African Fashion Week Toronto: Where diversity and culture collide on the runway

“We can do a lot more for Toronto but without the funding, it’s just a little bit tough,” organizers say

Designed by Zadd and Eastman, displays a one of the many garments showcased onstage at African Fashion week Toronto 2023. Photo provided by Jamai Photography. (Photo by Jamai Photography)

In a fiery burst of fashion and culture, African Fashion Week set Toronto's downtown core ablaze last Friday, igniting the long-awaited anticipation many have been looking towards.

This electrifying launch sparks a city-wide celebration of diversity and culture, putting African flair on full display in Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square.

Co-founder Isaac Ansah has been running the event for more than 11 years and said that the general fashion scene has always been buzzing within the city, but felt it was his duty to shed some light on traditional African style, as well.

He also added the special thing about this year is that only recently did his team decide to commercialize the event and make it more accessible to the general public.

Choosing a space in the heart of city was a key emphasis they wanted to focus on. Entry was free and the event also featured several vendors selling everything from food to traditional clothing and souvenirs.

“Since last year and this year, we decided to commercialize it and make it as available to the entire community here in Toronto,” said Ansah. “That’s the reason we went to Dundas Square, so we can capture a broader audience.”

Seizing people’s attention proved to be more than a huge success, especially for the average Torontonian who wanted to come down and enjoy the music.

The festivities gave many rising artists from the city a platform to share their music to those both familiar and unfamiliar with African music.

One of those voices is singer-songwriter Borelson, who's part of the F.A.C.E.S. Toronto music group. He said performing at the event was an amazing experience.

“Being a part of African fashion in Toronto feels almost surreal because I feel like it’s one of the biggest if not the biggest event celebrating fashion from African and Black culture in Toronto,” he said in an interview.

“It’s really the perfect intersection between culture, style and music.”

Borelson performing his hit song “SUMMERTIME IN TORONTO” on stage at African Fashion week Toronto 2023. Photo provided by Jamai Photography.
Borelson performing his hit song “SUMMERTIME IN TORONTO” on stage at African Fashion week Toronto 2023. Photo provided by Jamai Photography.

According to the event organizer's website, African Fashion Week Toronto — which ran from Aug. 25 to 27 this year — is a non-for-profit initiative dedicated to showcasing the culture rich events and brand launch activities.

Despite the lack of funding, the volunteer-based event left a profound impact, astonishing attendees with its meticulous execution and drawing the attention of esteemed event producer, Shawn Cuffie.

With more than 26 years of experience, Cuffie, who is most well-known in the industry for curating the Vanguard, The Black Diamond Ball and Miss Canada World Pageant, says events like African Fashion Week have a major impact on Toronto’s cultural landscape.

“They highlight the beauty and the diversity of the African Fashion scene fostering many cross-culture exchanges,” said Cuffie in an interview.

He also added that grand-scale cultural shows serve as an excellent avenue to display diversity and exceptional accomplishments within the Black community.

However, despite their extraordinary production, he too feels that events like these are often underfunded or overlooked.

“I certainly don’t think that Canada in general gets much recognition for fashion, more or less having events like African Fashion Week and other small events,” he said. “I just think at this point we need to start pushing boundaries and getting a little more creative where we can encourage the mainstream media to start paying attention to more diverse events.”

Cuffie suggests that the greater their involvement and partnership in such events, the higher the awareness and likelihood of attracting increased interest and engagement from potential consumers.

“Easier said than done, but I think the more mainstream media gets involved, the better for everybody.” He concluded.

African Fashion Week is an annual event that occurs once a year in late August, a perfect way to wrap up the summer. With various brands and designers travelling from across the world, organizers are still hopeful that they can receive the necessary support required to continue the production on a much larger stage.

“We can do a lot more for Toronto or Canada as a whole but without the funding, it’s just a little bit tough,” said Ansah. “We make things happen based on whatever limited resources we have.”