Indigenous fashion designers aren't waiting for the industry to change — they're changing it themselves
‘It's doing away with those baked-in hierarchies that are in fashion,' says desginer Evan Ducharme
When Sage Paul graduated from George Brown College's fashion design program in 2006, there were few opportunities for Indigenous designers like her.
But she knew the fashion world's nearly barren landscape for Indigenous designers could change.
Today, Paul is not only working in the fashion industry, she's opening doors and creating new opportunities for other Indigenous designers.
"[Indigenous designers have] so much to offer," Paul told Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild. "All of our work is so different, so distinct to our nations, distinct to the land that we come from."
She's one of many Indigenous designers, artists and models who aren't waiting for the fashion industry to make space for them. They're creating their own space on and off the runway.
Passed down through generations
Indigenous people have a beautiful, communal view of fashion. They pass down culture and designs and share their work with each other, Paul said.
"The fashion industry is known for being exclusive," she explained. "It's very competitive. People don't share their ideas. But here we are, we're working with designs that have been passed down through generations that are inspired by not just our grandmas, [but] our great, great, great-grandmas."
In 2015, Paul co-founded Setsuné, a women-led Indigenous fashion incubator that promoted the development and skills of young Indigenous women and mothers in fashion, textiles and crafting. Setsuné is the Dene word for grandmother.
Shortly after that, Paul and other Indigenous designers founded the non-profit group Indigenous Fashion Arts.
They held the inaugural Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto in 2018, with runway showcases, workshops, lectures and a marketplace. Now it's a biennial event for Indigenous designers to connect with each other, collaborate and meet others in the industry.
In February, Paul led a delegation of Indigenous designers to Milan Fashion Week to showcase their work, meet buyers and talk about their process.
"It's really important that we are a part of the global economy," Paul said. "For too long, people have been using our designs and our knowledge and they have been profiting off of it and we're here trying to make a living. But why aren't we a part of that larger global economy and global market?"
Indigenous artists have seen their traditions, crafts and designs copied for many years and Paul believes it's crucial that Indigenous designers be seen and heard to curtail this problem.
"Appropriation is never going to stop, unfortunately … but I think one way to combat [it] is by putting ourselves in those spaces, creating spaces for ourselves," Paul added.
Being the change
Lesley Hampton and Evan Ducharme are two of the Indigenous designers who went to Milan with Indigenous Fashion Arts. When they were young, neither of them saw a place for themselves in the fashion industry.
"The first time I became interested in fashion, I was watching Jeannie Becker on Fashion Television," Hampton said. "Even at the age of 10 years old, I really noticed that it was one skin type, one body type, and I didn't feel like I felt included in that space."
Hampton's home community is Temagami First Nation in northern Ontario. She grew up in Newfoundland and now lives in Toronto. She founded her own design brand in 2016 with the goal of being size inclusive and promoting body positivity.
After her first runway show in Toronto, which featured diverse and inclusive bodies, Hampton realized that there was a hunger for diversity in fashion.
"It was really this idea of bringing inclusivity to the runway, so that I could almost rectify what I was seeing as a 10-year-old," she said.
Ducharme, who is Métis, grew up in St. Ambroise, Man. He learned how to make clothing for all different body types from his aunt, who worked in garment production in Winnipeg.
"When you're in fashion school, you only learn how to draft for a size four," he said. "We both kind of saw the dissonance in the industry and took it upon ourselves to do something that was against the grain."
As a fashion school student in Vancouver in 2010, Ducharne felt like he needed to make his work, which was inspired by his home territory, more "palatable" to a broader audience.
"I was pushed away from doing a gender neutral collection for my graduate collection. [This] would have been 2012. It was not very long ago," he said.
Ducharme's work today is centred on his Métis history and the culture's iconography, while also being size- and gender-inclusive.
"Now … it's considered gauche to not have a diverse cast on your runway," he said. "It's considered gauche not to have at least three or four plus-size models or extended size models on your catwalk."
It's about community
To Hampton, visiting Milan didn't just give the designers a fashion week experience. She sees the event as a family reunion.
"The Indigenous fashion community feels like home for me … and that's really exciting for someone like myself who grew up outside of the community and didn't have those connections growing up," she said.
"It makes fashion and the idea of the [Indigenous] fashion industry that we're building … feel more impactful in the way that we can invite our community members in. It's more than clothing."
Ducharme agrees, adding that Indigenous designers have created something different.
"Of course we would have the elders in the front row. We're not going to put the elders in the third row," he said. "It's doing away with those baked-in hierarchies that are in fashion and making it much more community based."
That sense of community inspires Sage Paul's work with Indigenous Fashion Arts.
"[It's] very community oriented, so our values drive how our events happen there," she said. "We make sure that everything is accessible. Anyone can attend the runway shows. … We have seven-year-olds there who are inspired and excited to see the clothing.
What also propels Paul forward is the future. She wants to make sure there's space for the next generation to be able to express themselves through art and fashion, and make a career out of it.
"I see my friends having children and my siblings have children," Paul said. "I want to create a space where they feel like they have opportunities where they can see themselves, and really dream about what they want to do in the future."