For the first time, Indigenous designers from Canada are presenting their creations at Milan Fashion Week
One of the world’s most important fashion events, Milan Fashion Week is a time when fashion designers and brands showcase their latest collections and film and music stars, fashionistas and influencers flock to the northern Italian city to make their mark.
Now, for the first time ever, a group of Indigenous designers from Canada are part of the scene, showcasing everything from Cree syllables on a faux fur coat and futuristic beaded visors to sheer evening wear with feather flowers.
Part of the WHITE/Milan Fashion Week section for emerging designers, the Indigenous show makes a playful, deep and imaginative debut in la Citta della Modathe city of fashion.
“There’s a lot of special qualities, a lot of magic that goes into our clothes,” 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 create things, it feels exciting to weave traditional art and lifestyle with technology, contemporary objects and textiles to create something unique. It’s as if my enthusiasm is felt by the people who wear my clothes.”
An elder taught McLeod to sew at the age of six, but she didn’t fully dedicate herself to clothing designing until five years ago, lacking the money and mentors to start earlier.
Highlights of her collection include a glamorous embroidered caribou and white fur coat, and a black and white striped dress surrounded by ribbons and fur – a modern hybrid of the Métis band skirt.
Economic, social, geographic challenges
Talent and hard work alone won’t bring you to Milan, however, and much of the reason McLeod and the five other designers are here is thanks to the tireless promotional frenzy of Sage Paul, an urban Denesuliné-Tskwe, a member of English River First Nation and an award-winning designer herself.
As managing director 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 foundation of designers’ businesses – selling person-to-person in local communities – while creating ways to accelerate and expand their reach in the global fashion sector.
Paul said that many Indigenous designers face not only economic and social challenges at home – it’s hard to be creative when your community doesn’t have clean water – but also geographic ones: they live far from urban fashion centers, with unreliable internet connections and high shipping costs materials and for travel.
Interest in the sustainable methods of Indigenous designers in the hugely polluting fast fashion industry is growing, but overcoming misunderstandings remains a hurdle, she said.
“There’s the idea of the Plains Indian with straight hair, feathers, headdresses and things like that,” Paul said.
“So we’re really trying to push through and share what’s happening in our culture today. There is a lot of tradition but there are so many different influences and experiences with hundreds of indigenous nations. It’s very alive.”
Craft skills passed down through families
The Canada Council for the Arts and the Embassy of Canada in Italy helped bring the group to Milan and sent the WHITE/Milan organizers to Toronto for Indigenous Fashion Week last May. There they saw firsthand the breadth of what the designers had to offer and judged if they had what it took to show at WHITE/Milan.
“They were overwhelmed,” said Elissa Golberg, Canada’s ambassador to Italy.
During Milan Fashion Week, which ends on Monday, designers also had the opportunity to share the stories that are so intrinsic to their designs in a panel discussion – a way to help European fashion buyers better understand the context and background to the reconciliation .
On the panel was Justin Louis, creative director of Vancouver-based Indigenous streetwear brand SECTION 35. The Samson Cree Nation member quit his job at the company seven years ago to launch his first collection after his old hockey team logo t-shirts to bring out his reserve were overheard.
“I felt called that there was a space for something like this and that our people needed their own clothes,” he said.
A nod to Section 35 of Canada’s Constitution, which recognizes and protects treaty rights in the country, the clothing line brings clever Aboriginal touches to contemporary urban and athletic wear: cotton knitwear with geometric patterns inspired by its Cree power insignia; camouflage print parkas that, on closer inspection, are actually Cree letters; and hunting streetwear crossover clothing with a “real tree camouflage” print.
The star of the collection is a baseball jacket with an oversized “S” (another reference to Section 35) on the front and a playful polka dot horse on the back jumping over 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 it can be difficult to incorporate his core identity and the truth of his people’s past into all of his designs.
“Sometimes people are uncomfortable, they have a hard time with it, maybe it’s too political for them,” he said. “But other people, once they realize it has meaning, they’re like, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ But for me it’s at the root of everything I do. It inspires me to create.”
Some of the designers say their work has helped them recover from addiction problems. All say they come from families where mothers, aunts or elders enthusiastically passed on sewing, quilting, beadwork and other craft skills.
Designs inspired by nature
Designer Niio Perkins creates jewelry artworks that translate Haudenosaunee (longhouse people) clothing design motifs in connection with the land into jewelry using a sublime beadwork technique in which glass beads are sewn in layers to create eye-catching three-dimensional designs .
“There’s a lot of value in the symbolism of the clothing,” said Perkins of Akwesasne, NY, a Mohawk territory that stretches across the St. Lawrence River to near Cornwall, Ontario, where she has a studio.
“So much so that we think wearing it will help your body. It’s a way of saying thank you for what is being provided.”
Perkins said that affiliation with Indigenous Fashion Arts was a turning point for her after working without a mentor or support, and that moving to Milan gave her a chance to fulfill a dream of working with a fashion house.
Erica Donovan, an Inuvialuk artist from Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, makes beaded earrings accented with elk skin, seal fur, and polished musk ox horn under the She Was A Free Spirit brand.
“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 earned her a 2022 Fabrique 1840 Indigenous Design Award.
Anishina designer Lesley Hampton, also based in Milan, was named Vogue magazine’s #1 Canadian Designer to Watch in 2021.
She’s already received her celebrity shoutout – from singer Lizzo for her multi-size clothing designed for comfort and self-celebration.
Hampton’s new Buoyant collection is about helping people feel better after the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been a traumatic experience for many.
“I really wanted this collection to be about remembering who you were before,” she said. “Having clothes allows you to experience your new body…having pieces that empower you and make you happy.”
Hampton’s collection of pastel knits (made with antibacterial yarn so you wash it less), sheer dresses with teal feather flowers, and 1970s-inspired balloon-sleeved dresses are fun.
The Milan experience is ‘priceless’
Another newcomer to Milan is Evan Ducharme from Manitoba (Treaty 1 Territory), whose designs are a mischievous mix of Métis history, childhood pop references, queerness and environmental responsibility.
At one end of his collection are flowing mesh and moiré dresses and a hand-embroidered mesh top inspired by the Métis sash; on the other hand, minimalist jackets and jumpsuits in prairie beige tones.
“I really enjoy this tension between the pure and the fluid and the overtly feminine and the more plain and austere and uniformy,” he said.
“That’s what my family wore, head-to-toe work clothes to farm the land. But there were also women in my family who were extremely feminine and wore large A-line skirts and knee-length dresses.”
Ducharme said showing in Milan was everything he could have imagined.
“The young version of me who left St Ambroise at 18 with two hockey bags and a hope and a dream is ecstatic,” he said. “But [being here] is also the result of a lot of hard work… So it is priceless that not only my work but also the work of my colleagues is shown in Milan.”