If you were to walk into Tunka’s Fashion this January, the outfit would be hard to miss: a matching pants and blouse combo, bright orange, white, and green — and covered in tigers.
“People always ask — is it Versace?” jokes Princess Tunkara, the fashion designer behind Tunka’s Fashion and the aforementioned tiger outfit. “You can take any fabric and really make it your own,” she says. The outfit, which on paper might sound insane, proves her point.
In some ways, Tunkara’s fashion sense defies categorization. As we walk through the store, Tunkara points out some of her favourites, which run the gamut from subdued, dark jackets to more unashamedly colourful outfits.
Around 70 per cent of what she sells is formal wear — dresses and gowns, mostly — while the rest of it is “between casual streetwear, and office wear.”
Fashion comes with a family collection. Tunkara’s mother works as a fashion designer and runs several design schools in Liberia, where Tunkara hails from originally. Tunkara originally wanted to pursue acting, but that got her into costumes, which sparked an interest in fashion that has carried her career from there.
Tunka’s Fashion now occupies a high-traffic unit along downtown Bank Street, with much of the clothing in her store made in a studio on Montreal Road, with seamstresses that Tunkara trusts with her designs.
Tunkara moved in late in the fall (her first store was in Billings Bridge mall), and the store gives her customers — many of whom would’ve first seen her designs online — somewhere they can go to shop.
“I used to do custom-made [clothing] for weddings and stuff, and everyone kept asking ‘where’s your store, we want to pop-in!’,” she says. “People still want to come in to the store, to see, to try.”
Like many designers early in their career, social media is where Tunkara goes to connect and network. A little bit of posting has paid off for her, earning her invites to show her work at fashion weeks in New York, Toronto, London, and Vancouver, among others. She also benefits from a strategic exit from frigid Ottawa.
“Every time I launch a collection, I go to Miami and do the launch there. Or I go to LA, and do the launch there,” she says. “I get connected, and when they notice you, they send invitations.”
Ottawa Fashion Week shuttered in 2014, and nothing has really taken its place, so Tunkara wants to try to be a resource for other up-and-coming designers. She helps organize charity fashion shows like the Runway for Hope in March (which raises money for CHEO), and works with new designers to host pop-ups in Tunka’s Fashion.
“I wish, when I was starting, there was somebody like that who would welcome me,” she says. “It encourages you, makes you want to do more, so I’m happy it’s happening now.”
After their launch in the fall, the store is looking to settle into its rhythm and establish itself along the Bank Street strip — a bit of the city that sees a lot of turnover, but with some of the most foot traffic in the city. Tunkara says the store is still mostly serving established customers — as well as her VIPs, who can get special private hours, she jokes — but she is looking forward to a new sort of challenge: bringing in the kind of foot traffic that makes downtown retail so appealing.
“We know people will come in and say ‘oh, when did this open? Is this new?” she says. “We’re looking forward to summer, with what Bank Street will bring, but right now we’re dealing with our own customer base.”
As for where she wants to take Tunka’s Fashion in the future, Tunkara isn’t messing with the formula. “More shows, more new collections,” she says. And she’s about to launch a brand new a lingerie line — fittingly, perhaps, on Valentine’s Day.
“Some people go for dinner,” she jokes. “Some people shop for lingerie.”