Made on Turtle Island: Vancouver’s Very First Indigenous Fashion Week Honours Heritage, Identity, Expression

Tuesday 25th, July 2017 / 15:13
By Emily Blatta

Indigenous Fashion Week will also feature models of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit descent, and many of the event’s helping hands are Indigenous youth coming out of the foster care system. Photo by Angela Fama

VANCOUVER – Vancouver’s first-ever Indigenous Fashion Week opens this week at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, and is a long overdue of expression of where past and present Indigenous experiences collaborate with fashion, community, and modern ceremony.

The four-night event features some of the incredible Indigenous designers that go largely overlooked and ignored in Canada, and serves to breakthrough and transform conceptions of Indigenous identity through clothing. The faces of Indigenous design are varied, and similar in that one bead at a time, they spell out their names and stories from behind the sewing machine.

“I think what will surprise people is how they incorporate modern materials with traditional sources like fur, leather, beads and bone,” says Joleen Mitton, who is one of the organizers behind the project.

After working in the fashion industry in Canada and overseas for several years — and experiencing first-hand the appropriation of sacred Indigenous designs committed by fashion giants like H&M and Urban Outfitters — Mitton returned to her roots with the intention of building something that would re-claim, unify, and empower.

“Appropriation in the fashion industry only sees the surface, turns it into a commodity and claims that this is something to exploit,” says Mitton. What gets buried, then, is the interconnectedness of culture and clothing, and what gets silenced are the stories that have been woven and made to pass spiritual meaning down through generations. “Indigenous art is gifted from person to person, from family to family and clan to clan — it symbolizes deep relationship and sacred ceremony.”

Restoring these relationships will take more than one fashion week, which is why Mitton has plans for this to become an annual event. But in its first year, already 98% of the models at are First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, and many of the event’s helping hands are Indigenous youth coming out of the foster care system. “The young women and men we work with, to mentor them in performance and creative production, it changes everything about their concept of themselves as belonging, as needed and wanted, as capable and as future leaders,” Mitton says.

Storytelling not only gives a voice to the sometimes very painful, marginalized personal experiences of Indigenous peoples in Canada, but is also an integral part of expressing and keeping Indigenous cultures themselves intact. To pair this with fashion is a powerful thing, says Mitton.

Each night is set to reflect different aspects of the Indigenous experience, including Coast Salish design, urban-Indigenous streetwear, and a Red Dress Event to honour the many missing and murdered Indigenous women. Closing night is called All My Relations, and is a cutting-edge, fantastical tribute to the power of ancestry, family, and grass-root mobilization within Indigenous communities.

“Every piece tells a story,” Mitton says. “It’s a continent of stories. We’re walking with meaning, walking with identity, heritage, family, spirit, and truth visible for all to see. Presenting ourselves with confidence and connection is almost contrary to our current anonymity.”

Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week will be held at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from July 26 – July 29.

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