‘Resurgence and brilliance’: How this program is supporting Indigenous fashion

Reciprocity. Community. Connection to the land. At Ryerson University’s Indigenous Fashion Support program, the goal is to Indigenize entrepreneurship
By Shelby Lisk - Published on Mar 29, 2021
Verseau designer Josephine Kent on set. (Courtesy of Josephine Kent)

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“The most recent thing I learned was snaring rabbits,” says Kait Adams. “I like going home, being with my grandmother and my aunt, spending all our time listening to stories, going out back to collect resources that end up as these cool jewellery or regalia pieces and then sharing them with friends and family and having them wear it. That’s what’s important to me.” Connection to family, land, community, spirituality, culture. These may not be the first things that come to mind when you think of runway fashion, but they are some of the most important values for Indigenous designers.

Adams, who is from Couchiching First Nation, in northern Ontario, is the creator of the accessory line Anishinaabae and one of four participants in the inaugural cohort of the Indigenous Fashion Support (IFS) program, a virtual incubator run by Ryerson University’s Fashion Zone in the Faculty of Communication and Design. The Fashion Zone promotes entrepreneurship as a career path for students and budding entrepreneurs with an interest in fashion, design, and technology, offering access to such resources as fashion education and pattern-digitization software; the IFS program aims to provide support, at no cost, for Indigenous entrepreneurs anywhere in Canada who are looking to build or scale a business in the fashion industry.  

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two photos of a woman and a tree
Kait Adams’s grandmother, Agnes Kabatay, took her to Huronian Lake to harvest birch bark in the same place Kabatay’s father and uncles used to gather birch bark for canoes. (Courtesy of Kait Adams)

“When Indigenous students come to fashion school, often they feel like they’ve had to leave their heritage, their worldviews, their own practices at the door and immediately assimilate into a European fashion culture if they're going to be successful,” says Ben Barry, chair of and associate professor of equity, diversity, and inclusion at Ryerson’s school of fashion.

Barry adds that fashion school can be a culturally traumatic experience for Indigenous students if they don’t see themselves represented in the fashion history, theories, and design practices being taught, or in the faculty and guest speakers in the classroom. Indigenous students are “pushed out of fashion school because they don't see themselves [represented] or who they are isn't valued,” says Barry. “And it's up to the fashion school, not to support those students to acculturate into their white Western ways but to change its policies and practices and structures to value Indigenous ways.”

Riley Kucheran, an assistant professor in the school of fashion, says the model typically followed for entrepreneurs doesn’t always align with the goals of Indigenous entrepreneurs. "An entrepreneurship program might automatically assume that profits and scaling up your business and growing really quickly is the ultimate goal for anyone, but that's not true for Indigenous designers, who are there to support their community, their culture,” says Kucheran, who is from Pic River First Nation, an Anishinaabe community on the northern shore of Lake Superior. 

left: man outside wearing coat; right: woman wearing shirt that says "beading is medicine"
Riley Kucheran and Justine Woods, mentors for the Indigenous Fashion Support program. (Courtesy of Riley Kucheran; Alia Youssef­)

When developing the IFS program, says Fashion Zone manager Andrea Romero, they had to ask themselves, “How can we Indigenize entrepreneurship” at Ryerson? One of the key answers, she says, is mentorship. It is “the fundamental way to engage and recruit Indigenous designers,” says Romero. “[They] want to feel a sense of relatability and connection. Riley Kucheran and Justine Woods, who are both mentors for the program, were able to come in and really Indigenize a lot of the topics that we talk about in entrepreneurship.”

IFS participants meet weekly with a start-up coach from 100 Steps 2 Startup; they also attend workshops and get one-one on support from Indigenous mentors, guest speakers, and entrepreneurs-in-residence. One of the most beneficial workshops was a session on decolonial branding and brand values led by Woods, Romero says, adding that the team wants to offer expanded programming — such as a workshop on trauma-informed finances — for the next cohort.

a sewing form next to a table with a sewing machine
The Fashion Zone offers access to such resources as fashion education and pattern-digitization software. (Courtesy of the Ryerson Fashion Zone)

“I think all Indigenous values and systems are grounded in relationships,” says Justine Woods, a Métis artist and designer, an alumna of Ryerson’s fashion program, and a mentor in the IFS program. “Embedding Indigenous values, such as reciprocity and community, relationship to land, which is thinking through sustainability and ethical practices with the land, also consent and love, helps to create these social enterprises based in ethical and sustainable values and extremely community-focused.”

Woods had one-on-one sessions with each designer to explore how best to integrate Indigenous values into their brand. Her conversations with Verseau designer Josephine Kent, she notes, focused on finding ways to involve community in her work. “[We really focused on] making up a team that can support her brand that is all Indigenous. That obviously supports the community economically,” she says. “But it's also a contribution to cultural resurgence."

Adams says her brand is influenced by her cultural upbringing and traditional knowledge: "I come from a large family of artists and creators who sold their goods on the powwow trail, and I was fortunate enough to grow up making those crafts with my family and selling with them.” Through this experience, and her continued learning on the land, she says, she has built up the knowledge to personally source such materials as porcupine quills, birch bark, and animal fur to use for her jewellery.

three photos of colourful earrings
Earrings made by Kait Adams of Anishinaabae. (Courtesy of Kait Adams)

Kent had put her brand, which she launched in 2016, on the backburner and was waitressing when a friend told her about IFS. Verseau, which means Aquarius in French, is a nod to her father’s French ancestry. Her mother’s side is Ojibway but, as is the case for many Indigenous people, the family’s ties to community have been complicated through a history of adoption and displacement.

Her brand, Kent says, is “more conceptual,” and she worried that the IFS program would be geared toward more traditional Indigenous design practices, such as beadwork and leatherwork. But she’s benefited from the experience, she says: “What I wanted to take out of this program was how to integrate Indigenous values. As an example, I now donate a portion of my profits to the Native Women's Resource Center of Toronto, and I'm hiring more Indigenous models for my photo shoots and looking at ways to give back to the community through my brand.”

While it’s difficult for anyone trying to start a small fashion business — especially given the market dominance of such fast-fashion companies as H&M and Zara — Indigenous designers often face additional challenges. “You might be up against racial stereotypes about what it means to be an Indigenous designer, so you are simultaneously educating consumers about Indigenous culture while you're trying to start a business,” says Kucheran. “So, it’s that extra work to refute harmful stereotypes and propose an alternative about what Indigenous fashion is about.”

According to Woods, that is why it’s so important to have programs tailored to Indigenous designers, their worldview and values. “It not only fosters diverse creative entrepreneurs, but it responds to urgent calls for greater equity and social justice [in the fashion industry],” she says, referencing Fashion Theory, an academic journal that recently put out an issue focusing entirely on decolonizing fashion. “A program that supports this meaningful stance to promote diversity really creates accessible spaces for Indigenous bodies to achieve success.”

But we shouldn’t think about Indigenous fashion only in the contemporary context, Woods adds; we also need to consider the role it’s played Indigenous communities — through ancestral garments adorned with intricate beadwork, for example — for generations. "For too long, we had been teaching about fashion on Turtle Island with an origin story starting in Europe,” says Barry. “That [narrative] is clearly false, and it doesn't reflect the true originators of fashion on the land where Ryerson is and the fact that fashion has existed since time immemorial.”

four photos of different fashion brands
The four designers in the first cohort of the Indigenous Fashion Support program. (Courtesy of the Ryerson Fashion Zone)

The first IFS session, which started in October, was set to last three months. But, Romero says, all four designers — Adams, Kent, Ashley Lacourciere of Onizhishin Designs and Christine Tienkamp of SS River Designs — wanted it to continue: “It was on their own terms, and they decided to extend because they weren't ready to leave. They needed more time to build.” Romero expects that the designers will stay in the incubator for a total of 12 to 18 months.

On March 2, IFS welcomed the second cohort, which includes eight new design teams from across the country that focus on products ranging from housewares to rabbit fur to bridal gowns. On April 8, the first cohort will give a progress pitch, during which they’ll have the opportunity to share their business model — the second will be invited to attend.

“It's been really amazing to see how Indigenous fashion today not only engages with the present, but it also engages with the past and with the future,” says Woods. “We use these making processes as a way to build worlds that are filled with Indigenous resurgence and Indigenous brilliance.”

This is one of a series of stories about Indigenous issues brought to you in partnership with Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.

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