Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week just wrapped up, and there was some incredible Indigenous fashion on display at the inaugural event. Obsessed with what you saw but unsure if you should/can wear it? Here, Amanda Nahanee, cultural advisor for VIFW, Sage Paul, designer and artist, and Helen Oro, owner of Helen Oro Designs, share their best advice for respectfully doing so.
1. Buy from a local Indigenous artist or designer
There’s been plenty of non-Indigenous designers who have stolen inspiration—or direct designs—from various Indigenous communities, including DSquared2 and retailer Urban Outfitters. Do not buy or wear these appropriated designs; instead spend your money on clothing that’s actually made by someone with ties to the culture.
“The best way to support a Native business, company or artist is to buy from them and support that artist,” says Nahanee, who was raised Squamish and Nisga’a and is a member of the Squamish Nation.
When non-Indigenous people do buy responsibly from Indigenous designers, it’s fine to wear that clothing if they do so with good intentions, Nahanee says. “If you’re wearing clothing because you feel the pride, because you feel a connection, that is to be celebrated,” she explains.
“I walk down the street and see non-Indigenous people wearing Manitobah Mukluks and I’m like, ‘YES! Look at that!’ I have great pride knowing that a Native person has created a company and is very successful.”
Accessory designer Oro, who is Plains Cree from Pelican Lake First Nation, makes beaded items including sunglasses and earrings for everyone to enjoy, and has many non-Indigenous clients. “I want everyone to be comfortable wearing my beadwork,” she says. “I am still carrying my culture; I’m just pushing it forward to the next generation. It’s a way of me sharing.”
2. Know what you’re wearing and what it means
Buying directly from an Indigenous designer also means avoiding cultural oversights that often occur when non-Indigenous brands are “inspired” by another culture. Take for example European designer Kokon To Zai, who ripped off a sacred Inuit design on a sweater.
“I would never take something really sacred and use it in my work,” says Paul, an urban Dene woman and member of English River First Nation, who is the co-creator of the Toronto-based Setsuné Indigenous Fashion Incubator. “I want to make sure I’m respecting myself and my family, and other Indigenous people around the world.”
Oro notes that certain designs and colours are unique to different Indigenous peoples, and she’s well aware of which ones should be kept out of her commercial beadwork. “There’s certain pieces I would never recreate—for example a headdress—because they are specifically worn for traditional purposes or are ceremonial,” she explains. “Know where what you’re buying is coming from. Know the story behind it and who’s making it.”
And—it bears repeating—a non-Indigenous person should never wear ceremonial items . “If people want to be celebrating Native people and saying how cool it is to be Native,” says Paul, “then they should probably be wearing Indigenous-made clothing as opposed to a headdress.”
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