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.