Five Indigenous Creatives on the Fashion Industry in Canada

From a model to a designer to the founder of Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto, five creatives weigh in on the current state of Indigenous fashion in Canada

Indigenous voices have largely been absent from Canadian fashion, even as other marginalized communities have seen slightly more representation—and when Indigenous aesthetics do show up, it’s often cultural appropriation. (We’re looking at you, DSquared.) But that’s all about to change.

As the first Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto kicks off on May 31, FLARE asked five Indigenous creatives to give us insight into the challenges Indigenous people face in the Canadian fashion industryand how IFWTO is providing a much-needed platform for Indigenous talent. Here’s what a designer, makeup artist, hair stylist, model and the event’s founder and artistic director have to say about what it means to be Indigenous in the industry, and what work still needs to be done. 

Designer Lesley Hampton on casting diverse models

(Photo: Courtesy Lesley Hampton)

“Designers like myself and Hayley Elsaesser bring diversity to the forefront of top fashion weeks in Canada. I wish more designers would follow suit, even if it were to begin with [committing to casting] a percentage of their roster to include size and ethnic diversity to represent the diversity of society. As welcoming as many Canadians are, the fashion community has been slow to change to being more diverse and inclusive. I believe more inclusive fashion weeks that highlight talent to specific communities like IFWTO will increase community awareness and industry interest. As a designer, it is our responsibility to set trends for people to followand that will turn into movements.”

Hair stylist Israel Garcia on the change he’s seen

(Photo: Courtesy Israel Garcia)

“My experience working in the fashion industry for most of my professional career has always left me not feeling represented. I’ve seen countless designers and stylists over the years take inspiration and steal from the Indigenous culture. But to be part of a fashion week that celebrates Native artists and designers is such a breath of fresh air. Coming up as a young stylist in Yorkville early on in my career, I drew strength from my culture and showcased my cultre through my sense of style. Many times people told me that they didn’t know many Indigenous people. That led to questions and dialogue. Our story has long been absent from the history books. The launch of IFWTO will allow people the opportunity to purchase authentic fashion and jewellery and educate themselves about our rich culture and teachings.”

IFWTO founder Sage Paul on getting past appropriation

(Photo: Tynan Studio)

“I have been mostly ignored or excluded because the expectation was that I should fit into the existing construct of Western fashion, culturally, economically and socially. That system, that construct, simply doesn’t allow for Indigenous designers to thrive, and anything that is diverse becomes really tokenized and commodified. Western fashion is considered the way of fashion and then everything else is more of a trend, or a commodification of whatever is popular at that time. Creating [IFWTO] allows us to present work in a way that’s for us. I’d love to see one of our designers, maybe ten years from now, at a level where Alexander McQueen was at before he passed away. I really believe the potential is there—it’s just about changing how people see and consume fashion.”

Makeup artist Summer Faith Garcia on the right space for Indigenous artists

(Photo: Courtesy Summer Faith Garcia)

“Often, our designs are appropriated by non-Indigenous artists, but not this time. [At Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto] we get to showcase our own unique ideas and style. Fashion has always played a huge part in our culture, and a lot of thought and care goes into our styles. Each piece is carefully crafted to tell a story. It can tell you about the person wearing it, what Nation they’re from, their clan and about their spirit’s name. Our fashion is very much like our language—descriptive. Finally, our people get a platform to show how brilliant and talented Indigenous people are. Only in my wildest dreams did I think that a little Native kid could grow up to be a designer, makeup artist, stylist or model. It was practically unheard of. Now, it’s amazing to see this surge of Indigenous talent stepping up.”

Model Cleo Keahna on promoting diversity within the community

(Photo: Evelyn Pakinewatik)

“If we look at the fashion industry beyond Native fashion, it’s still white-dominated and Euro-centric. It’s incredibly inaccessible. To some extent, this inaccessibility is probably what makes fashion so fascinating to so many people, but problems arise when we think about the lasting effects. Fat-phobia is encouraged, even capitalized on, and plus-size models have to fit within certain unrealistic standards to ‘make up for’ their weight. This isn’t even touching on the dearth of Native voices, faces or power in these spaces. It’s so tempting to fall back into old habits of the ones who have made the industry so influential. Simply by virtue of our Indigeneity, we have to approach fashion and creativity differently than our white peers. Native people range in size, shape, height, age, skin colour, tribe and race. Our beauty comes from how we interact with the world and that’s a challenge to represent and organize, but I truly believe we have the capacity to carry these ideas.”


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