'Reclaiming what is ours:' 1st Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week instils pride

It's an event that took years to plan, but Vancouver has debuted its first-ever Indigenous Fashion Week, showcasing the work of dozens of designers who blend traditional First Nations imagery with high fashion.

Nearly all the models are Indigenous; many current or former foster children

Organizers welcome the crowd to Vancouver's first ever Indigenous Fashion Week. (VIFW)

It's an event that took years to plan, but Vancouver has debuted its first-ever Indigenous Fashion Week, showcasing the work of dozens of designers who blend traditional First Nations imagery with high fashion.

The event opened with a splash on Wednesday, with all the allotted free tickets quickly snapped up for the daily indoor runway shows at Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Theatre — including Saturday's closing event, although some standing-room tickets should be released. 

That's proof enough for event creator Joleen Mitton that there's a demand for Indigenous fashion shows on the West Coast, despite that fact the idea came to her "totally by accident."

The 33-year-old former model had left the fashion industry behind and never expected to return, until she mentioned her modelling past to the young people in foster care whom she was counseling as part of Urban Butterflies and Mentor Me Aboriginal Day Camp programs seven years ago.

Joleen Mitton spent nearly 10 years travelling the world as a fashion model. In the process, she felt disconnected from her Indigenous identity, but eventually turned her experience into the first-ever Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week. (vifw.webflow.io)

Mitton was surprised how much her past life struck a chord with the teenagers. Seeing that interest compelled her to plan Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week, which is featuring almost exclusively models of Indigenous heritage, many who grew up in the province's foster care system.

"It gives them a sense of their own culture," Mitton told CBC News.

"You wear who you are and if you're wearing something from your territory, it brings you a sense of self-awareness. It helps them know who they are, so they don't fall through the cracks of society."

Her goal? "I'm hoping these girls walk away with: a sense of pride in themselves and in their culture," she said. 

Model Erika Trube shows off a dress by Métis designer Evan Ducharme ahead of Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week. (Farah Nosh/VIFW/Facebook)

'Really empowering'

Erika Trube, one of the models recruited through the Mentor Me program, grew up mainly in Vancouver — away from her Indigenous roots: the Saik'uz First Nation in B.C.'s Central Interior.  The 21-year old jumped at the chance to be involved in the fashion show. 

"It makes me feel really inspired to be around these successful designers and models," Trube said.

"To see that kind of success in an area where we're not really represented is refreshing. It's nice." 

Walking the runway in clothes made by Indigenous designers has made her want to follow in their footsteps herself, Trube said. (VIFW)

Learning to walk down a runway was "really cool," Trube said, and it taught her "how to stand tall" and be proud, as did wearing original, contemporary designs interwoven with traditional touches.

"It's really empowering, honestly," she noted before the opening show.

Trube said there's something special about helping showcase haute couture created by someone Indigenous or with a deep understanding of the culture, adding that the experience has inspired her to become a fashion designer.

Countering cultural appropriation

Another major goal of the event is to counter cultural appropriation and show that Indigenous fashion is more than just an aesthetic to be ripped off by high-profile labels and brands. 

Models at left and right walk the runway in designs by Tyler Alan Jacobs, centre, during the opening show of the inaugural Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week. (VIFW)

"This is totally reclaiming what is ours," said Mitton. "[The event] is activism in itself."

She also wants to make this fashion week an annual event to show the public existing options for when they go shopping. Some of the emerging and established designers taking part this year include Evan Ducharme, Sho Sho Esquiro, Tyler Alan Jacobs and Pam Baker. 

"[The designs] are on display. They're in the public eye," she said. 

"So you don't have an excuse to say: 'I don't know where to get that kind of aesthetic.' If you like Indigenous designs, go to the people who made it."

Models unveil works by First Nations designer Pam Baker, from North Vancouver B.C. Her designs for Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week blend modern and traditional elements. (Peter Jensen/VIFW)

A pioneer of Canada's Aboriginal fashion scene, Baker is thrilled to finally have a fashion show created by and dedicated to Indigenous artists.

"The message sent is that we are here, doing what we love," she said.

"I love educating and enjoy the reactions to my designs, where we work hard in representing our people." 

Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week, featuring work by 32 designers, ends Saturday at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.