Toronto-Based Streetwear Label ONGNA Draws On Its Assamese Roots To Defy Stereotypes

Toronto-Based Streetwear Label ONGNA Draws On Its Assamese Roots To Defy Stereotypes

Perhaps it’s the romantic in me, but every time I hear about the Seven Sister states of the Northeast, I think of verdant valleys and puffy clouds. It has never seemed surprising to me that the most prominent motif that symbolises the neighbouring region of Tibet was the Thangka cloud patterns. But for Angana Ananya however, an Assamese-origin streetwear designer based out of Toronto, the fluffy clouds of her homeland were not the inspiration to create the Cloud Puffer jacket. When asked about her favourite piece from her gender-neutral streetwear brand ONGNA, she mentioned the OG Cloud Puffer jacket, which in her books was a true labour of love. As someone closer to the culture, she found inspiration for this piece in the traditional Japi - a beautiful piece of headwear from Assam. She created a design that uses recycled material and utilises intricate craftsmanship and in talking about it, she said, "The OG Cloud puffer holds a special place in my heart, not just because of its stylish appeal, but also owing to the intricate craftsmanship that went into its creation. Procuring the right materials and finding skilled manufacturers who shared our commitment to quality and sustainability was a painstaking process that took considerable time and effort. One of the most challenging aspects of designing this jacket was the complexity of the stitching pattern. It required a high level of skill and precision to execute, as every detail had to be just right to achieve the desired effect. People are intrigued by its complicated yet striking design, and I'm always happy to share the journey behind its creation.”

While talking about this select single piece from ONGNA, you're introduced to the many aspects that define this brand - collaboration, artisanship, sourcing the right products, a commitment to excellence and of course, being gender-neutral, and storytelling through the medium of fashion. The interplay between culture and identity is a common factor in the sartorial world and ONGNA is a testament to what a personal narrative and lived experience can bring to the mix. The slow-fashion brand is rooted in the founder’s South Asian heritage while still championing modern causes of inclusivity and sustainability that are personal to the founder. 

Embracing Assamese Roots in Toronto

From the intricate patterns of Assamese textiles to the vibrant hues of traditional motifs, her childhood experiences in Assam laid the foundation for her creative perspective but over the years, it has been influenced by a myriad of factors. After having moved to Toronto, a city teeming with diversity and artistic expression, Angana found inspiration at every corner, infusing her designs with a modern twist influenced by the dynamic landscape of her adopted home.“I've always had this strong connection to my cultural identity, I felt a strong calling to create a brand that reflected both my identity and my values. The idea of blending slow-fashion principles with gender-neutral streetwear emerged as a way to express my vision of style that is both timeless and inclusive. My journey started with extensive research into sustainable fashion practices and a commitment to ethical sourcing and production. It was a journey of discovery - finding ways to blend traditional techniques with modern design sensibilities,” she mentioned. 

She went a step further to talk about her experience as a person of colour and a woman in Toronto and how it reaffirmed her need for prioritising accurate cultural representation and inclusivity - of seeing one’s own self and culture reflected in the attire they don and brands they support. This perspective has shaped the creative direction for creating a collective that not only honours her heritage but also amplifies marginalised voices and celebrates the beauty of diversity. She went on to say, “I wanted to cultivate a community—one that celebrates diversity, embraces individuality, and champions inclusivity at its core. I poured my heart and soul into every design, infusing each piece with elements that spoke to my personal journey and artistic expression. And that's how the idea for Ongna came to be—a brand that embodies slow-fashion principles while embracing the vibrancy of gender-neutral streetwear.

A Fusion Of Traditional Design and Modern Sustainable Practices

However, crafting a brand that not only reflected her identity but also embodied her values was not an easy feat. Combining slow-fashion principles with gender-neutral streetwear, ONGNA pieces are handcrafted, each piece imbued with elements of traditional craftsmanship and locally sourced materials, paying homage to the founder’s roots while paving the way for a more sustainable future. In talking about what drives her, Angana mentioned everything from childhood memories to deeper philosophies that she has grown up believing in. In her own words, ONGNA is deeply rooted in sustainability and ethical practices, mirroring the reverence for nature and community that is inherent in Assamese culture. At Ongna, we prioritise eco-friendly materials, ethical production methods, and fair labour practices, ensuring that every piece we create is not only a reflection of my heritage but also a commitment to a more sustainable future.” 

When it comes to the actual process of creating her pieces, she mentioned her fascination for architecture and interior design that often seep into her sartorial inspirations - focusing on concepts of balance, form and functionality. For her, “Just as a well-designed space can evoke a sense of serenity and elegance, I strive to imbue my designs with a similar sense of grace and purpose. Even a seemingly still object or a piece of furniture can serve as a catalyst for my future design ideas, influencing colour palettes, textures, and silhouettes.” Once she has delved deep into research and honed in on a concept, the actual design process begins where sketches are drawn, fabrics are chosen, and prototypes are created - each iteration bringing the small but dedicated team behind ONGNA closer to realise Angana’s vision. For her, this phase is where creativity truly flourishes, as they play around with shapes, colours, and textures to craft pieces that not only look beautiful but also feel authentic to the brand's identity. 

But the philosophy behind the label looks at the larger narrative of how fashion has become equated with fast fashion and mindless consumption and the cost it comes at for the planet. ONGNA is an antithesis to this and is the driving force for the designer’s decision to choose materials and styles that prioritise sustainability and ethics. Her approach to fashion is informed by a broader awareness of its implications on the world. “Our materials are carefully selected with sustainability in mind, from eco-friendly fabrics to ethical production practices. We prioritise deadstock, and natural and/or renewable fibres and seek out suppliers who share our commitment to environmental stewardship and fair labour practices. Keeping our stock very limited, we ensure no overproduction or waste. We also take pre-orders for our products and produce them according to customers' orders. In essence, our choice of materials and style is a reflection of our values—a commitment to sustainability, ethics, and cultural celebration. By choosing fashion that respects people and the planet, we're not only creating beautiful clothing but also contributing to a more just and sustainable world”, Angana noted.

A Creative Rebellion Against Harmful Perceptions of Her Community 

While her time in Toronto is what led Angana to transform her vision into reality, her experiences before moving there have also shaped the brand she founded. She adds that, “Before moving to Toronto, I lived in New Delhi for a few years and it provided me with a profound socio-political insight into the stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding the northeastern states of India. The prevailing narratives often depicted the region as exotic, backward, and disconnected from the mainstream, perpetuating a sense of otherness and marginalisation. These stereotypes fueled my desire to create my brand, as a platform to challenge such narratives and give voice to the rich cultural heritage and challenges faced by Assam and its people. I saw firsthand how these misconceptions not only undermined the diversity and resilience of the region but also perpetuated harmful stereotypes that contributed to its marginalisation within the larger Indian context.”

However, building a South Asian origin in Toronto comes with added layers of both complexity and niche opportunity. With an established industry that is dominated by larger brands, making a mark and being a brand championing the diversity of the varied population in the region is a challenge. This involves breaking away from established ideas of what being Indian means to breaking free from stereotypes without compromising on cultural roots. "being a POC-owned brand, gaining visibility and recognition can be an uphill battle, but it's one that we're willing to fight with passion and determination." says Angana. "There's often a tendency to pigeonhole Indian identity as solely traditional or ethnic, overlooking the diversity and modernity that exist within it. Challenging these misconceptions and showcasing the breadth and depth of our brand's offerings is an ongoing effort that requires perseverance and resilience. Breaking free from these stereotypes while staying true to my cultural roots has required creativity, resilience, and a willingness to challenge the status quo.”

A Streetwear Brand Led By Passion & Innovation 

From the initial idea to the final product, Angana credits passion as the biggest driver for everything that is created under her label. Fuelled by a deep love for creativity and expression, she hopes to create beautiful, sustainable attire that celebrates diversity and authentic self-expression. This purpose itself is her personal compass and she credits it to having guided her through the ups and downs of entrepreneurship and reminding her of the impact the brand can make on the world. She poignantly summarises her approach to ONGNA as being “a harmonious balance of heart and mind—driven by passion, guided by purpose, and grounded in pragmatism. It's this holistic approach that allows me to navigate the complexities of running a business while staying true to the values that define us.”

Currently, Angana is pouring all her creative energy into crafting more designs for the label, as well as trying to engage and build an online community that aligns with the brand’s core values. By seeking to foster real connections with the audience, she hopes to create a space where individuals can engage with the brand on a deeper level. She is turning her focus on nurturing ONGNA as a platform for positive change where people from varying walks of life feel cherished. For her, this includes “embracing diverse models in our campaigns to amplifying underrepresented voices in the fashion industry, inclusivity is at the heart of everything we do. I'll continue to prioritise diversity and representation in our brand's messaging, products, and collaborations, ensuring that Ongna remains a beacon of acceptance and empowerment.” In an attempt to do even more, Angana is also hoping to collaborate with fellow creatives who share their values and vision. By forging partnerships with like-minded individuals, they hope to bring in more diverse perspectives, creative insights, and unique artistic expressions.”

But bootstrapping a streetwear label in Toronto with only her savings to rely on, has been the biggest challenge for Angana. While this has come with sacrifices and hard work, the designer recognises the need for discipline and a willingness to forego instant gratification to reach her bigger goal. In speaking about her learnings along the way, she talked about the need to be resourceful as a small business owner. She said, “Without the luxury of deep pockets or external support, I had to get creative with how I allocate my resources, whether it is leveraging social media for marketing, or tapping into my network for support. Despite the challenges, building my brand from the ground up has been an immensely rewarding experience.” 

In looking ahead, the founder’s vision for ONGNA is one of continued growth and impact. She aspires to expand their reach, both locally and globally, while staying true to their values of sustainability, authenticity, and cultural celebration. "Whether it's opening brick-and-mortar stores, expanding our online presence, or partnering with like-minded organisations, she is looking ahead to all the possibilities that ONGNA holds." She concluded our conversation about her brand with an inspiring sense of resoluteness - “Building my brand has taught me resilience, perseverance, and the true value of hard work. And while the road ahead may still be uncertain, I'm confident that the foundation I've built on my hard labour & determination will continue to carry me forward on this incredible journey.”

You can follow ONGNA here.

You can explore their collections here.

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