Indigenous fashion week weaves identity, tradition and social change

TORONTO — Fashion is about more than just making beautiful things for designer Sage Paul, and she hopes this week’s Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto makes that clear.

The Dene artist says beading, weaving, textiles and sewing are inextricably linked to so much of her upbringing and identity. For her, creating clothes, jewelry and accessories can be just as much about combating stereotypes and shifting minds as looking good.

“If we want to be sustaining our culture and ensuring that cultural continuity that our ancestors have passed on to us, the only way that it’s going to be out there is if we do it,” says the Toronto-based Paul, who founded the showcase to present “the most distinct and progressive Indigenous artists working in fashion, textiles and craft.”

The four-day event will feature runway shows, a curated exhibition, panels and lectures, hands-on workshops, and a marketplace, with Indigenous artists including those from Canada, the United States and Greenland.

It kicks off Thursday with runway shows from Lesley Hampton, Evan Ducharme, Janelle Wawia and Sugiit Lukx Designs.

Free lectures and panels feature speakers including artist Kent Monkman, weaver Barbara Teller, and culture critic Jesse Wente tackling topics including fashion symbolism and imagery, cultural appropriation, Indigenous dyes and fibres, and technology and innovation.

Vancouver-based Ducharme says he welcomes more opportunities to celebrate and promote Indigenous artists and different points of view that often prioritize sustainable materials, ethical sourcing and reduced waste.

It’s also a chance to profile the vast array of Indigenous perspectives, he adds.

“Some people would look at my work and ask me: ‘Where’s the fringe? Where’s the deer hide? Where’s all the bead work? Because Metis people are renowned for their beadwork. But where I was raised, none of the women in my family ever did beadwork so it was never something that was really part of my upbringing,” says the 25-year-old, from the Metis community of St. Ambroise, Man.

“And of course it’s beautiful and I’d love to include it in my work but I’d have to approach that from a completely different way than another Metis designer who was raised learning how to do beadwork would be able to approach it. It’s all about ethics.”

Unfortunately, the predominant exposure most non-Indigenous people get to Indigenous-inspired designs is through cheap souvenirs and tourist trinkets, says Paul.

Despite the fact that many Indigenous communities boast master weavers, beaders, and applique artists, they have yet to receive broader recognition for their talents, she says.

“(It’s) because of colonization and because of the commodification of our culture and I think a lot of it has been cheapened through that,” says the 34-year-old.

“You can go to any Canadian tourist store and buy a really cheap piece of beaded work that’s not even made here in Canada…. It costs more money to do one of a kind custom-made pieces.”

By nature, the fashion industry has not been friendly to emerging creators who more often work-to-order or only make small batches, she adds. Those on remote reserves are at a further disadvantage because tools, materials and shipping are more expensive.

“We’re not going to be able to mass produce at the level that a major retailer would want. I’m hoping to change or to start influencing how we work with Indigenous designers … to look at purchasing lower quantities and understanding the value with that,” she says.

“By bringing everyone to Toronto I’m really hoping that that sparks some sort of interest and motivation for retailers and buyers to actively go out and find these designers, regardless of where they’re located.”

With sustainable fashion now trendy in the broader fashion world, Paul hopes Indigenous techniques and knowledge can be recognized for their value. She points to the inspiring work of Janelle Wawia, a self-taught artist from northwestern Ontario who traps her own furs and leather.

“We know where the food goes — it goes into the community to feed community members, bones are used for tools and the fur is used for whatever is being made out of the clothing.”

Ducharme says he’s added 10 new pieces to a collection he revealed at Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week last summer, and will unveil his reimagined showcase in part to combat notions that designs are disposable from season-to-season.

The 25-year-old — whose designs are not geared specifically to men or women, but rather “genderless” wearers — says welcoming new ideas is key to fashion’s future.

And he’s got plenty to offer.

“My work is always going to be an ode to those ancestors who did everything that they could so that my generation and the generations to come after me would have a better tomorrow.”

Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto starts Thursday and runs through Sunday.

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