She never anticipated returning to fashion — or launching Vancouver's first Indigenous fashion week

Building an industry is only part of it. This model turned social worker is out to inspire the next generation. Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week runs July 26-29.

Building an industry is only part of it. This model turned social worker is out to inspire the next generation

Joleen Mitton is the founder of Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week. The city's first event of its kind, it runs July 26-29. (

It's not Paris or New York or Milan, but the public's already clamouring for front row seats. Hell, any seat would be great. The first ever Vancouver Indigenous Fashion week launches July 26 — and as founder Joleen Mitton tells CBC Arts, spots at the next four days of runway shows are already fully booked (though you can check Eventbrite as more seats, which are free of charge, become available). The event, which runs to July 29 as part of the city's Drum is Calling Festival, will feature work by 32 designers, including Evan Ducharme, Sho Sho Esquiro and Project Runway's Korina Emmerich. It's a daily mix of streetwear, accessories and couture, with (bonus!) onsite performances and art installations. And prowling the runway? Almost all of the models are proudly Indigenous, too.

Having designers reclaim what's theirs? Awesome. That's what I'm trying to do.- Joleen Mitton, VIFW founder

As Mitton explains, VIFW is about building First Nations, Métis and Inuit talent and industry — but both the event's story and hers go beyond nurturing the West Coast's fashion scene. Mitton, whose heritage is Plains Cree, Scottish and French, was discovered by a model scout at 15, and she left her Vancouver hometown for Asia soon after, spending the next decade modelling for the likes of Kenzo and Vivienne Westwood. Now, the 33-year-old is a community support worker and mentor, teaching teens in foster care through programs like the Aboriginal Urban Butterflies Day Camp. That's where VIFW really began, she explains — and when it comes to the event's long-term goals, it's all about the kids coming up.  Here, she gives us the whole story.

Tell us how this all began. Where did the idea for Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week originally come from?

JM: It kind of came by accident! I was a model before, and I lived overseas and I've worked on high production events. I really loved that part of the modelling world. I enjoyed the ceremony or the spirit that fashion week brings. I loved that part, but I wasn't too fond of — not eating. (laughs)

Is that why you left fashion? Why did you leave?

JM: I was gone — travelling back and forth — since 1999! I came back to Vancouver in 2008, and it was just like — you don't know who are. As a model, you're put into whatever [role] they want you to be, and living in a different country with a different culture — it's totally cool, but after eight years, you don't know that much about yourself. It's kind of jarring. I just wanted to get to know the other side of me, which was the Indigenous side of me that I never really got to experience as a teenager too much. Being Indigenous here in Vancouver, I did suffer some racism in high school. It was really frowned upon.

VIFW founder Joleen Mitton models a gown by Sho Sho Esquiro. The dress, which is from Esquiro's 2012 collection, is called "The Girl Who Lived with the Salmon." Inspired by a Kaska legend of the same name, its bodice is actual salmon skin adorned with glass cut beads and sequins. (Thosh Collins)

Was there something that happened while you were working overseas that made you decide "Yeah, I want to connect with my heritage?"

JM: I would call my father — I just had a lot of questions about where we came from and he had a lot to say about where we came from. We would just talk on the phone and I'd be like, "OK, Thailand is such a beautiful culture. Buddhism, the temples — man, this place is really beautiful, and I know more about this place then I know about my own culture." So I kind of felt like at that moment, if I'm not feeling whole — because obviously fashion doesn't give you spiritual wellness at all — I felt like I had to figure out who I was instead of being what everyone else wanted."

This whole thing came about, honestly, by accident.- Joleen Mitton, founder of VIFW

What happened when you came back to Canada?

JM: I started working as a front-line worker [at Pacific Association of First Nations Women]. I got trained in-house and took some counselling courses, and started working as a community support worker right away. [...] That's when I started connecting back to my roots.

So back in 2008, when you were starting this new chapter, did you ever think you were going to return to working in fashion?

JM: Noooooooo. (laughs) No, no, no, no, no. The idea was not to go back! And this whole thing came about, honestly, by accident — which makes me think it's probably the thing to do.

How did you find yourself reconnecting with fashion again, albeit in this new way?

JM: Well, when I started working as a front-line worker, I didn't tell anyone that I was a model. It was maybe my seventh year there when I finally told people that I had this other life, and it was only because these kids were giving me flack!

What do you mean?

JM: I was working with kids who are aging out of foster care. They were looking at, like, Miley Cyrus and all these [pop stars.] And I thought, "They don't relate to you in any sense. These people did not come from the same place that you came from — I don't know why you guys are looking up to them."

Whenever I would say something, they'd be like, "That's not legit! How would you know?" I'd just get back talk because they're teenagers, right? So I'd say, "Well, I know this because I was there." Or, "I know what this is like, not just because I'm older, but because I've been in those circles of celebrity because I was a model."

At the end that's what I'm hoping these girls walk away with: a sense of pride in themselves and in their culture.- Joleen Mitton, founder of VIFW

There's a lot of really amazing Indigenous women and men doing really cool things, but nobody knows about it. So I was trying to point them more towards them. Like, look — I'm Indigenous. I was a model overseas. I worked for big brands.

I needed them to listen to me and respect me so I just thought that was a way to get into what they're into without losing them.

How did they react?

JM: They were shocked. I'm pretty tomboyish. I don't dress like a model. I don't really act like what a model would act like. I think I'm pretty normal and down to earth.

Also, you're the lady leading their day camp.

JM: Yeah! 

We started to lose a couple of our kids from the program because they didn't have the patience to learn how to bead, or how to write resumes. We'd try to teach them how to use a crock pot. A lot of these kids don't have these skills because they're in care.  And these kids are not learning their own cultural background, and I can relate to that because that's not something I got to learn either. I wish I did.

When I told them I was a fashion model they all shut up and started listening — which was the sad thing. I was like, "Oh man, if I had just said this earlier." (laughs)

You've produced fashion shows with your girls since then, and you've counselled many of the models who'll be on the runway at VIFW, yeah?

JM: Yep! Some of them have trained over the last four year,s so they've really developed and become quite striking and their walks are really strong, which I'm really proud of.

Sometimes I worry. Like, "Oh man, I don't want to just make a whole a bunch of models." But it's not about that.

They have options. A lot of these kids that I've talked to, they don't feel like they have options. [...] At the end, that's what I'm hoping those girls walk away with: a sense of pride in themselves and in their culture and also for Canada to recognize the First Peoples here. The only thing that I know — that I'm a professional at — is modelling and the fashion industry. So I'm trying to blend those two worlds together, just for now.

Buy something from where the actual art originated from. That's common sense for me, but I don't know if people get that.- Joleen Mitton, founder of VIFW

The kids have connected with your fashion experience, but how did you become interested in Indigenous fashion and design?

JM: When I was in Taiwan, on one of the first photo shoots I was hired to do, I was wearing a dreamcatcher around my neck. I recognized it. Oh, shit! This is me right here. I'm wearing part of my heritage or identity — but I'm looking at this [photographer] who had no idea. I always thought that was weird, but being young, I didn't say very much. I just did the job.

It was a very weird, mixed feeling. And when I came back to Vancouver, I was looking for Indigenous designers. I got on this APTN show called the Creative Native and met these models, The Baker Twins, who are First Nations, and it was the first time I'd met First Nations models. I was doing more research online, and I looked up Denise Brillion. That's where it all started. There was something in me that wanted to connect to it."

What does Indigenous fashion and design mean to you? How is it more than a look or aesthetic?

JM: It's a lot about reclaiming what's ours, I feel.

Cultural appropriation has been a major topic of conversation in the last few months.

JM: Yeah, it's a huge problem.

How do you see this event combating that problem — or any misconceptions that might be out there?

JM: Different fashion weeks here have shown Indigenous-inspired stuff, but not designed by an Indigenous person.

Buy from an Indigenous person if you like the Indigenous aesthetic. It goes across the board for everything. Buy something from where the actual art originated from. That's common sense for me, but I don't know if people get that.

We have a lot of talent here in Canada and a lot of people don't know about it. So that's the thing. We're here! Designers — they need to make money as well, right? So why not buy from an Indigenous person at Indigenous fashion week? It just makes sense.

If I can make my kids proud of where they're living and where they're from, I've done my job. Having designers reclaim what's theirs? Awesome. That's what I'm trying to do. It's coming from, honestly, a really organic place of love and I'm hoping that the whole thing, and all these ideas, inspire the next generation.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week. Tyler Jacobs, Michelle George, Loraine Guss, Pam Baker, Oka/Shop Wrong, Jill Stelah, Teresa Walker, Alano + Manitobah, Autumn Jules, Shannon Kilroy, Sections 35, Denise Brillion, Yolanda, Korina Emmerich, Bill Reid, Dahlia Drive + Reg Davidson, Jeneen Frei Njootli, Sho Sho Esquiro and more. July 26 to 29. Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver.