Sage Paul has championed Indigenous fashion in Canada for more than a decade. The Toronto-based Dene designer and Indigenous Fashion Arts (IFA) executive’s next mission: breaking down barriers in the global industry. This week, Paul has brought six Indigenous designers from across the country to Milan Fashion Week to showcase their work at the highly regarded trade show WHITE Milano (Feb. 24-27).
“I want our work valued. It’s not a token,” Paul tells The Globe and Mail, while sitting near Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, where the Indigenous Fashion Arts Festival was held last June. WHITE attended last year’s festival and subsequently signed on to feature a different group of Indigenous Canadians each year until 2025. “WHITE Milano values craftsmanship, quality, luxury and one-of-a-kind pieces, which aligns with the work happening in our community,” explains Paul.
This is Paul’s first time taking a delegation abroad and the first international trade show for the designers, who will have access to the 16,000-20,000 visitors at WHITE, including local suppliers, prospective luxury partners and buyers like department stores Saks Fifth Avenue and Hudson’s Bay. For these rising stars and the broader fashion industry, it is a crucial moment in the emergence of Indigenous culture on mainstream platforms.
But many Indigenous designers need support accessing mainstream knowledge and opportunities, Paul explains. At the beginning of her career, Paul admits she felt like a “fish out of water” at standard fashion shows which featured requisite struts, stares and industry seriousness. “For a long time, the fashion industry has been an exclusive space, gate-kept by aristocrats, socialites and financially wealthy people. I am none of those things,” says Paul.
It is vital for organizers such as WHITE to provide additional labour to support designers and educate the industry on how to work with Indigenous people, says Paul.
The most challenging barrier for Indigenous people entering the global fashion economy are the strict trade rules for importing or exporting flora and fauna products, Paul tells me. The participating designers use home-tanned hide, fur, feathers, bones and bark in their work which are locally sourced, culturally significant, and traditionally used in Indigenous communities for food, clothing, tools and trade. Paul says these materials are challenging, even for exhibition or cultural purposes, to carry through the border. “Those rules need to be assessed differently than mass-farmed flora and fauna materials for the subsistence and inclusion of Indigenous peoples,” Paul says.
It was also a priority for Paul to eliminate any financial hurdles for the entrepreneurial group, who mainly work alone, without large teams to help in areas such as production, marketing or styling. During the year and a half of planning the partnership, Paul says she dealt with many bureaucratic layers to access funds for the designers. Canada Council for the Arts is covering artist fees, travel from remote areas and child care, while the Embassy of Canada in Italy, the Department of Canadian Heritage and the City of Toronto supported other costs such as festival registration and exhibition fees.
Creating a platform where Indigenous artists can shine
The group of designers take cues from traditional to contemporary ideas of Indigeneity, borrow from a range of urban, glamorous and futuristic styles, and represent a diversity of Inuit, Métis, First Nations peoples. “There are more than 500 Indigenous Nations in our country, so of course each of the designers is going to be unique,” says Paul. “What connects them is their focus on quality, and a strong grounding on who they are as Indigenous people.”
In Milan, she expects to find the celebratory and welcoming energy which IFA’s events usually offer: “People are loud, jumping into each other’s arms and giving big hugs. Instead of seeing models who are all standardized, I see people who look like me and clothing that is relevant to me. It feels like we’re working on something together that is really important.”
The Globe and Mail spoke with the six designers about their new Milan collections and what this moment means for a changing industry.
The Toronto-based Anishinaabe designer started her size-inclusive fashion brand of activewear and evening wear in 2016, at age 22, and has since been worn by superstar Lizzo and Lainey Lui at the Golden Globes. Growing up, Lesley Hampton never saw people who look like her in fashion, so the person she designs for, first and foremost, is herself: “It’s all about what I want to see on my body, or what design style makes me excited.”
Often drawing from the places she spent her formative years – from Canada’s Arctic and Atlantic, Australia, England, Indonesia, to New Caledonia – Hampton’s collection in Milan is a tribute to one spot from her Newfoundland hometown. Middle Cove Beach, where she collected rocks as a child that she still holds onto today, is the inspiration behind her “Buoyant” collection of evening and occasion wear: “The pebbles on this shoreline have battled the waves over and over again but they’re still so soft and collectible. To me, this speaks to how one can go through waves of heartaches and still be soft, delicate and desirable.” The collection includes a blue dress “reminiscent of the texture and colours of the sky onto the ocean” and a pleated soft denim dress with clamshell detail on the shoulder, which Hampton wants to embody “an ocean goddess coming into her power.”
“I see Indigenous fashion as storytelling,” says Hampton. “There’s always a sense of empowerment and community that’s thrusting our brands forward. There’s greater intention than just showing something at fashion week, it is the community that we’re trying to lift up along the way.”
Justin Louis has always made big moves. After high school, he was recruited to play college baseball in California. It was a culture shock for Louis, who spent his entire life on a reserve and small-town Alberta. His next move was to the world of art and fashion, which meant learning the rules of a whole new game. An executive in corporate business at the time, he started teaching himself graphic design and putting his work on clothes. Once he got a wholesale deal, he knew it was time to quit his job. “It was scary at first. But once I gave it my all, I never looked back,” he says.
Seven years ago, influenced by his Cree heritage, the sports he grew up playing (baseball and hockey) and a decade around the California surf and skate scene, he founded streetwear brand SECTION 35 – referring to the section of the Constitution Act of 1982 which protects and recognizes Indigenous and treaty rights. His work has been presented at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and this month the brand launched a partnership with Foot Locker Canada. “It’s exciting because the mainstream industry is noticing what we’re doing. There’s a shift happening. Big fashion houses have been guilty of appropriating from our communities for so long, and now people are seeking something more authentic.”
Louis has a talent for flipping the meaning of public-domain imagery and brand icons – a “Kill Mascots” shirt which repurposed the Chicago Blackhawks logo is one of the statements pieces his original work was known for. He’s toning down these statements in his recent work, partly to avoid copyright issues around imagery use, but mainly because he finds more meaning by pushing himself creatively and focusing on elements of cultural significance. But one key piece in the collection going to Milan maintains this graphic activist style: the lining of a trench coat collages ads from mainstream brands in the sixties and seventies that used stereotyped Indigenous imagery (such as gun company Savage Arms, or a Dentyne ad: “Envy the Savage”).
His next move? A few pieces premiering in Milan will be a part of his new sustainability focused luxury line rolling out this fall at New York Fashion Week, Paris Fashion Week and launching in 2024 with limited runs, including outerwear and a hunting/streetwear cross-over. As a father, he’s excited to dress his kids and pass on his designs to the next generation.
Erica Donovan’s personal goal is to see Jennifer Lopez wearing her earrings. “I’ve always admired her work ethic – she’s a go-getter and I’m the same way,” says Donovan, who works full-time as a finance manager for Parks Canada’s Western Arctic field unit, while also running her jewellery brand She Was A Free Spirit.
“I’ve spent all of my life creating,” adds Donovan, who was taught at a very young age how to work with her hands to create traditional parkas or mukluks to brave the cold weather in Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Her jewellery expresses her deep-rooted love for her hometown and Inuvialuit culture, and using the brick-stitch technique, she is able to bead cultural patterns as seen on parkas used for ceremonial dancing.
Her earrings have combinations of bright, bold bead colours such as robin-egg blue, carnation or flamingo pink, and often depict scenes from her village. (Her Tuktoyaktuk Skies design, which represents the polar sky, won the Simons Fabrique 1840 Indigenous award). She also incorporates strips of seal skin and moose hide.
Her earrings were on display at Paris Fashion Week in 2019, but this will be her first time travelling to an international fashion week herself: “I’m hoping it will open up opportunities to educate people how to correctly work with Indigenous people. The Indigenous community is like a big family. It’s exciting to be there and to make waves for people after me.”
Inspired by the concept of “Indigenous Futurism,” Yukon-based designer Robyn McLeod weaves Indigenous knowledge with futuristic ideas.
“I want to be known for bringing technology and unique ways of being Dene into the fashion world, and let people know that we’re still here,” she says. Her work combines traditional Dene art, digital art, moose-hide tanning and other mixed media. In Milan, her collection of seven outfits, three visors and six sets of earrings account for almost 13 months of straight work, and a month off in-between to rest her strained hands. “It took time, love and energy and a lot of thought to do this. It’s very slow fashion.”
Her newest piece, which also took the longest to complete – two years – is a moose-hide and netted-rabbit-skin coat, based off an old style of cutting rabbit skin into a string and looping it. She also is premiering a gold dress made with dupioni silk and a smoked moose hide, with silk lining and vintage velvet ribbons.
“I’m very proud of who I am and where I come from,” says McLeod, who is from a community of 400 people in Fort Providence, NWT, and often collaborates with her artistic family or others in the North such as quillwork artist Vashti Etzel, or beadwork artist Kaylyn Baker. Her glamorous fishtail gown sewn with a vintage black velvet ribbon and a traditional fringe on the tiered bottom has an almost fully beaded front by her sister, Shawna McLeod. The quilled belt, which is typically worn around the waist in Dene fashion, is instead placed lower on the outfit for dramatic effect, as she is often looking to do something different and break from tradition with her designs.
Niio Perkins’s full Mohawk name handed down by her grandmother is “Niioieren,” which means “Look What She Did.” Perkins hated the meaning when she was younger, but now the beadwork artist – who has produced custom designs for notable Canadian fashion retailers La Maison Simons, Hudson’s Bay Company and Manitobah Mukluks – has grown into it: “People are constantly saying, ‘Oh my God, wow! Look what she did!’ because of what I’m creating.”
Perkins came into her personal design aesthetic at age 25. She wanted to wear meaningful beaded items (normally only worn at ceremonies) in her everyday life to match her casual clothes: jeans, hoodies, leather jackets and sneakers. She infused a modern aesthetic, materials and fabrics (such as glass beads, metal chains, lamb skin) and vibrant colourways with the traditional Iroquois raised beadwork technique which she learned from her ishta (mother), Elizabeth Perkins, a master seamstress and traditional clothing designer. Perkins uses layers of beaded foundation to create 3D floral earrings, representing medicinal plants.
Perkins is always looking for a new canvas to bead on. She recently started a ready-to-wear clothing line and one major piece she created for Milan is a bold example: a leather shoulder harness with a purse where a gun holster would have been, which took around six months to come to life.
“I’m on a hunt for collaboration.” says Perkins, who is interested in building reciprocal relationships and partnerships with companies during Milan Fashion Week. This will allow her to hire an Indigenous team for a clothing production in Cornwall, Ont., where her studio is currently based. “It doesn’t just have to be my label, there’s so much room for everyone.”
Ducharme taught himself how to sew as a teenager in his basement. He was deeply affected by the movement of Métis square-dance outfits he wore as a child, while also enraptured by haute couture and classic Hollywood cinema. (The chiffon scarf Audrey Hepburn wore in Funny Face had such an impact on Ducharme as a child that the material has became prominent in his work.) Now, the Winnipeg-based designer is set to bring around 20 pieces from his elegant and glamorous made-to-order line of separates, outerwear and evening wear to Milan, a step that feels both “very natural and slightly terrifying.”
“If you would have told the 18-year-old Evan who left St. Ambroise with two hockey bags and a prayer that this is what would be happening down the line, I wouldn’t have had the nerve to believe you,” says Ducharme.
Ducharme’s work examines Métis history and cultural iconography as well as gender fluidity. His recent pieces feature a take on mesh fabric using hand-embroidered yarn with inspiration from a Métis woven sash. His “Census Print” which appears on several pieces in his collection came from a 1916 census document from his community, St. Ambroise, Man., (Treaty 1 Territory), which he found in historical archives.
In the category of racial/tribal origin, his own great-grandfather along with the ancestors of multiple Métis members in his community were listed with “French” scratched out and “Indian” written on top. This was jarring: “This really spoke to the province of Manitoba’s lack of ability to recognize Métis people. It is a misidentification, and doesn’t speak to the entirety of the people.”
Ducharme believes the group’s presence in Milan alone will be a catalyst for change in the industry: “Instead of asking for a seat at the table, we’ve made our own table.”
Title photo credits: Clockwise from left, Evan Ducharme working in his Winnnipeg studio, a collection of Ducharme’s designs, Gindalee Ouskun/The Globe and Mail; Carey Perkins of Niio Perkins Designs works on new pieces at her Cornwall, Ont. studio, Nadya Kwandibens/Red Works/The Globe and Mail