Bridging tradition and the future: Standouts from the Indigenous Fashion Arts Festival 2022 runway

The showcase of the best in Indigenous fashion was stunning — and celebratory.

The showcase of the best in Indigenous fashion was stunning — and celebratory

a triptych of 3 models on the Indigenous Fashion Arts Festival 2022 runway
Curtis Oland, EMME Studio (Korina Emmerich), Robyn McLeod (Photography: Nadya Kwandibens, Red Works Photography)

The word that best encapsulates this year's Indigenous Fashion Arts Festival (IFAF) has to be "celebration." It was certainly the mood that ran through the runway shows.

Each night, the event paid homage to traditional materials and references, as well as the spectacular imagination of Indigenous artists and communities. The crowds cheered for every collection and for the models who often danced and posed their way down the runway. Everyone seemed delighted to be in each other's company, witnessing the festival's talents. 

The four-day biennial festival took place from June 9 to 12 at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre. With a new name, IFAF made a memorable return to in-person programming, presenting to full rooms every night.

Moving performances preceded the runway presentations, and beyond the fashion shows, there were workshops on hide tanning and regalia appliqué, panels on fashion through an Indigenous lens, and a booming artisan marketplace.

The designers came not just from Canada, but also the U.S., New Zealand, Greenland and Argentina. Models included well-known faces in Indigenous fashion, including artist and activist Sarain Fox, as well as emerging talent of various ages, sizes, abilities and genders. 

Below are highlights from each night's runway.

Day 1: Eternal Imaginaries

a triptych of 3 models on the Indigenous Fashion Arts Festival 2022 runway
Amy Malbeuf, Michel Dumont, Curtis Oland (Photography: Nadya Kwandibens, Red Works Photography)

Cree cellist and composer Cris Derksen opened IFAF's first runway with a haunting performance. The electric cello's slow build to a crescendo before falling into a deep hum left the audience in an attentive silence.

Five designers showed pieces featuring animal hide, floral beadwork and even bingo cards (artist Michel Dumont incorporated them into the skirt of a dress — perhaps a nod to the many elderly Indigenous women who love the game). These were paired with often over-the-top and fantastical patterns, creating the "eternal imaginaries" for which the show was named.

A standout of the evening was Of the Undergrowth, the collection from Vancouver-based Lil'wat designer Curtis Oland. It showcased characters draped in earth-toned fabrics — reminiscent of owls, fungi and deer in a magic forest. The models also wore masks and headpieces, hiding their human features and reinforcing the illusion.

Day 2: Sovereign Matriarchs

a triptych of 3 models on the Indigenous Fashion Arts Festival 2022 runway
Swirling Wind Designs (Tracy Toulouse), Celeste Pedri-Spade, EMME Studio (Korina Emmerich) (Nadya Kwandibens, Red Works Photography)

The second runway of the festival was inspired by a love and reverence for Indigenous matriarchs. 

Anishinaabe designer Celeste Pedri-Spade named each look in her collection after an Indigenous woman in her family. Others, such as Niio Perkins Designs, drew attention to Haudenosaunee issues and how they intersect with traditional symbolism, treaties and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG).

Importantly, there wasn't a rigid expression of matriarchy, which is in keeping with the broad and inclusive way many Indigenous people have long viewed gender and gender presentation. Tracy Toulouse used two-spirit and male models, sometimes in dresses and other garments and makeup traditionally considered feminine. Other times, men walked the runway in an open shirt and trousers — a look that would have been at home in a menswear collection. 

Prints and patterns prevailed throughout the shows: Anishinaabe woodland imagery and florals were seen in Pedri-Spade and Toulouse's work; Inupiaq motifs featured heavily in Qaulluq's Sisaulik collection; and common prints from other tribes and nations channelled the power of matriarchs.

The night had a visible emotional impact on those in the audience, who at times were brought to tears by the celebration of Indigeneity on the runway.

Day 3: Time Weavers

a triptych of 3 models on the Indigenous Fashion Arts Festival 2022 runway
Janelle Wawia, Livia Manywounds, Maru Creations (Te Ataraiti Waretini) (Photography: Nadya Kwandibens, Red Works Photography)

Time Weavers was a distinctly global runway presenting traditional forms of artistry passed down by Indigenous people around the world for generations. From hand-woven garments to fur hoods and coats, it's clear these collections would not be possible without the determination of Indigenous people to pass these methods on.

Livia Manywounds's collection Tɬ'ūw (which means "medicine" in the Tsuu T'ina language) drew gasps from the audience with its opening look: a red garment adorned with embroidery and shells. Seeing the distinctly Indigenous fringe and geometric embellishments under the impressive runway lighting amplified the beauty and intricacy of the craftwork. 

The impactful collection from Dene designer D'Arcy Moses, Imbéh, featured models in red outfits and masks with a red handprint over the mouth — a reference to a well-known symbol to raise awareness of MMIWG. A favourite of the collection was a dress with a bedazzled buffalo on the front, a sacred relative of many Indigenous people, especially those on the plains. It merged an enduring symbol with a contemporary silhouette and materials.

Day 4: A Letter From Home

a triptych of 3 models on the Indigenous Fashion Arts Festival 2022 runway
Margaret Jacobs, Anne Mulaire, Bibi Chemnitz (Photography: Nadya Kwandibens, Red Works Photography)

The final runway of IFAF celebrated home: designers took inspiration from the places they come from. 

The breadth of Indigenous people's concepts of "home" was evident, with looks rooted in both tradition and contemporary life. Salmonberry prints and sealskin, seen in Arctic Luxe's collection, and workwear in Bibi Chemnitz's and Margaret Jacobs's evoked themes of hunting, foraging and fishing. Meanwhile, Section 35 and Dusty LaGrande showed looks that seemed straight out of the coolest urban Indigenous communities.

The collections had more ready-to-wear and streetwear than previous nights. Often, designers made political statements with their works. Most obvious was Section 35's Pihtikwe, which featured the number 35 (the section of the Canadian Constitution that recognizes and affirms Indigenous people's rights) on sports jerseys.

Cree designer LaGrande was also a crowd favourite. Wearing graphic designs — like a T-shirt adorned with the word "cuzzinz" in the same style as the popular Bratz dolls — models in Mobilize Waskawewin's ᓃᑭᕁ (nîkihk, in Cree, or "my home") collection vogued and danced down the runway, making it feel more like a party than a fashion show at times. 

A Letter From Home capped off the festival in a way that left the room energized and wanting more. From start to finish, IFAF was a true celebration of the artistry, beauty and brilliance of Indigenous people everywhere.


Riley Yesno is a queer Anishinaabe scholar and writer from Eabametoong First Nation. She has written and provided commentary for some of Canada’s largest media outlets, and her work focuses on Indigenous brilliance and liberation everywhere. Find her on Twitter @Rileyyesnomaybe.

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