V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Design: Free winds from the east
Published in The Toronto Star, January, 2010.

There's something increasingly indecipherable in Canadian living rooms and closets.

Worlds are colliding, say fashion and design experts, erasing borders and blurring ethnic lines when it comes to home decor and street style.

It's an attitude that has been encouraging homeowners to mix sari cushions with East Asian-inspired living rooms, and fashionistas to layer Bohemian, gypsy elements with rich colours and textiles from India.

"The direction we're going in now is very free-spirited," says Tammy Palmer, senior market editor for Flare magazine.

"People are well-travelled and are picking up pieces from each culture."

Shawn Gibson, co-founder of interior design store Teatro Verde in Yorkville, calls this trend "ethnic blending," a concept that pays homage to our worldliness and balks at rules that try to compartmentalize the world – and our living space.

"Travel is back. People are going to exotic destinations and they want to show off their travels," he says. "That's when eclectic, ethnic blending happens."

Sometimes ethnic influences are so nuanced it's easy to miss just how pervasive it is in pedestrian fashion.

For example the ubiquitous look of leggings worn under tunics and long tops? A direct interpretation of traditional Indian dress, points out Wendy Dias of Indiva, in Yorkville, a boutique of high-end Indian fashion.

"Silhouettes like the tunic, embroidery, handwork and detailing you see in mainstream fashion are all inspired by India," Dias says.

Meanwhile, what appears to be a simple sequined toque to some is, upon closer inspection, a Rastafarian-inspired hat, points out Barbara Atkin, vice-president of fashion direction for Holt Renfrew.

"Cultures are all fused together now," she says. Fashionistas are looking for authenticity and individuality through statement pieces, she adds. And some designers are responding by turning to tribal and indigenous influences, ancient craftsmanship and colour.

Colombian-Canadian designer Dandi Maestre, for instance, uses reclaimed wood, organic seeds, antlers and bull horn to fashion large-scale, handmade cuffs, rings, earrings and necklaces.

"Girls are looking for that one-off piece to set themselves apart," Palmer said. "We're also seeing a lot of mixing of different cultures. It's hard to identify at first glance, but that's what sets them apart."

At Ten Thousand Villages, a fair trade artisan shop on Danforth Ave. that imports goods from under- developed countries, most consumers are driven by their sense of social responsibility.

But they're also drawn to the store's authenticity, says assistant manager Avery Peters. "We tell stories behind the products. It's important to know where things come from, who made them and what conditions they were made in."

It's a common refrain designers are hearing from clients: People now want their homes to tell a story and are shifting away from the contemporary, boutique-hotel style living room and two-tone colour scheme in favour of warmth and character.

"We went through a period of sleek modernism where everything was black and white," says Meg Crossley, a senior editor at Canadian House & Home magazine. "It was fresh when we first saw it, but now we're looking for authenticity, grittiness. That's why people are looking for these ethnic influences. They feel like they have stories to tell."

While Indian, Asian and African trends continue to be strong, the Bohemian and gypsy sensibilities of Eastern Europe are also warming up sterile living rooms and colourless wardrobes through punches of colour, bold patterns and prints, crochet, lace, embroidery and bejewelling.

But the gypsy look requires a skilled decorator, Crossley says, or risks looking cluttered. She suggests keeping it to a bedroom or other private space, which can withstand an eclectic mix of patterns and lush textiles.

Nordic influences are also strong this winter, with folkloric knitting, embroidery and cross-stitching making their way into homes and closets, adds Margot Austin, senior design editor at Style at Home magazine. Mid-century, Danish teak is also making a strong comeback, while Gustavian furniture – the Swedish interpretation of French Versailles – works well in country- style decor.



Where do these ethnic influences come from?

Experts say trends are set in motion through music, entertainment, celebrities and our increasingly borderless world.

Politics and world events can also cause ripples throughout fashion and design: Think back to the Gulf War and the popularity of fatigue wear, points out Shawn Gibson, co-owner of the Yorkville interior design store Teatro Verde.

Bollywood, the world's largest movie producer, and the Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionairehave ignited a fever for everything Indian. Designers such as Hermès and Balenciaga devoted whole collections as odes to South Asia, borrowing the draping and pleating of saris, and rich saturated colours of India's textiles, said Sonia Lowe, fashion editor for South Asian magazine Anokhi.

And trendsetters also tend to be jet-setters, said Tammy Palmer, senior market editor at Flaremagazine. Runway models and celebrity "it" girls of the moment can inspire whole movements, as can influential bloggers.

One of her favourites: Toronto's own Tommy Ton and his blog,www.jakandjil.com.

Vivian Song

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