Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week founder Joleen Mitton has seen a lot in her life. She’s modelled on runways in Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong, and South Korea. She has been featured in campaigns for Clinique, Vivienne Westwood, and Kenzo. Now, at the age of 40, Mitton is in a Toronto Raptors ad campaign on the Toronto transit system.
But life wasn’t always full of glamour. In an interview with Pancouver, Mitton talks about spending childhood days near the corner of Main and East Hastings streets in Vancouver’s low-income Downtown Eastside.
“We knew we were Native,” says Mitton, who is Cree. “But we didn’t partake in any practices or ceremonies, not until much later. At the time, it wasn’t safe to be Indigenous, especially on the block where I came from.”
As an adult, she worked for Urban Butterflies, which was founded by her late aunt, Joy Chalmers. It works with Indigenous children and youths in foster care.
For Mitton, this reinforced the need to reconnect young Indigenous people with their culture. In her interview with Pancouver, she cites the high Indigenous suicide rate and the vital importance of giving young people hope for a better future.
“Our youth are sacred,” Mitton declares.
She created Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week in 2017 to reclaim space for Indigenous designers, help children and youths appreciate their identity, and boost everyone’s self-esteem. This year’s event will feature 32 Indigenous designers from across Turtle Island, as well as an artisan market.
In addition, there will be four runway shows that extend into the audience area at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from November 20 to 23. They will be followed by a closing party on November 25 at Performance Works.
Mitton encourages non-Indigenous folks to attend
Opening night is called Red Dress Event, which has been part of Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week since its inception. Hosted by Lorelei Williams, it will honour missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit and LGBTQ community members.
Over the years at memorial marches and protests, a red dress has symbolized the loss of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Mitton believes that Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week marked the first time that a red dress was put front and centre at a ticketed event.
“It still needs to be talked about because it’s still happening,” she says.
The second night, entitled All My Relations, will showcase designers from far and wide, along with traditional practices. All My Relations also happens to be the name of Mitton’s company, as well as the basketball team that she plays with and manages. In addition, Mitton is cofounder and creative director of Supernaturals Modelling.
The third night of runway shows is entitled Indigenous Futures. This will focus on Indigenous joy and Indigenous sovereignty. And the final night of runway shows, Spirit of the West Coast, will celebrate outstanding Indigenous designers from this region.
Then on November 25, there’s an all-ages Supernatural Kiki Ball, hosted by Van Vogue Jam, honouring the natural world at Performance Works
Mitton hopes that lots of non-Indigenous people buy tickets, attend events and purchase Indigenous fashion and other products on display.
“In our circular Indigenous economy, we want non-Indigenous people to come,” she says. “We need to all work together on this. Learning is half the battle, so come in with an open mind and open heart.”
Wisdom Circle offers input
Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week is held on the unceded territories of xwməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səlílwo ətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. Mitton works closely with the host nations and relies on guidance from a distinguished Wisdom Circle of 12 women, who are credited as co-producers.
“When I make a decision, I talk to at least a few other people to make sure it’s the right one,” Mitton says. “I think that’s where the Wisdom Circle comes in. These are very smart people. [Former councillor] Andrea Reimer is one of them.”
Mitton, like many Indigenous people in Metro Vancouver, traces her ancestral roots outside this region. Her kookum (grandmother in Cree) was raised in the Sawridge area of Treaty 8. The Sawridge First Nation is located at the east end of Lesser Slave Lake in Alberta.
“She moved here to get away from the stuff that happened to her,” Mitton says. “She migrated over here in the ’50s.”
Mitton’s mother went into foster care. Mitton describes her as a Sixties Scooper, referring to the massive numbers of Indigenous kids who were raised in white homes in that period. Mitton also reveals that police in the Downtown Eastside mistreated her kookum. And the founder of Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week says that they spoke poorly to her mother, who had to navigate the child-welfare system on her own.
“It’s definitely transformed how I move through the world,” Mitton states.
Being lighter skinned offered Mitton certain advantages. She entered the modelling world as a teenager. Mitton is also an outstanding basketball player, which enabled her to travel to different cities and reserves across B.C. and compete in the All Native Basketball Tournament.
Inuit designers will participate
In fact, she credits her basketball experience for laying the foundation for Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week.
“You get invited to all these different nations,” she says. “There are usually vendors at these tournaments—all these makers. It’s kind of like the powwow trail. The tournament trail is very similar.”
She has since invited some of these designers to Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week.
“I had known these people for a long time because I had been travelling as an athlete,” Mitton says.
She’s happy to see increasing public interest in Indigenous fashion. However, Mitton offers a reminder that Indigenous people have been creating their own styles for a very long time, only to see it being appropriated without credit. She hopes to re-educate people through Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week.
“The Cowichan sweater does not come from the Hudson Bay Company,” Mitton insists. “It comes from the Cowichan Valley.”
This year, for the first time, Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week will present Inuit designers from the Northwest Territories. Mitton likens them to the British wave in popular music in the 1960s, when the Rolling Stones and other bands arrived in North America.
According to Mitton, these British musicians, just like Inuit designers, had great fashion sense. And she says that having Inuit participating as a group in this year’s event “is really awesome”.
She’s also looking forward to seeing young Indigenous people on the runway. This year, the Girls Who Leap have created different pieces for this event.
“We’re all from different nations,” Mitton says. “Some of us will be wearing ribbons, other people will be wearing shawls. Those are all cultural pieces from our nations.
“Just wearing those things—it’s medicine,” she maintains. “It’s affirming who you are.”
Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week features runway shows from November 20 to 23 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. The closing party will be held on November 25 at Performance Works on Granville Island. For tickets and more information, visit the website.
If you or someone you know is experiencing depressive or suicidal thoughts, some options for resources include talking to a healthcare professional, such as a doctor, psychologist, or counsellor. If in crisis, contact 911 or go to a hospital immediately. The Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of B.C. offers 24-hour phone and online distress services (as well as community education). The Crisis Line Association of B.C. (1-800-784-2433) provides 24-hour service for individuals across the province.