“When you think Biggie, where do you think of?” asks fashion designer Amir Zaragri. “New York!” I respond.
“What about Drake?”
Aside from establishing the hip-hop bent in his work, we know this is exactly the kind of association that Zargari wants to create for artists coming out of Canada’s sleepy capital city Ottawa.
Despite the creative group he’s put together to work on his brand Babes & Gents, the city hardly has a reputation for the arts. Sitting in the Rideau Centre, a mall tucked away a few blocks from the country’s parliament, Zaragari is not at all apologetic when discussing the city.
“The arts scene is so small here,” he remarks. With most of the population working for the public sector, he explains, the city isn’t really associated with youth culture. “We have this arts centre in downtown,” he adds, [but], “The problem is it’s expensive to rent for artists.”
It’s more than just funding issues and limited venues that keep the city’s arts scene quiet . The lack of street cred has turned into a negative feedback loop. According to Zargari, aspiring musicians and artists often leave for Toronto, the more urbanized and populous Canadian city only a couple hours west of Ottawa, to pursue their careers. When they do reach acclaim the international market is more likely to brand them as a product of Toronto, not Ottawa.
Zargari’s fashion brand Babes & Gents on the other hand, which is heavily linked to many of the city’s creatives, is Ottawa loud and proud. His designs feature the city’s name prominently, and you can find other references to Canada all over his look books.
“If you have diehard fans in your city, anywhere they go they’re going to rep your brand,” says Zargari , explaining a Drake inspired mentality towards building a hometown fan base. “They’re like cheerleaders, and they spread the word.”
Zargari’s childhood made him a pretty fitting ambassador for a city looking to pick up some street cred. As a kid moving to Canada from Iran, his English skills were nothing to speak of, but he was already immersed in youth culture listening to Persian rap music.
While he ultimately caught up with English pretty quick, art was an even easier medium for him to express himself in his new home. His work was often featured in his school’s hallways.
“I’ve been doing drawing and visual arts since I was a kid,” he says, and “I really connected with my teacher.”
In his high school years Zargari can recall clubbing with friends in Gatineau, a neighboring city in the province of Quebec that’s a magnet for local teenagers, mainly because of its lower drinking age. It’s the music of those clubs, the love of hip-hop and a life long passion for art that’s brought Zargari to the point he’s at today.
While art and music were significant passions growing up, his life took a quick academic detour. After high school he went on to study a semester at University of Waterloo, and followed that up with another back in his hometown at University of Ottawa. The rigidness of the classrooms couldn’t quite contain his artistic sensibility, and he quickly looked for avenues to make design his career path.
“There’s not a lot of money out there for people like me,” he explains.”It should be as easy for a young entrepreneur, who doesn’t want to go to school and wants to take a bigger chance, to get loans and grants from the government. “
With not more than a year of post secondary education under his belt Zargari set out re-embrace his child hood passion for design. On July 8th 2013 Babes & Gents was born.
In 2015 the brand has a presence in stores in Toronto, Ottawa and Gatinuea, as well as online retail. Aside from featuring his city prominently in his design, Zargari’s giving local artists a chance to express themselves.
“I know my strength is in design, concept creation and drawing,” he says, “but for video and photography I get the best in the city to help me out.” A small project Zargari’s involved with, called the Indi, is also growing Ottawa’s arts scene.
“It’s a non-profit and that’s why they’re able to help out more,” he said. “The Indi is all people from 20 to 30 that are so deep, who’ve been doing it since they were teenagers and finally have a platform.”
All in all Zargari has love for the city he now calls home, and has faith in the creative people working around him. “Our generation is so accepting of anything that is good,” he said, “the youth are the people who cultivate culture and elevate it.”
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