Faced with the pandemic this year, the biennial Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto (IFWTO) chose to go virtual this time around—but if you’re thinking that meant just a handful of live-streamed runway shows, you’re greatly mistaken. Held from November 26 to 29, IFWTO drew in some of the biggest names in Indigenous fashion—including designers such as Evan Ducharme, Lesley Hampton, and streetwear brands such as Mobilize and Section 35. Now in its second year, it’s become more than a week of catwalks, and instead, a multi-platform experience, complete with special short films, a shoppable marketplace, and even live panel discussions.
IFWTO is currently one of the biggest showcases of Indigenous design in North America. The event provides a much-needed space for underrepresented talent to showcase their work on a large scale, all of whom challenge preconceived notions of what Indigenous design is and can be. Whether it’s streetwear or accessories, these designers—from a variety of tribes—all infused their work with messages of maintaining tradition and practicing sustainability.
This mindful spirit is what sets apart IFWTO from other fashion weeks, says Sage Paul, IFWTO’s founder and artistic director. “It’s based in community, and our connections to our way of life,” says Paul, who is Denesuliné. “Everything I know about being Native is from family, so it’s really important to recognize where we’ve come from, and recognize the people who pass things on to us. We are a fashion week, but it’s also about bringing people together.” Unabated by the pandemic, the fashion week is gaining traction, fast. “It’s growing much quicker than we had expected,” says Paul. “I hope that we are not only this incredible platform for designers to be able to show and sell their work, but also so that consumers can do their own research and find really cool stuff.”
Below, the five need-to-know takeaways from this year’s Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto.
1. The presentation formats were unconventional.
Over 15 Indigenous designers participated in the IFWTO “shows” this year. Their new collections were shown via short films created and directed by IFWTO, with each film featuring their pieces worn by models. The models didn’t just walk down a catwalk, rather moved around a special set in the clothes to choreography done by the Indigenous dancer Brian Solomon. “We still wanted it to feel like they were at IFTWO,” says Paul of the nontraditional format. “We still want people to feel like they’re going to a live show and that there was a vibe. We watch so much online, and we really wanted to lift people up and [have them] be excited about what they’re seeing.” The films are available to view on IFWTO’s YouTube page.
2. Collections were rooted in tradition.
As is often the case with Indigenous design, the collections shown during IFWTO this year were rooted in culture and purpose. Sisters Aunalee Boyd-Good and Sophia Seward-Good of Ay Lelum, a second-generation Coast Salish label based in Nanaimo, British Columbia, made use of their culture’s traditional prints and textiles in gowns, athleisure, and everything in between. Their collection drew references from spindle whorls and the Coast Salish imagery that would be often be found on them, such as eagles. “In Coast Salish culture, the spindle whorl is really central to women as weavers and spinners,” says Boyd-Good. Seward-Good adds, “The supernatural eagle brought the sunlight back to the people in the time of darkness. It offers hope and prayers—that we’re going to come out of this darkness.” Other designers, such as Warren Steven Scott, from the Nlaka’pamux Nation, referenced woven cedar clothing found in the Pacific Northwest and revamped it in a new, modern way. Métis designer Evan Ducharme also made use of weaving inspired by the Métis sash.
A dress by Warren Steven Scott
Photo: Courtesy of Warren Steven Scott
3. Designers made use of unexpected pieces.
While the collections were grounded in tradition, it didn’t mean the clothes themselves were. A number of streetwear labels challenged the idea of what Indigenous fashion can look like. A standout this weekend was the Edmonton-based label Mobilize, which showed an exciting offering of cropped hoodies, tie-dyed sweatsuits, and trench coats. Mobilize founder Dusty LeGrande also collaborated with artist Sabr on a poncho that reads “I Am Enough” on the back. “We wanted to create self-love pieces, because being an Indigenous male and Sabr being a Black, Muslim female, we’ve had a lot of experiences and stories to tell,” he says. Meanwhile, Miss Chief Rocka, a Nēhiyaw accessory and apparel brand, showed her intricate beaded jewelry and paired it with ’80s-style pieces such as neon spandex and visors also trimmed with her beadwork. Mohawk artist Skawennati also showed a collection that fused calico and camouflage textiles, applying both onto pieces such as traditional ribbon shirts.
A look by Mobilize
Photo: Cheyenne Rain LeGrande/Courtesy of Mobilize
A look by Mobilize
Photo: Cheyenne Rain LeGrande/Courtesy of Mobilize
4. It was a whole experience.
In addition to the collection of short films, there were other events to take in during IFWTO, too. On IFWTO’s website, there was a virtual shoppable market, which featured a variety of works from different Indigenous artists and backgrounds. Highlights included beaded creations from Skye Paul of Running Fox Beads, who sold rose-shaped bolo ties among other items; Beaded and fur-lined moccasins by Anishinaabe artist Sheila Demerah were another hot item. “We act as an aggregator, so as soon as those pieces sold out, everyone could go right to the designer’s website and keep buying if they really love them,” says Paul. IFTWO also hosted a series of live panel discussions in partnership with Ryerson University. Panels included a conversation with leading Métis artist Christi Belcourt, as well as discussions around how Indigenous designers make use of—and respect—their land, among many other topics.
Beaded creations by Running Fox Beads
Photo: Courtesy of IFWTO
5. Sustainability was a recurring theme.
Sustainability is an inherent part of Indigenous design, and many designers who showcased this past week brought this idea of eco-mindedness to the forefront. Mobilize, for instance, repurposed vintage hoodies or pieces for their collection and then customized them. “I thrift some of it, but I get a lot of it in trade, or through family,” says LeGrande. In his new collection, there was also a trench coat with different scraps of fabric added to it. “The trench coat has months and months of adding things to it,” says LeGrande. “There’s some parts of that trench coat that are literally just Sharpie, from me writing with Sharpie on it.” During the “Land-based fashion” panel, artists such as Tania Larsson, a Gwich’in jeweler, and Bobby Itta, an Inupiaq fashion artist, and furrier, also spoke of how they eliminate waste, source materials ethically, and give back to the land that they take from. “It’s about getting to know yourself and honoring our traditions, and seeing how precious and sacred those are,” said Larsson of being an Indigenous creator. “Putting our people and the land first.”