After a prolonged COVID delay, the Indigenous Fashion Arts Festival lit up Toronto from June 9-12, showcasing some of the world’s top Indigenous fashion, textiles and crafts. “I’m most excited for the community,” said Dusty LeGrande, the designer of Indigenous streetwear brand Mobilize Waskawewin before the festival. “To cheer on all my cousins — a term of universal endearment — and see some of the most powerful Indigenous art and clothing creations! We are stronger when we move together.”
This year, the IAF — under the assured leadership of, among others, Kit friend Sage Paul — introduced something new. They partnered with Apple, which gave participants iPhone 13 Pros to create mini docs to accompany their runway shows. “I chose to highlight my home territory, family and the process of creating my designs,” said designer Evan Ducharme, who interned at Eco Fashion Week in Vancouver years ago and has since had a piece exhibited at the Met Costume Institute in New York. “My favorite shot was taken in 4K where my cousin walked on to a frozen lake at sunset — the result was incredibly beautiful and crisp.”
Read on to meet four Indigenous designers transforming the Canadian fashion world.
How would you describe your design approach?
“This season has been an interesting process being back in my community after 11 years in Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh Territories (Vancouver), and has informed the work in ways I hadn’t expected. When I first conceptualized [the project] Dominion I wanted to allow myself to be taken away with the storytelling and worldbuilding that is possible with fashion, things that I felt slip away from me as the demands of the business have grown. Being home helped me in honoring those first instincts I had as a young person interested in making clothes, and fully realizing them with the knowledge I’ve gained since.”
You’re such a skilled designer — your pleats, drapes and embroidery are so beautiful. Who are some designers that you most admire and why?
“The first few that come to mind are Madame Grès and Cristobal Balenciaga, both for the craftsmanship and technique and singular point of view in their work. On a more contemporary end I’d say Olivier Theyskens and Christopher John Rogers, for their ability to create such wonderful worlds and possibilities with their clothes.”
What were the highlights of working with Devery Jacobs?
“I was lucky to work with Devery on a custom look that they wore to this past year’s Independent Spirit Awards. Since we live in different cities we worked remotely and met on Zoom for digital consultation and fittings. A highlight would be the conversations we had early on around the importance of creating an orange look and what that meant to us individually, a really meaningful process in creating a red carpet moment.”
How would you describe your design approach?
“My focus is to tell significant stories through my designs about my ancestors and bringing that to life. My ancestors would write on buffalo robes — and through symbols they would tell stories of their achievements as a tribe, milestones, war battle victories or directions like a map. My creations — appliqués, beadwork and digital designs — do the same thing. They tell my stories, my interpretations of my culture, my people and my family.
Sweetgrass is a medicine that purifies and cleanses. I think that’s what has helped my people be resilient is staying connected to the traditional medicines and practice with them every day. I think that’s just something that speaks for itself as the most commonly used medicine of Indigenous people. It’s just something that we use to feel grounded. It’s a connection to Mother Earth.”
What is the connection between creating and healing for you?
“The way it started was when I initially got back into sewing, it was during a tough time: My mother was battling cancer and I needed something to do while I was sitting beside her when she was bedridden. During this time was when I connected back to beading, sewing and designing to stay busy. After she passed away, I continued to create as a therapeutic healing process — it was like healing though the threads of my creations. Eventually my creations took a life of its own, evolving to the point when I created my business. It sparked a passion that was inside me: infusing traditional with contemporary designs with a focus on formal wear. I love the idea of a traditional piece that’s modern with an Indigenous flair to it and reflects my culture.”
The way you play with color and pattern is so unique and beautiful. What inspires you?
“My culture and the beauty of being First Nations”. It’s not just picking colors — all colors mean something and have cultural and spiritual significance. Colors and patterns symbolize who I am as an individual and where I come from. The patterns tell stories: Geometric or appliqué designs can tell stories of myths and legends, for example. It’s also cultural education.
One of my designs is a beautiful green dress, where I wove sweetgrass into a belt, headpiece and earrings. Sweetgrass has helped my people be resilient and strong; and it’s with them every day. The dress has a little bit of buckskin to represent the deer and horsehair to represent the horse because the horses graze in the field in the grass. It’s all a tribute to home, to where I live.”
You’re a self-taught designer. How did you first fall in love with fashion?
“At a very young age, I fell in love with fashion and creating. Designing came later in life but with just as much enthusiasm and desire to create styles that are unique and connected to the land that I call home. I remember staring at magazines, having designs on my wall, along with a sketchbook I often used to create my own ideas. I’m still so in love with fashion.”
What was the inspiration for your IAF video?
“The inspiration for the video connects to my visions of women connected to the land using one’s senses while being fully embraced and the land revered. It also talks about connection to the community, to each other and the relationships we hold sacred.”
Why is working with fur so important to you?
“It’s part of my upbringing and lifestyle. For many years, my family and I have been trapping and harvesting respectfully. My connection to the land and animals is indescribable as it runs through my blood. The more I work with fur, the more I want to explore more technical aspects and building on the knowledge shared with me.
I just love working with fur so much, and in my video, I explored its details with the macro feature in a totally new way, which brought me closer to the land and allowed for depth and clarity. I was able to see the individual hairs, how they grow in different ways, the colours. When I looked at the furs and beads together, I saw an interplay and connectedness that I haven’t seen in this level of detail before.”
Your kids inspired your video. How do they inspire you in life and in your design work?
“Being a father is one of life’s greatest gifts. My children are so instrumental to all I do, how I move, and the dreams I have. Throughout this brand they have been the force behind the intention of creating impactful stories through clothing. Many pieces are inspired from colors of Lego, toys, funky outfits that they play with or wear — they view the world through such a pure lens, and I am constantly inspired by their perspective. At the time of filming my video, I had just started working on my collection.
My children have also designed pieces within the brand themselves. Their most popular piece to date being the “fart on racism” T-shirt, which also featured a poop emoji, fully designed by my 8-, 5-, and 4-year-olds!”
What do you find exciting about streetwear now?
“Streetwear as a voice, as a tool of activism, and as loud clothing in general has always been the most exciting piece of street style for myself.” I view streetwear as present (in the moment), gender free, and inspires very individual expression. The future of streetwear is the future of people, it must become more sustainable through all elements, it must speak to the changing earth and its people, and it must continue to be loud for the evolution of inclusion and love in all spaces.”
I’d love to hear more about the Next Gen Scholarship you’re offering — what inspired you to start this?
“Along this journey of design, I experienced far too many gatekeepers who wouldn’t share knowledge with me, the intention of this scholarship was to break down those barriers and support the next generation of creatives. To create a portal that allows for authentic sharing of knowledge, business, design, and art practices. The reaction has been very positive to this point with many applicants across Turtle Island. I am hoping to create more partnerships to amplify and grow this scholarship so it can be offered as frequently as needed.”
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