wear company.  I did that for about a year and a half but I was not happy as I could not pursue my interest. So, I quit and opened my own Studio and Store. Upper Beaches Store was my last studio Store, which I closed in the summer of 2007, this was for health reason.  From 1984 to 2007, I also had Fashion shows about three or four times a year. My line is known for its original and classic touch which is wearable and has a lot of style quotient.

When you did you shift to becoming a freelancer and what kind of home furnishing do you do now?

After 2007, I became a freelancer. Now, I do mostly home staging as well as cushion covers and draperies.
Besides, I keep myself busy with various other things including taking art lessons.

You mentioned that it was your mother who did not allow you to take up designing as she wanted you to follow theology. How did you convince her?

Since my grandfather was one of the first convert to Christianity and became a pastor, it was my mother’s wishes that one of her children would serve the Lord in full time ministry. So, she wanted me to either become a missionary or serve God full time. I did go to Bible College for three and a half years but took a couple of years to decide what I wanted to do for a career. Actually, both my parents encouraged me when I decided to pursue my childhood dream of pursuing fashion designing.

Where is home?

Today, I feel more at home here than anywhere in the world. There are about eight to 10 Nagas here. I usually organise Naga meals with them and once every week, I prepare traditional Naga food. During Christmas, of course, I miss home. When I go to India I feel I am going home and when I come back, it is home too. Home is where the heart is. It’s hard to be away from home. But my main anchoring force has been faith. When I am alone, I draw strength from my faith. I am thankful to God that ever since I left home, I have never been in want of anything.

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