National Aboriginal Day 2017: Sho Sho Esquiro tells indigenous tales with runway-worthy garb

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      With a decorated résumé that boasts 20-plus awards and appearances on runways in New York City and Paris, local designer Sho Sho Esquiro may just be Vancouver’s best-kept secret.

      Born in the small community of Ross River, Yukon, and now based in New Westminster, the Kaska Dene artist has been crafting dramatic natural-fibre garments that reflect and celebrate her indigenous heritage for over seven years. In this time, her pieces—assembled from a mélange of recycled textiles and ethically sourced wool, fur, and leather—have been spotlighted in publications such as Paper magazine, sported by Canadian electronic-music trio A Tribe Called Red at the 2014 Juno Awards, and displayed at prestigious galleries across North America, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York City.

      The admitted fashion-school dropout, who also identifies as Cree and Scottish, credits much of her success to her mother, an interdisciplinary artist who taught Esquiro how to sew when she was just five years old. But considering the designer’s roots in Ross River’s Kaska nation—a historically nomadic group that produced and adorned much of its regalia by hand—it’s no surprise that style has always been in her blood.

      “I come from a long line of people who made their own clothes,” she tells the Straight by phone, “so it kind of comes second nature to me.”

      Calling herself a “contemporary artist using traditional techniques”, Esquiro burst onto the local fashion scene in 2010 with striking bustiers, leather and tweed coats, and corsets that incorporated brightly coloured sheets of wool Pendleton blankets. These days, however, you’ll find the affable designer, who also goes by the Kaska term for “butterfly”, Belelige, pushing style boundaries with elaborate gowns, jackets, and wide-leg pants that exude a distinctly couture edge. Each piece employs no fewer than five different—and sustainable—fabrics.

      Model Siera Begaye wears Sho Sho Esquiro's Ascension jacket, which is made from materials such as laser-cut rabbit fur, repurposed Indonesian prayer shawls, and platinum, gold, and sterling silver beads.
      Tomas Karmela Amaya

      “That’s kind of my thing,” she says. “I don’t like to use too many non-natural fibres.”

      Esquiro’s 2013 collection, for example, combined elements like traditional Dene beadwork, sealskin, and lace with ’60s-influenced silhouettes and warm sunset hues, while a more recent creation—a deerhide-lined jacket dubbed “Ascension” that the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., has expressed interest in acquiring—features laser-cut rabbit fur, deconstructed Indonesian prayer shawls, lynx paws, and immaculate cutout detailing made up of platinum and sterling silver.

      A notable womenswear lineup of structured bustier tops, statement skirts, and luxe fur jackets, titled Worth Our Weight in Gold, even used hundreds of painstakingly applied 24-karat gold beads. Presented at the 2014 edition of the J Autumn Fashion Show—a showcase of international designers that took place on Paris’s Eiffel Tower—the collection was dedicated to Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women.

      “I’ve always been brought up to speak my mind and stand up for what I believe in,” explains Esquiro, who also draws inspiration from music, books, and the environment, “so I definitely try to have a purpose in all my collections. I need to be driven by something, whether it’s political or something I’m working through personally. It has to have meaning to me.”

      Esquiro sources many of her supplies from fur and leather traders, thrift shops, and vintage boutiques, though some are purchased from her Great Uncle Amos—a long-time trapper who once taught the designer how to process beaver pelts—during regular trips to visit family in the Yukon. “When I go home, it’s really nice to visit the elders, to go hunting, to learn different techniques,” she says. “That’s really important to me.”

      Model and Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week founder Joleen Mitton wears Sho Sho Esquiro's The Girl Who Lived with the Salmon, which features a beaded salmon-skin bodice.
      Thosh Anthony Collins

      Taking care to continue the traditions of her ancestors and tribe, which dictate that Mother Earth must always be treated with respect, Esquiro is also known to translate age-old Kaska legends into tangible, visually arresting fashions.

      Inspired by “The Girl Who Lived With the Salmon”—a story passed on from family that describes the disappearance of a little girl playing with salmon eggs in a nearby stream, and her return years later, as a way to teach indigenous youth not to disturb wildlife—the designer crafted a dreamy frock that paired an intricate bead-and-salmon-skin bodice with a floor-length skirt constructed from over 1,000 hand-sewn rooster feathers. “It’s kind of a neat way to carry on the legends,” says Esquiro.

      At the first-ever Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week, which takes place at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from July 26 to 29, the artist will be presenting pieces from her 2016 collection, which honours her late grandmother, as well as an eclectic selection of items she’s been working on as of late. These include a jacket made from lynx fur, 24-karat gold, and seed beads and a gown that Esquiro describes as “my craziest to date”. Like past collections, these garments will demonstrate a fondness for bold hues and mixed patterns and the meticulous craftsmanship that the designer has come to be recognized for.

      Alongside lines from 25-plus other established and up-and-coming indigenous designers, including B.C.’s own Evan Ducharme, Yolonda Skelton, and Pam Baker, the pieces will be worn by indigenous models, many of whom live or formerly lived in foster care. The four-day fete will also feature a Red Dress show, a presentation of frocks designed by various First Nations artists that bring attention to missing and murdered indigenous women.

      Founded by local model-turned-community-worker Joleen Mitton as a way to celebrate aboriginal art while providing indigenous youth a fresh set of mentors, the event is right up Esquiro’s alley. “The best part, for me, is when I can make an impact,” she says. “When I’m working with kids from my community…just the fact that they see themselves in me is rewarding.” 

      Follow Lucy Lau on Twitter @lucylau.