To Joleen Mitton, Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week is about so much more than showcasing eye-catching and elegant designs.
As the founder and co-producer, Mitton emphasizes that this event is also a cultural learning guide for Indigenous youths.
“We have 16 mentees who are going to be with us this whole time,” Mitton, who’s of Plains Cree and Blackfoot heritage, tells Pancouver by phone.
“We’re just going to instill some of the good values around fashion shows and how to run them,” she continues. “We’re here to honour our youth, honour our elders, honour artists—and kind of use it as a learning tool for the rest of Canada—Turtle Island.”
Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week will return for its third edition, with runway shows from November 28 to December 1 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. That will be followed with a closing party on December 2 at Performance Works.
This comes after a two-year hiatus during the pandemic, when Indigenous communities lost many elders.
“I just really want to focus on as much joy as possible,” Mitton says.
She has a great deal of modelling experience herself. And she points out that this industry hasn’t always offered a welcoming or healthy environment.
Over the years, Mitton has seen items marketed as Indigenous fashion but which were actually appropriated or stolen or copied by non-Indigenous companies. Some of the offenders were European fashion houses.
So, Mitton launched Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week in 2017 to reclaim space for Indigenous designers.
“Doing it in an Indigenous worldview is also very important,” Mitton stresses. “All our staff gets paid. All our models get paid. That’s not really common in a lot of ‘fashion weeks’ that are around.”
Video: Watch highlights from Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week in 2019.
Mitton hopes to help children and youths
Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week organizers are proud of their relationships with host nations in the region.
“If you ever come backstage, everyone knows each other because we’ve created a safe culture around fashion, which I think is very rare,” Mitton says.
In the past, she worked with Indigenous children and youths in foster care with Urban Butterflies. Her late aunt, Joy Chalmers, founded the group.
At the time, Mitton could see how the kids’ lack of pride in their heritage had serious and sometimes deadly consequences. So, she started putting on Indigenous fashion shows to try to help these kids gain a better sense of their identity and boost their self-esteem.
“Indigenous culture wasn’t really visible in Vancouver back then,” Mitton says. “It’s changed now. It’s super visible. Vancouver is super visible when it comes to Indigenous world views.”
Part of the reason is the work of Ginger Gosnell-Myers. She belongs to the Nisga’a and Kwakwak’awakw Nations and served as the City of Vancouver’s first Indigenous relations manager.
Gosnell-Myers played a pivotal role in the city’s decision to hold the Canada 150+ celebrations in 2017. Rather than simply focus on the 150th anniversary of Confederation, the city highlighted Indigenous ties to the land dating back thousands of years. And Mitton was hired to work on the Drum Is Calling Festival.
This marked the beginning of Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week.
“I was already working with artists, designers, and lots of other people,” Mitton says. “I really feel I’ve created models from the ground up—and even with the artists in building careers around arts, culture, and fashion.”
This year, Squamish-Kwaguilth fashion icon Pam Baker is co-producing the event. It will include 32 Indigenous designers, as well as 40 Indigenous vendors and artisans selling handcrafted goods.
Futurism, relations, and red dresses
Opening night is entitled Red Dress in honour of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, LGBTQ+, and Two Spirit community members. The founder of the dance group Butterflies in Spirit, Lorelei Williams, will emcee the event. It will feature designs by Dorothy Grant, Rhonda Johnson, Candice Stevens (Rez Candy Shoppe), Ingrid Brooks, and Yolanda Skelton.
The next event, All My Relations, is on November 29. Well-known Navajo designer Orlando Dugi will come all the way from New Mexico. Others featured that night include Danielle Morsette, Osamuskwasis Roan, Stephanie Gamble, Heather Bouchier, Catherine Blackburn / Melanie LeBlanc, and Sho Sho Esquiro.
Indigenous Futurism is the theme on the third night on November 30. It will showcase the following designers: Tyler Jacob, Susan Benson – Girls Who Leap, Jim Hart / John Goodwin, Pam Baker (T.O.C. Legends / Ready To Wear), Alicia S (Alicia’s Designs), AMR Apparel / OKA, KC Hall (Hstrymkers), Dusty LeGrand (Mobilize), and Jason Baerg (Ayimach Horizons).
That will be followed on December 1 with Spirit of the West Coast. Designers include Debra Sparrow, Kaylyn Baker, JB The First Lady, Rebecca Baker-Grenier, Tishna Marlowe, Ay Lelum, D’Arcy Moses, and Pam Baker (T.O.C. Legends / Evening Wear).
The festivities wind up on December 2 with the Supernatural Kiki Ball. Van Vogue Jam organized this party in partnership with Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week.
“Strut up the Vancouver runway for an extravagant evening of runway divas, sickening vogue battles, bending realness, and seductive bodies in competition for grand cash prizes,” the website declares.
For more information about Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week and to buy tickets, visit the website.