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Kahnawà:ke designer is making her international debut at New York Fashion Week

When Karonienhawe Diabo was seven years old, she began creating fashion designs for her dolls. Now, she's setting off to one of fashion's biggest annual events.

Karonienhawe Diabo wants to show the world the Kanien'kehá:ka style

Fashion models sit for a photoshoot
She Holds the Sky Designs is the fashion label created by Karonienhawe Diabo. (Sheholdstheskydesigns/Instagram)

This story is a collaboration between Concordia University's journalism department, Kahnawake Survival School and CBC Montreal.

When Karonienhawe Diabo was seven years old, she began creating fashion designs for her dolls. She would use scrap materials that her grandmother and aunts left behind and would create outfits.

Now, she has become the first person in Kahnawà:ke, the Kanien'kehá:ka community south of Montreal, to be selected to present her designs and fashion label at New York Fashion Week 2023 later this month.

Diabo is the owner and designer of She Holds The Sky Designs, the fashion label which she founded in January 2017. She started developing her fashion knowledge when she was about 11 years old when her father signed her up in sewing courses.

"I learned everything from pattern making, how to use a pattern, all the fundamentals of sewing," says Diabo. She also took threading courses and learned the history of fashion and how it has evolved over time.

Diabo's first piece ever worn down a runway was a long, red dress that had the symbol of the Warrior Flag which represents the unity of Indigenous peoples in their common struggles.

Three photos of a woman walking down a runway.
Karonienhawe Diabo's first runway piece used the imagery of the warrior flag as a skirt. (Submitted by Karonienhawe Diabo)

In February 2017, a friend was looking for fashion designers for a show in Ottawa. At that point Karonienhawe was only sewing for herself and her family members, but she agreed to give it a try and created a runway piece. There were fashion designers from all over the world and she was one of the only designers who were Indigenous.

"That kind of set the tone for the rest of my life," says Diabo. "How I want to express myself … by being more bold and especially to represent where we came from."

A year later, Diabo started receiving wider recognition for her creations, using social media to build up her clientele.

Diabo first started recruiting models in 2018. At one of her shows, she invited around 15 models from Kahnawà:ke. "It was really great to see … all different shapes, sizes and heights," she says.

Now, she and her models are preparing for a show on the first day of New York Fashion Week.

Diabo had filled out the applications and submitted her portfolio and social media — but was shocked a few weeks later to learn that she was invited.

"They selected me and it was a really big surprise. I didn't even see the email right away, it had went to my spam."

Karonienhawe said she screamed when she found out. "I FaceTimed my sisters and I obviously told my boyfriend what was going on, they were so happy for me and they're, you know, my top supporters."

Fashion models pose for a picture.
Karonienhawe Diabo's work will be shown at a New York Fashion Week event on Friday. (Submitted by Karonienhawe Diabo)

She plans to bring representation and show Indigenous culture and unique style. She believes that we have so much potential as people and hopes to inspire people to design their own work.

"I love to represent my community, I wanna put us more on the map," she says.

Diabo plans to bring representation and show Kanien'kehá:ka culture and what we wear because we have our own style. She believes that we have so much potential as people and hopes to inspire people to design their own and come forward. She commonly uses floral patterns and Indigenous patterns in her work.

Daisy Tewasenhtha Lahache is a model who works with She Holds The Sky Designs. She started working with Diabo about four years ago.

"It feels super empowering and it feels like a sense of pride to be able to bring the designs, visions and creations to life and to be able to wear them proudly for her," she says.

Lahache says she feels excited and nervous to be part of the New York Fashion Week. "Someone could really like scout us over there … I'm just super excited to see what the chaos is gonna be like."

For Lahache, representing her culture makes her feel like dreams are achievable.

"I just have to put in that extra effort if I want somebody to recognize me. It feels like such a great opportunity," she says.

Kahnawà:ke community members are proud of Diabo and her models' achievements.

And Diabo is grateful to have the community behind her.

"It's really nice to see that support, especially from the models' families. They have been so supportive of us on our journey," she says.

She hopes that others pursue whatever type of passion they may have.

"You know we have so much potential," she says.


Wahsontanoron Jamie Diabo

Freelance contributor

Wahsontanoron Jamie Diabo is a young woman from Kahnawà:ke who is Bear Clan. She is in her last year at Kahnawake Survival School. She is interested in writing and journalism and spends her free time outside with loved ones and learning new things about everything around the world.