For many First Nations groups, Canada’s sesquicentennial birthday marks 150 years of theft, genocide, and colonization. Using fashion as a vehicle, however, one model turned community worker is hoping to shine a light on aboriginal culture, while offering indigenous children and teens a fresh set of role models to look up to.
“Some of our youth are suffering from identity issues,” Joleen Mitton, founder of Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week, tells the Straight by phone. “And I think Native people not being in the media play a huge role in that.”
A model of Plains Cree, French, and Scottish descent, Mitton left the fashion industry nine years ago and began working with marginalized youth at Vancouver’s Pacific Association of First Nations Women and Urban Butterflies Aboriginal Day Camp. During her time in these roles, she saw firsthand the number of young people who struggled, and continue to struggle, with accepting and embracing their identities.
After years of planning, she’s founded Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week—the first event of its kind in the city—in an effort to change that. Taking place this July in downtown Vancouver, the four-day fete will see 40 indigenous designers from across Turtle Island showcasing seasonal collections, as well as First Nations artists, musicians, and dancers presenting various performances.
The majority of models walking the runway will come from aboriginal backgrounds. Many of them live or formerly lived in foster care, a group that, according to Mitton, may face challenges connecting with their heritage. A Red Dress show hosted by First Nations activist Lorelei Williams, meanwhile, will honour and bring attention to Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women.
“Her [Williams’s] aunt was one of the people who went missing on the Highway of Tears,” says Mitton, “so we’re trying to tackle those issues as well.”
By providing a stage in which the country’s indigenous talent may converge and flourish, the former model and founder of local indigenous event production company All My Relations Entertainment also hopes that VIFW will help combat the cultural appropriation that happens all too often in the fashion industry. Featured designers at the inaugural function include Sho Sho Esquiro, who employs natural and recycled fibres in her garments, and Pam Baker, who is known for her Copperknot jewellery pieces that incorporate elements such as acrylic and B.C. red cedar.
“In indigenous culture, something that you make with your mum, your grandmother, or your auntie has spirit attached to it,” says Mitton. “And you’re not going to be like, ‘Okay, this is out of season. I’m going to throw it away.’ ”
And while VIFW’s debut during Canada’s 150+ anniversary may seem deliberate, Mitton maintains that it is purely coincidental. The fact that the events are taking place in the same year, however, makes representation for Canada’s First Nations population all the more meaningful.
“Having indigenous people in the mainstream media will help a lot of indigenous communities,” says Mitton, “but it will also help people who are not Native by showing them that we are still here.”
Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week takes place from July 26 to 29 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (650 Hamilton Street). For more information about the event, visit IFWVancouver.com.