Q&A

Why Toronto's first Indigenous Fashion Week is about so much more than the runways

Founder Sage Paul on how Indigenous fashion is challenging the mainstream.

Artist and IFWTO founder Sage Paul on how Indigenous fashion is challenging the mainstream

The inaugural Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto runs May 31-June 3 at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. Pictured: designs by Vancouver's Evan Ducharme. (Justin Ducharme)

Back when she'd volunteer behind the scenes at Toronto Fashion Week, Sage Paul says that she wanted to create something different than the typical scene inside the tents. That was almost 15 years ago, when the Dene artist and designer was studying fashion at George Brown — before she co-founded Toronto's Setsuné Indigenous Fashion Incubator, or released a textile collection with Ikea Canada.

This weekend, she's making good on those long-percolating plans, launching the first Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto (IFWTO), four days of programming that encompasses more than the catwalk glam and schmoozing such a label suggests.

[Indigenous design] brings together fashion and art and culture in a way that I'm not sure any other practice does.- Sage Paul, artistic director IFWTO

Thursday through Sunday, the Harbourfront Centre hosts runway shows from 20+ Indigenous designers from Canada and abroad, but also workshops on traditional fabrication techniques and, for the non-maker audience, panels with leading thinkers and artists (Kent Monkman, Jeneen Frei Njootli, Jesse Wente, Anjli Patel ) on subjects including futurism and "cultural (in)appropriation."

You can find out more about the event and its roster of designers in these stories rounded up from across the CBC network:

Here, Paul shares the origin story behind the event, and how its vision for transforming the "mainstream fashion industry" fits into a wave of Indigenous Fashion Weeks emerging in Canada and around the world.

Sage Paul is the founder and artistic director of Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto. (Westend Studios)

Why did you want to bring an Indigenous Fashion Week to Toronto?

Well, I've never really felt like there was a platform or a place that existed where I felt like I fit in.

My work means something when I'm doing it with my peers who are like my sisters, family, close friends, family friends.

I'm really not interested in the commercialism of fashion or the commodification of culture or capitalism and I find that a lot of people aren't either in our community. It's an aspect, of course. We need the economic development. But I like the idea of having a platform where we are coming together to present our work and from there, I believe opportunity comes.

When you presented as a designer at different fashion weeks around the country, what was that experience like?

It's very different. So traditionally, fashion shows and fashion weeks around the world like London, Paris, New York, they're industry events. They're specifically meant to show your clothing so you can reach your buyers and your retailers.

I also found that there's a fashion world and there's an arts world, but I really feel that there's a place for Indigenous fashion that's kind of — it brings together fashion and art and culture in a way that I'm not sure any other practice does.

Fashion is a pretty powerful form of artistic expression, of cultural expression, and in a fashion week it's very difficult to do that because it's not looking at all those intersecting sectors.

So I just really ached for a space where I could present my work within an artistic context where the work is being valued as art and there's people who want to understand more about the concept behind the work and the concept behind an entire collection. And understand the intricacies and complexities of what goes into the creation, whether it's weaving or dying or silk-screening or whatever the practice is, to really add value to all of those conceptual and tactile ways of making. I wanted to bring those together.

One of Sage Paul's designs. Bust, 2017. Raw hide, sinew. (Photo: Ratul Debnath/www.sagepaul.com)

Why call the event "fashion week"?

I like the term. People already know what it is. If I were to call it 'Indigenous Fashion Festival' or something like that, I don't know if it would resonate with people in the same way that an Indigenous Fashion week does.

It's really about keeping it accessible and inclusive — which is kind of an oxymoron when you think about how fashion weeks are exclusive. (laughs)

There's other Indigenous fashion weeks across the country, around the world. So I knew that our designers, Indigenous designers, would feel like this is theirs.

Lesley Hampton's collection, "Lithium" was inspired by bi-polar disorder and shows a range of emotion through colours and textures. Her work will be showing at IFWTO. (Ted Belton)

Yeah, like you mention, you're not alone. There's the Indigenous Fashion Week that launched in Vancouver last year, for one. How have other fashion weeks influenced the event in Toronto?

Oh yeah. Hugely. They're just like a huge amount of inspiration. I think being able to see those events. The first Indigenous fashion week I saw was in New Zealand and I wasn't physically there but I was just going through the internet a couple of years ago and it was like, 'whoa, that is so cool,' and what was so cool about it was seeing the level at which these shows were being produced. They were being produced at a level that you'd see any fashion runway happening.

I didn't [go to Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week]. That came out right as we were getting everything together. We're working with a lot of the same designers who had been there.

Do you see it as a movement? Why do you think we're seeing the rise of Indigenous Fashion Weeks?

I think that we can now. I think a lot of young designers, or people who are in the industry, we've gained these skills and we've gained the networks. We have the confidence. Our parents and our matriarchs have already laid down that groundwork so we don't have to go through as much of the struggle as Indigenous people, I think, have had to before.

And I think there's a lot of young Indigenous people who are unapologetic about saying this is what Indigenous fashion is and I'm proud to be Indigenous and we don't need to buy into mainstream clothing.

Evan Ducharme's pieces are inspired by his Métis upbringing. The Vancouver-based designer presented at IFWTO's "New Moon" event, Thursday, May 31. (Justin Ducharme)

About mainstream fashion… The event's mission statement says that 'Indigenous fashion can redefine mainstream fashion and art,' so this is a huge question, but what's the vision? What do you think needs to change about mainstream fashion?

The quickest thing I can think of is Indigenous fashion can redefine mainstream fashion because it brings in a very authentic view of what the concept is behind a collection.

If we start to look at the value of the creation of the work [...] then we can hopefully shift how people consume fashion.- Sage Paul, artistic director IFWTO

There's depth to why an article of clothing exists. It's not just something you buy at H&M. Maybe your uncle trapped the fur [you used to make a garment]. There's a lot of meaning behind it, and usually, [Indigenous] collections are made that way. A lot of the skills are coming down through generations, from our ancestors. […] That adds a lot of meaning. There's a lot of symbolism embedded in a lot of the work.

If we start to look at the value of the creation of the work, and the meaning behind the work, then we can hopefully shift how people consume fashion, and how the industry is buying their fashion at wholesale. Instead of buying 2,000 pair of beaded earrings from an H&M factory, you can buy 2,000 earrings from 100 designers here.

So sustainability is one of the issues you're looking to address?

Yeah, definitely looking at sustainability, and looking at cultural representation. Are we representing ourselves through the work that we're creating.

An acclaimed visual artist as well, Jeneen Frei Njootli presents an IFWTO runway showcase Saturday, June 3. (Courtesy of IFWTO)

For the Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week, the fashion industry's issues with cultural appropriation seemed to be a big reason behind why it launched. How was that an impetus for creating the Toronto event?

It's definitely a part of it and it's all about self-representation.

[I've] talked about cultural appropriation for a number of years and it's exhausting. So exhausting. I don't want to feel like I have to police what people are making. It takes away from my own time to actually create myself. (laughs)

So it's a huge influence in that I want to commit my focus to lifting up my community and lifting up my peers and makers, so we are representing ourselves and giving ourselves as much visibility as possible and so that people are coming to us to purchase our work and want to hear about our stories and feel proud wearing what we create as opposed to buying some cheaply made thing. And hopefully people learn about the commodification of our culture and understand why cultural appropriation is harmful.

Vancouver-based designer Sho Sho Esquiro presents a runway showcase Sunday, June 3 as part of IFWTO. (Courtesy of IFWTO)

For everyone taking in the event this weekend, what's the main message are you hoping they take away from the programming?

I hope that they celebrate Indigenous expression, Indigenous cultural expression as told by us, not told by anybody else. And I encourage them to buy Native.

*This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto. To June 3 at Harbourfront Centre, Toronto. www.Ifwtoronto.com

About the Author

Leah Collins

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

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