Vancouver’s first Indigenous Fashion Week to explore identity and culture through clothing, makeup and jewellery

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Courtesy of Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week--Twitter

The first ever Indigenous Fashion Week will be held this month in Vancouver.

The show features mostly Indigenous designers as well as models and aims at showcasing culture through clothing, jewellery and makeup.

Joleen Mitton came back home to discover more of her culture

Founder of the project, Joleen Mitton says the project is something she’s been working on for years.

“I don’t think this has happened before, it started because I was a model myself. I used to live in Asia and I wanted to come back and learn my culture. I used fashion to get into that. I came back and wanted to know who I was.”

Part of discovering more about who she was meant Mitton became a front-line worker in the Downtown Eastside, where she interacted with First Nations women and children.

“I started working with kids. I had this program called Urban Butterflies. The ages for that program were 8 to 14. Those kids eventually grew up and we were trying to keep them close to home. That’s when we started up a new program called Mentor Me. Mentor Me is for ages 14 to 25, and for kids ageing out of foster care. We couldn’t keep them interested in staying in the program. There are boys, there’s experimentation with drug abuse. I was trying to figure out a way to keep them engaged in the program and their culture.”

Clothing, jewellery and makeup used to keep at-risk youth engaged

That’s when Mitton’s experience as a model kicked in, and she brought makeup, clothing and jewellery to the kids in the program.

“I knew a lot about makeup, hair and that kind of stuff. I started bringing that more into the program to keep them hanging out. Fashion was a great way to keep them. I brought that into my programming with the kids and they really enjoyed that.”

“We had a couple of deaths a few years ago. They didn’t know who they were”

She adds in her time working with the youth, she realized that exploring culture can be lifesaving.

“We had a couple of deaths a few years ago. I feel it was because they didn’t know who they were. I think it could’ve been avoided. If they knew who they were, they wouldn’t go off with some stranger and do drugs. A lot of our kids face racism at school as well. That whole aspect of bringing your culture into your daily practice of living, I think that would be very helpful. I’m trying to do that with fashion. If you know where and who you are, I think that would help you figure out exactly who you are so you wouldn’t want to go down the wrong path.”

Local artists take the stage at VIFW

The fashion shows feature local designers, as well as some from other areas of Canada.

“Most of them are local, a couple of them are coming from Toronto. We have one from New York flying in. But, the west coast, the Coast Salish Territory runs all the way from Vancouver to Oregon. Back in the day, there were no borders. So we have one designer who I invited who is a Coast Salish Person. She’s from Oregon, she would’ve been considered a West Coast Indian. Otherwise, most of them are local. We have a few people from Squamish, one person from Tsleil-Waututh, from Vancouver. Most of the models are also local, a couple are coming in from Merrit and Seattle. So around 90 percent First Nation. We also have a few people who are not First Nation as we are trying to be inclusive.”

For those who are able to see their designs on the runway, Mitton says for some, this would be on a larger scale than previous projects.

“For myself, I’ve done 24 shows. I’m putting the shows together at this point. It feels like a great thing to do, I’m ready. Let’s show the world what Indigenous fashion looks like here in Vancouver.”

She adds she would like to see the event occur on an annual basis.

“We have some really great talent in our First Nations communities and you don’t really see them. It’d be nice to create another market for stuff because First Nations people have been making art forever.”

“We’re just trying to take it back for ourselves”

She says rather than buy from retailers who appropriate Indigenous culture, it’s better to go directly to those responsible for the design.

“It’s a different beast all in itself. It’s not good to go buy something that doesn’t have any spirit attached to it. It doesn’t really benefit you, it might look nice but you will get bored of it. We’re just trying to take it back for ourselves. It’s not that we don’t want to work with people who are not First Nations, but we want you to buy from us. Why not come and buy from the source rather than going and buying a motif.”

The shows will be held from July 26th to July 29th at Queen Elizabeth Theatre, and are free to attend.