Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week paid tribute to missing and murdered First Nations women last night (July 28) at the Queen Elizabeth atrium, where themes of remembrance, resiliency, and resistance were reflected throughout the evening's speeches, garment presentations, and performances.
Taking place as part of the Canada 150+ the Drum Is Calling Festival, the Red Dress showcase asked guests to wear a red article of clothing to honour the missing and murdered women and girls. The tradition was started by Metis artist Jaime Black in 2011, when he hung red dresses from trees on the University of Manitoba campus as a way to bring attention to the issue. Red is considered a sacred hue representing both life and blood in many First Nations groups.
Some VIFW attendees, including co-emcee and Indigenous activist Lorelei Williams, even sported dresses and shirts screen-printed with the names and images of family and friends, and the dates they disappeared or were killed. “My cousin, Tanya Holyk, went missing in 1996,” Williams shared with the audience. “Her DNA was later found on Robert Pickton’s farm. And it hasn’t stopped there—so much has happened to my family.”
Williams then went on to acknowledge families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in the crowd, addressing these individuals and their lost friends and relatives by their full names.
The traditional regalia and contemporary garb offered by First Nations designers Derek Packer, Evan Ducharme, Linda Kay, Curtis Oland, Mia Hunt, and Dorothy Grant, one of the country's foremost Aboriginal designers and a recipient of the Order of Canada, celebrated the beauty and memory of Indigenous women, too.
“I really wanted to honour all the mothers and daughters and grandmothers,” Grant, who presented a line of natural-fibre gowns inspired by the Haida symbol of the Raven, told the Straight after the show. “I do this by showing all sorts of ages and sizes of women in my collection. I don’t screen it to just size zeros or twos. That’s always been an important part of my collections.”
Grant also instructed her final model to perform a specific dance dedicated to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. “It was a dance for their renewal, their transformation,” she explained. “It was almost like a spiritual thing—sending them power and love through that dance.”
Ducharme, meanwhile, cinched his utilitarian culottes and flowy, floor-length evening gowns with Metis-sash-inspired belts woven by his late grandmother. The muted hues employed throughout the largely androgynous collection—dubbed “ATAVISM”—also draws from the natural terrain of his traditional Metis territory in Saint Ambroise, Manitoba.
“It’s the sunset and the colour of the water and sun meeting. And all the foliage and the marshlands,” he said of the warm beiges, indigos, and sepias that coated the intricately embroidered and mesh-paneled pieces.
Natural textures, Indigenous motifs, and inherited handicraft techniques were also present in the everyday and evening wear displayed by Packer, Kay, Oland, and Hunt. Oland’s use of monochromatic palettes, heavy layering, and oversized silhouettes proved especially striking, not least because every one of his models raised their fists as a sign of resistance and solidarity at the end of the runway.
Guests were also treated to a rare viewing of handcrafted garments and jewellery by renowned Haida artist Bill Reid. The pieces were on loan to VIFW from the Bill Reid Gallery.
Entertainment throughout the evening included a traditional Eagle Dance accompanied by drums from Squamish First Nation chief Ian Campbell and a moving presentation by Butterflies in Spirit, an Aboriginal dance troupe founded and led by Williams that raises awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The dance was completed to a live rendition of “Sisterz” by First Nations rappers JB the First Lady and Chief Rock, who are collectively known as Enter-Tribal. Punctuated by the words “I’m looking for my sister, where did she go?”, the emotionally charged performance brought many audience members to tears.
"I want to acknowledge our sisters here," JB the First Lady said of Butterflies in Spirit, “because not only do they work on the frontlines and are healing themselves and their families, but they’re also healing our ancestors and our future generations.”
Scroll through the images below for a recap of VIFW’s Red Dress event. The inaugural VIFW’s closing ceremonies take place at 6 p.m. tonight (July 29) at the Queen Elizabeth atrium. Admission is free, though RSVP is recommended.