Why Indigenous designers want to bring mindfulness to mainstream fashion

A recent shift toward social responsibility in fashion may provide an opportunity for Indigenous knowledge to make an impact in the marketplace
By Katherine Singh - Published on July 18, 2018
A woman modeling the back of a leather jacket
A leather jacket depicting the relationship between the Anishinaabe people and the stars. (Katherine Singh)

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Riley Kucheran recalls a poignant moment that occurred during his four-month internship with one of Canada’s pioneering Indigenous fashion designers, Angela DeMontigny. DeMontigny, who owns a namesake boutique shop in Hamilton, was doing beadwork on a larger piece for a client, a process Kucheran says took months. “As she was beading, she was praying into the beads,” he says, miming the actions and concentration involved in placing each individual bead.

“She knew that this client was in a time of difficulty, so she was being very intentional in what she was praying for this client,” he adds. “She had to be in a good state of mind to do that bead work.”

DeMontigny’s process is strikingly different from the Western approach to fashion, which often values speed and efficiency.

“Just that slowness, the significance of the beading — it’s so much better than fast fashion,” Kucheran says. “There’s this personal and spiritual connection you don’t get in fast fashion. It’s so removed; there’s no meaning or intention at all.”

Kucheran is on a path to change that.

A PhD student in the communication and culture program at Ryerson University, Kucheran — who is Ojibway from Biigtigong Nishnaabeg (Pic River First Nation in northern Ontario) — is working with Ryerson’s School of Fashion to “Indigenize” its curriculum.

One of his biggest supporters is Henry Navarro, a professor at the school who believes in the power of learning outside the classroom. Navarro, whose own work focuses on site-specific fashion projects, has collaborated with remote communities in such locations as Hawaii and Northern Canada in an effort to address social issues and promote self-sufficiency and sustainability through fashion. 

Navarro has brought his methods to the classroom: the students in his fashion-event-planning course, for example, organize and execute a show dedicated to exploring Indigenous knowledge and philosophies.

This year’s show, in March 2018, was called “Of the Stars” and featured DeMontigny’s latest collection of the same name, which is inspired by an Anishinaabe story about the Pleiades constellation. The choice of title references not only Indigenous stories, but also the constellation-based stories of Greek mythology. 

“We all look at the same star system,” DeMontigny says, “so I wanted to talk about that relationship we have with the stars — that we come from the stars.”

The event itself was framed around the 12 philosophical principles of the Cree elders and stresses the experiential more than the visual.

“It’s not just how things look, but how things feel,” Navarro says. “Are there specific smells in the space? Are there specific sounds? How will these intangibles act as a spiritual experience within you?”

One of the main principles emphasized in the show is that of wholeness — the notion that everything has a relationship to something else. Within this framework, Navarro says, simply buying and wearing a garment because it’s on trend does not work.

“From an Indigenous perspective, that is not reason enough,” Navarro says. “The colours, the shapes, the motifs … they have other connections — to your family, to who you are, to what you have achieved. So it’s a lot more complex than that.”

His process starts with the sourcing of materials. Sourcing, Navarro says, deeply affects how the wearer maintains their garments.

“You have to be not just mindful of, but grateful for those materials getting to you,” he adds. “The animal that lets you use their fur or their hide. The Earth, which produced plants that you can then transform into fibres. It means these garments are not simply garments; they have a spiritual aspect to them.”

DeMontigny herself supports a network of local hunters, trappers, artisans, and seamstresses with her designs — a form of community-building that Navarro says is lacking in the fashion industry.

Since the 1940s, Indigenous culture has been co-opted by the fashion industry. The past few years have seen a slew of designers called out for cultural appropriation. In 2015, for example, the Canadian brand DSquared2 released a fall-winter collection titled #DSQUAW, referencing an offensive term for Indigenous women. Indigenous headdresses continue to be worn on runways and at music festivals. 

“We as Indigenous people in this country have lost so much. We have lost our land, our language — everything. And then our culture and designs are still being taken,” DeMontigny says. “There’s nothing left. It’s got to stop.”

Kucheran and DeMontigny are hopeful that their work will act as a form of “fashion reconciliation” by disrupting still-prevalent stereotypes — which DeMontigny regularly encounters in her own shop. Customers will come in, she says, expecting powwows and feathers.

“People don’t know very much about us, and that’s one of the reasons that I always wanted to design clothes that were very contemporary and high fashion … they don’t know us as contemporary people,” DeMontigny says.

They also don’t understand Indigenous fashion, says Kucheran. “It’s not a trend. It’s a set of values about fashion itself.”

Navarro is tentatively optimistic that there is a place within fashion for Indigenous practices. But, he says, the stop-and-start nature of mainstream fashion does not mesh with certain Indigenous principles.

“The concept of fashion itself can never be an Indigenous concept,” Navarro says. “The idea of fashion is, for a period we’re going to follow this look, and then the look will be retired and something else will come in its place. But tradition doesn’t have a beginning or end — it’s a continuum. And I think that’s very challenging for anyone to think within the fashion industry.”

The recent mainstream shift toward social responsibility in fashion, though, which has seen even major fast-fashion brands like H&M producing sustainable lines, provides an opportunity for Indigenous knowledge to make an impact in the marketplace.

“These sorts of practices — of up-cycling, utilizing renewable materials — those are practices that Indigenous people had been safeguarding for thousands of years,” Navarro says. “They have been doing this for a long time.”

And, he adds, the community is willing and ready to share.

“Indigenous societies are not really reluctant for humankind to take advantage of those practices. What they are reluctant about is for those practices to be co-opted or for these practices to be employed in the wrong way.”

But, like DeMontigny’s beading, anything good takes time.

“Part of the Indigenization thing is that everybody wants to do it kind of fast,” Kucheran says. “But I think a more authentic and impactful way to do it is to start slow.”

This article is from Emerging Voices, a project by master’s students at the Ryerson School of Journalism, with support from Journalists for Human Rights.

Katherine Singh is a Toronto-based journalist studying at Ryerson University. She writes about fashion and culture.

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