In a first, Indigenous designers from Canada showcase their creations at Milan Fashion Week
Indigenous show makes playful, profound, imaginative debut in the City of Fashion
Milan Fashion Week, one of the world's most important fashion events, is a time when fashion designers and brands display their latest collections, and movie and music stars, fashionistas and influencers appear in the northern Italian city to gain visibility.
Now, for the first time ever, part of the scene includes a group of Indigenous designers from Canada — showcasing everything from Cree syllabics on a faux fur coat and futuristic beaded visors to diaphanous evening wear cascading in feather flowers.
The Indigenous show, part of the WHITE/Milan Fashion Week section for up-and-coming designers, makes a playful, profound and imaginative debut in la Citta' della Moda, the City of Fashion.
"There's a lot of special qualities, a lot of magic that goes into our clothing," said Robyn McLeod, a member of the Deh Gáh Got'ı̨ę First Nation in the Dehcho Region of the Northwest Territories whose work is inspired by Indigenous Futurisms.
"When I'm creating things, it feels exciting, weaving in traditional art and ways of being with technology, contemporary objects and textiles to make something unique. It's like my excitement is felt by the people who wear my clothing."
An elder taught McLeod to sew at the age of six, but she only dedicated herself to designing clothing full time five years ago, lacking the money and mentors to begin sooner.
Highlights of her collection are a glam rock embroidered caribou hide and white fur coat and black and a white striped dress encircled with ribbons and fur — a modern mash-up of the Métis ribbon skirt.
Economic, social, geographic challenges
Talent and hard work alone won't get you to Milan, though, and much of the reason why McLeod and the five other designers are here is thanks to the tireless promotional hustle of Sage Paul, an urban Denesuliné tskwe, a member of English River First Nation and an award-winning designer in her own right.
As executive and artistic director of the non-profit Indigenous Fashion Arts (IFA), Paul organizes a fashion show every two years. IFA works hard, she said, to support the bedrock of designers' businesses — the person-to-person sales in local communities — while also creating ways to accelerate and expand their reach in the global fashion sector.
Paul said many indigenous designers face not only economic and social challenges at home — it's hard to be creative if there's not clean water in your community — but also geographic ones: living far from urban fashion centres, with unreliable internet connections and steep costs for shipping materials and for travel.
Interest in the sustainable methods of Indigenous designers in the monstrously polluting fast-fashion industry is rising, but overcoming misconceptions remains a hurdle, she said.
"There is the idea of the prairie Indian, with the straight hair, feathers, headdress, that kind of thing," Paul said.
"So we're really trying to push through that and share what is happening in our culture today. There's a lot of tradition, but there are so many different influences and experiences with hundreds of Indigenous nations. It's very vibrant."
Artisanal skills passed on through families
The Canada Council for the Arts and the Canadian Embassy in Italy helped to bring the group to Milan and send WHITE/Milan organizers to Indigenous Fashion Week in Toronto last May. There they saw first-hand the breadth of what the designers had to offer and assessed if they had the chops to show in WHITE/Milan.
"They were blown away," said Elissa Golberg, Canada's ambassador to Italy.
During Milan Fashion Week, which ends on Monday, the designers also got an opportunity to tell the stories so integral to their designs in a panel discussion — a way to help European fashion buyers better understand the context and backdrop of reconciliation.
On the panel was Justin Louis, creative director of the Vancouver-based Indigenous streetwear brand SECTION 35. The Samson Cree Nation member left his corporate job seven years ago to launch his first collection after his T-shirts with old hockey team logos from his reserve were snapped up.
"I felt a calling, that there was a space for something like this, and our people needed their own clothes," he said.
The fashion line, a reference to Section 35 of Canada's Constitution that recognizes and protects treaty rights in the country, adds clever Indigenous flashes to contemporary urban and sportswear: cotton knitwear with geometrics inspired by his Cree power regalia; parkas with camouflage print that at closer glance are actually Cree letters; and hunting-streetwear crossover attire with a "real-tree camo" print.
The star of the collection is a baseball jacket with an oversized "S" (another reference to Section 35) sewn on the front, and on the back, a playful polka-dot horse leaping above the words "made on stolen land."
Louis — who was nominated for the 2022 Menswear Designer of the Year Award by the Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards — said blending his core identity and the truth of his people's past into all of his designs can be tricky.
"At times that makes people uncomfortable, they have a hard time with it maybe being too political for them," he said. "But other people, once they realize there's a meaning to it, they're like, 'Wow, that's really cool.' But for me, it's the root of everything I do. It inspires me to create."
Several of the designers say their work has helped them recover from addictions. All say they come from families where mothers, aunts or elders enthusiastically passed on sewing, quilting, beading and other artisanal skills.
Designs inspired by nature
Designer Niio Perkins creates works-of-art jewelry that translates Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse) clothing design motifs related to the land into jewelry, employing a raised beadwork technique of sewing glass beads in layers to create striking three-dimensional designs.
"There's a lot of value held in the symbolism of the clothes," said Perkins, from Akwesasne, N.Y., a Mohawk territory that spans across the St. Lawrence River to near Cornwall, Ont., where she has a studio.
"So much so that we believe just by wearing this you are helping your body. It's a way of giving thanks for what's provided."
Perkins said being part of Indigenous Fashion Arts has been a game-changer for her after working without a mentor or support, and that coming to Milan gives her a chance to fulfil a dream of collaborating with a fashion house.
Erica Donovan, an Inuvialuk artist from Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., makes beaded earrings with moose-hide, seal fur and polished musk ox horn accents under the brand She Was A Free Spirit.
"I'm heavily inspired by the Arctic sky and the land my ancestors walked on," she said, pointing to intricate diamond-shaped earrings inspired by the Tuktoyaktuk sunset, which won her a Fabrique 1840 Indigenous design award in 2022.
Anishinaabe designer Lesley Hampton, who is also in Milan, was named the No. 1 Canadian designer to watch by Vogue magazine in 2021.
She has already got her celeb shoutout — from singer Lizzo for her size-inclusive clothing designed for comfort and self-celebration.
Hampton's new collection, Buoyant, is all about helping people feel better after the COVID-19 pandemic, which for many was a traumatic experience.
"I really wanted this collection to be about remembering who you were before that," she said. "Having garments allow you to experience whatever new body you are ... having pieces that empower you and make you happy."
Fun bubbles up through Hampton's collection of pastel knitwear (made with anti-bacterial yarn so you wash it less), sheer gowns with aquamarine feather flowers and 1970s-inspired balloon-sleeves dresses.
Experience in Milan is 'priceless'
Another up-and-comer in Milan is Evan Ducharme from Manitoba (Treaty 1 territory), whose designs are a mischievous mélange of Métis history, childhood pop references, queerness and environmental responsibility.
At one end of his collection are flowing mesh and moire dresses and a hand-embroided mesh top inspired by the Métis sash; on the other, minimalist jackets and jumpsuits in shades of prairie beige.
"I really enjoy that tension between the sheer and the fluid and overtly feminine, and the more stark and strict and uniform-like," he said..
"This is what my family wore, the head-to-toe work suit to caretake the land. But there were also women in my family who were extremely feminine, and had large A-line skirts and dresses to the knees."
Ducharme said showing in Milan is everything he could have imagined for himself.
"The young version of me who left St. Ambroise at 18 with two hockey bags and a hope and a dream, they're ecstatic," he said. "But [being here] is also the result of a lot of hard work.... So, not only to have my work, but the work of my peers to be shown in Milan, is priceless."