Indigenous designers: Fashion a means to express, reveal our heritage

Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week returns after pandemic pause

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By Tom Eley 

Fashion is a powerful way for Indigenous people to connect and reconnect with their ancestry, according to a co-producer of the Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week. 

The fashion show returned last night at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19, and runs Nov. 28 to Dec. 2. 

Scottish and Cree nation member Joleen Mitton, one of the show’s co-producers, said fashion can serve so many purposes. 

“It’s healing for Indigenous youth and young adults to be part of creating something that is meaningful to them, while having the opportunity to build marketable job and life skills,” she said. 

Plagued by death and the revelations of the cruelty of residential schools, this year’s festival seeks to “spark joy,” Mitton said.

On design and legacy

Mitton has benefitted from long-time Indigenous designer Pamela Baker’s mentorship and co-production. Baker is a fashion designer with more than 30 years of experience designing and promoting First Nations designers, artists and models. 

“It’s our duty to share our teachings to honour our ancestors, where we create a path towards understanding the designers,” Baker said.  

Baker said she’s been involved in traditional potlatches since childhood.  

“My father was very involved in the Squamish Coast Salish dancing and performing,” she said. “I’ve always been amazed by our regalia and our culture and traditions. So that influences me for everything.” 

Rebecca Baker-Grenier is a fashion designer newcomer.  She has only been pursuing fashion as a part-time career for two years and debuted her collection at New York Fashion Week this summer. 

“This show is so meaningful because I’m able to share my work for the first time on this scale with my community,” she said. 

Struggle in the fashion industry

Baker-Grenier said Indigenous people have faced discrimination from the art world, and representation in the fashion world is essential. 

“Historically, Indigenous people are excluded from spaces like that,” said Baker-Griener, who is participating in the Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week for the first time. “So for me, it was important to have that Indigenous representation on such as stage such as New York Fashion Week.” 

Indigenous artists are becoming more involved in the fashion and art world, which will mean that their culture will withstand the test of time, said Pamela Baker.  

“Our ways and art will not be lost,” Baker said. 

Co-producers Pamela Baker [on the left] and Joleen Mitton [on the right]. Photo: Brian Nguyen.

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