Vancouver is home to some wildly successful fashion bloggers and their much-studied instagram feeds. There is Vanessa Hong of The Haute Pursuit, with her crisp black and whites, striking photography and world travels. Or there is Cara McLeay whose a fashion love affair blog landed her a position as the Vancouver Localist at Large for Flare Magazine.
A few months ago, another Vancouverite – Zoya Jiwa – was inspired to start her own fashion-based website with a twist. As We Are is a style site for those living with health conditions. On it, you’ll find bright, inspiring young people sharing the physical and mental health obstacles that they have been navigating. In telling their stories, they model how they have been able to use fashion to make themselves feel more comfortable and confident.
“I have been featuring some extraordinary people,” says Jiwa. “I most recently interviewed a young woman named Jessica. She’s an incredible woman – resilient, thoughtful, determined. She was 15 years old, when she fell off a ladder while doing a job as a painter and broke her neck. Now, she is thriving as an athlete and advocate in the quadriplegic community. As a member of the BC Wheelchair Rugby team, she dedicates 5 days each week to training.”
Jessica is an active community volunteer, cake decorator and writer. She also enjoys playing with fashion. She wears boots year-round, a style decision that grew from an initial need to accommodate leg and ankle swelling from a blood clot. She prefers leather jackets to regulate her body temperature and to weather any drag from her wheels.
“Jessica finds leggings more comfortable than jeans,” says Jiwa, “due to a more flexible fabric.” And she just enjoys wearing “bright, fun, colourful outfits.” Jessica can be seen modeling for the Lise Watier Something Sweet perfume campaign.
As We Are founder Jiwa, who is a student at Simon Fraser University, came into the idea of the site through her own health struggles. “I myself lived with a chronic disease called lupus. My immune system fights itself, which leads to inflammation in my organs. I also deal with chronic pain with fibromyalgia.”
Jiwa has always appreciated personal style: “I was using fashion as a way to express myself.” However, as her symptoms escalated and her weight fluctuated through medicinal side effects, her top priority became comfort and avoiding anything too tight or painful. “I opened my closet one morning and realized that I owned more pajama pants than real pants. I thought: ‘I need to do something about this, to find clothes that make me feel confident and reflect who I am.”
Jiwa started looking for softer materials, elastic waistbands and light accessories that were stylish. “It was really fun. After I started dressing to accommodate my own situation, I was really curious to know if others were doing the same. I started asking friends with physical and mental health conditions: ‘Do you dress to make yourself feel better?’ They all said ‘yes’ and had a story to go with it. That is where the idea of As We Are emerged.”
With support from the Radius Social Innovation Lab and Venture Incubator at the Beedie School of Business, Jiwa began to flesh out the idea. “It’s not just about fashion. It’s about feeling empowered while living with a disease. This is a space where comfort meets style, where functional fashion thrives, and where courage shines.”
Jiwa’s site name has clear roots. “While focus is usually placed on living a vibrant life ‘when you are feeling better,’ this is a space to celebrate and embrace who we are, as we are, in this moment.”
Zoya continues to be inspired by the people she interviews. “Shazya is a friend of mine who lives with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. She was explaining to me that she sometimes feels very cold if she’s feeling anxious. For her, dressing in layers was really helpful. She has shifted towards a minimalist wardrobe to reduce the daily stress of choosing what to wear. Shazya also likes to wear clothes that are comfortable for yoga and meditation practices. Her accessories keep her grounded and give her strength.”
In bringing together this wonderful community through style – and ‘guided by values of community, creativity and confidence’ – Jiwa has been tremendously moved the feedback she gleans. “It’s been really heart-warming to hear from people who have messaged me. They tell me they are inspired by what we’re doing and they explain how they relate to the different stories. It makes me feel really, really good, really, really grateful to have the opportunity to share these stories and personal styles and to be making these connections.”
Moving forward, Jiwa has all sorts of plans. Come November, she will deliver a TedX talk at the Vancouver Playhouse. “I would also be excited to start collaborating with local clothing businesses that might have the right materials and fabrics to deal with weight fluctuations, sensitive skin and tender joints.”
Still two years from graduation, Jiwa is grateful for her experiences to date. “It’s been so meaningful to know that there are others who are going through something similar and who understand that each day is a little different. Sometimes, it’s ok not to feel ok. As long as we can find our way out of the darkness and find a space to ignite our passions.”
Written by Elizabeth Newton
*Interior Article Photos Courtesy of Zoya Jiwa
* Lise Watier Campaign Photo Courtesy of Donat Photography