Reconciling the runway with authentic Indigenous designs

Emerging and established Indigenous artists, designers and creatives from across the country are gathered in Calgary to showcase their work at Otahpiaaki Indigenous Beauty, Fashion and Design Week.

Otahpiaaki Indigenous Beauty, Fashion and Design Week brings emerging, established artists to Calgary

A couture dress honouring missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls by Jamie Medicine Crane was featured at the Otahpiaaki Truth showcase on Thursday evening. (Brandi Morin)

Designers at a fashion event at Calgary's Mount Royal University are turning stereotypical views of Indigenous fashion upside down and into an explosion of cultural expression this week.

Emerging and established Indigenous artists, designers and creatives from across the country are gathered in Calgary to showcase their work at Otahpiaaki Indigenous Beauty, Fashion and Design Week, which runs from Sept. 18-23 at Mount Royal.

Otahpiaaki, based at the university, is described as a "social innovation project." This is the second year for Otahpiaaki's annual fashion week.

For Blackfoot designer Jamie Medicine Crane, one of the designers featured at Otahpiaaki, having Indigenous designs at the forefront of many runways on an international level is long overdue.

"It's about time," she said. "We've been here for thousands and thousands of years. When I travel around the globe I find a lot of people don't know about Indigenous culture in North America. But they need to understand that we are still here, we've never been conquered and we're stronger than ever."

Medicine Crane highlights the strength and resilience of Indigenous women in her new Warrior collection. She is inspired by her Blackfoot culture and infuses traditional and contemporary designs into her pieces.

Bringing attention to social issues like missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls through her creations is something that comes naturally, said Medicine Crane, who made a couture gown embroidered with 2,000 gem stones to represent those who are missing or were murdered.

An ensemble by Blackfoot designer Jamie Medicine Crane which was featured at the Otahpiaaki Truth showcase on Thursday. (Brandi Morin)

Beaded jewellery has gone mainstream in recent years, enabling First Nation artist Trip Charbs to distribute his work around the world.

Charbs travelled from Winnipeg to the Otahpiiaki event to share his beadwork designs, which have been showcased on the Shopping Channel and at the Junos, and worn by the likes of musician Tanya Tagaq and actor Roseanne Supernault.

Each piece is sewn by hand and offers a view into his creative imagination.

"I put a lot of my spirituality into my work," said Charbs. "Every bead has gratitude. I put good love in it."

He's grateful for the exposure of his work and uses it as a teaching opportunity.

"It's nice because it sparks reconciliation, the question of 'Where did you get that from?' Then people can learn the truth [about Indigenous culture] and it lifts the veil off of a lot of people's eyes in a sense."

Cultural appropriation an issue in fashion world

With cultural appropriation occurring frequently in the fashion world, it's sometimes difficult to differentiate between which designs are authentic and which are not.

Section 35 is an apparel company out of Vancouver that creates streetwear designs with political undertones focused on Indigenous sovereignty and reconciliation. Co-founder Justin Louis says cultural appropriation was a factor that motivated him to start the brand.

Rebecca Merasty models a vest by Section 35 at Otahpiaaki. (Brandi Morin)

"I've seen a lot of non-Indigenous companies who push Native imagery on their products," said Louis.

"I'm sure there's definitely some misunderstanding, but I also think there's probably a lack of caring as well. It's fashionable to be Indian right now, so companies are going to capitalize on that and I think it's up to people like us to hold them accountable."

Although there's a fine line between the conflicts of commodifying culture and maintaining authenticity, Louis said he's uncovering ways to share Indigenous fashion to the mainstream.  

"It's good that Indigenous fashion is hot. There's some really cool and amazing designers out there that are doing really good things, so I think it pushes all of us to do better," he said.

Mount Royal University criminal justice student Taryn Hamleton is working to help create legislation in Canada that would protect Indigenous designs. It's a complicated process, she said, because of the vast generational traditions of Indigenous cultures that span thousands of years.

"There needs to be legislation reform around Indigenous designs, culture, protocol and history, but a lot of Indigenous designs are passed down from generation to generation. This means they can't be patented," said Hamleton.

"But it's important because there's so many Indigenous artists and designers who deserve to have their work shown. It's stronger than getting something that's mass-produced and has no cultural meaning to it."

The Otahpiaaki fashion week wraps up on Sept. 23. A youth showcase and reconciliation fashion show is planned for Friday and Saturday evenings at City Hall in Calgary.