From model to mentor, Joleen Mitton finds her calling at Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week

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      Spanning almost two decades, Joleen Mitton’s modelling career has landed her spots in campaigns for the likes of Kenzo, Lancôme, and Vivienne Westwood, on countless runways in Asia, and in print ads for everything from high-tech air conditioners to Hello Kitty paraphernalia. But growing up, the East Vancouver native had slightly different aspirations. “I actually wanted to be a cop,” Mitton, founder of the upcoming Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week, admits with a laugh, “but my parents would’ve disowned me.”

      Indeed, even as a teen, Mitton recognized that her family’s experience with the law, and law-enforcement officials, was different from that of many of her peers. A woman of Plains Cree, French, and Scottish descent, the now 33-year-old community support worker shares that both her mother and father have had run-ins with police largely due to the colour of their skin. Reflecting during an interview with the Straight at Vancouver’s Skwachàys Lodge, she dismisses her bluecoat dreams as “naive”, though it was a trip to the city’s annual fair that ultimately set her on a separate trail.

      “I was 15, walking through the PNE, and in line for a free juice,” she remembers. “And I ended up being scouted by a [modelling] agent.”

      Mitton was quickly signed to local agency Charles Stuart, and later, Elite Model Management. Relocating to Taipei shortly after, she spent her formative years in Asia, where her racially ambiguous features allowed her to pass as Taiwanese, Chinese, and Thai on catwalks and in fashion catalogues and commercials. Following eight years of strenuous shoots, however, Mitton was in the midst of an identity crisis. “It disconnected me [from my background] for a long time,” she says of the work. “You’re living in a place with another culture…and you’re also being put in boxes by people who want you to look a certain way. So you end up taking away whatever you are and replacing it with what they want.”

      Joleen Mitton began her career modelling for various designers in Asia, though these days, she works exclusively with Indigenous artists.

      She caught a red-eye flight home from Thailand after a particularly rough episode (“I was just feeling really vacant and empty,” she recalls) and soon found herself back in Vancouver, where, at age 24, she was faced with forging a new path. In an effort to reconnect with her roots, Mitton began working at Vancouver’s Pacific Association of First Nations Women, where she counselled foster youth in the Urban Butterflies and Mentor Me Aboriginal Day Camp programs.

      There, she saw herself in the participants: young women who were struggling to recognize, embrace, and celebrate their heritage, and instead, were turning to Eurocentric icons and ideals. When the programs’ career-building exercises failed to keep the attention of the 14-to-25 age cohort—all of whom were aging out of the foster-care system—Mitton revealed her modelling past, which immediately struck a chord with the girls. Within weeks, the frontline worker, who also coaches a First Nations basketball team, was organizing her first Indigenous fashion show.

      “I didn’t know exactly what I was doing,” she reveals, “but I was like, ‘Okay, this means we have to practise and you have to come and show up on time. And you have to be able to walk with pride and all that kind of stuff.’ ”

      Presented at Trout Lake as part of the city’s National Aboriginal Day festivities in 2004, the showcase featured the Indigenous women sporting garb by First Nations designers such as Pam Baker, Alano Edzerza, and Lorraine Guss. Attracting a crowd of over 4,000 people, the spectacle also allowed Mitton to champion Aboriginal artists while combating the cultural appropriation she witnessed in the modelling industry.

      The shows became a semiregular affair, with Mitton establishing her own event-production firm, All My Relations Entertainment, to help organize them. This Wednesday (July 26), however, marks the start of the model turned community worker’s largest display yet: the inaugural Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week, which will spotlight clothing, jewellery, and accessories by nearly 30 designers from around Turtle Island. Like the original show at Trout Lake, the four-day fete will see the young ladies from the Pacific Association of First Nations Women’s day camp walk the runway alongside other Indigenous youths from B.C.

      First Nations models wear designs by Evan Ducharme and Autumn Jules at a media preview for Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week at the Shangri-La last month.
      Lucy Lau

      First Nations musicians, storytellers, and art installations will also be present, while the third evening’s Red Dress event—hosted by Indigenous activist Lorelei Williams—will ask attendees to sport a red article of clothing to honour Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women. (“It’s a super sensitive matter, but at the same time, we still need to talk about it,” says Mitton.) All shows are free and are part of the Canada 150+ Drum Is Calling Festival.

      Mitton is especially excited to see the New York City–based Korina Emmerich, who placed third in Project Runway’s 13th season; Section 35, a pair of Coast Salish designers known for their political pieces that play on commercialized symbols and products; and Tyler-Alan Jacobs, another Coast Salish artist whom the coordinator touts for his bright, intricately beaded powwow wear. Other participating designers include Dorothy Grant, Evan Ducharme, and the internationally recognized Sho Sho Esquiro.

      Although Mitton still models occasionally—these days exclusively for First Nations artists—she truly feels that she has found her calling with the Pacific Association of First Nations Women and Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week. She hopes that the event will offer locals a chance to engage with the city’s Aboriginal roots, while putting First Nations talent on the map. More importantly, however, she wants to present the young women she mentors daily with a lineup of First Nations role models that can inspire confidence and open up doors in their own lives.

      “I hope that they can walk away with a sense of pride,” she says, “and knowing that they matter.”

      Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week kicks off on Wednesday (July 26) at Larwill Park (688 Cambie Street) as part of the Drum Is Calling Festival. Subsequent shows take place from Thursday to Saturday (July 27 to 29) at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre atrium. For more information about the event, or to RSVP to the shows, visit .