Indigenous Designers From Canada Make Historic Debut On The World Stage During Milan Fashion Week

Designer and IFA executive director Sage Paul

Milan, Italy is widely considered one of the fashion capitals of the world, hosting a globally-renowned week-long event each year where designers hope to showcase their creations and launch careers. This year’s event, from February 24-27, was nothing short of historic, given the presence of Indigenous designers from Canada, who made their impressive debut on the world stage as part of a new partnership between the Indigenous Fashion Arts (IFA) Trade Program, which creates global opportunities for Indigenous designers, and White Milano, the concept trade show leader in womenswear fashion based in the heart of the Milano Tortona Fashion District. The three-year partnership was formed to exhibit a different group of Indigenous designers each year and creating access for them at the prestigious trade show.

The Program includes a strategic plan to increase designers’ brand awareness and improve market placement. Designers will access local suppliers, prospective partners and hundreds of global buyers attending Milan Fashion Week and White Milano. Developing economic opportunities for Indigenous artists is crucial for their advancement, longevity and agency.

The IFA Trade Program at WHITE/Milan Fashion Week is facilitated and supported by the Embassy of Canada to Italy, in collaboration with Global Affairs Canada, Canadian Heritage and the Canada Council for the Arts.

Given how slow, and at times problematic, the fashion industry has been to embrace change and diversify, seeing not just one or two but seven Indigenous designers at a major global fashion week event is a big deal, and one that we certainly hope will have a ripple effect across the board.

The IFA Executive and Artistic Director is Sage Paul, an urban Denesuliné woman based in Toronto and a member of English River First Nation. We have previously featured Sage for her work as a designer in Toronto and the founder of Indigenous Fashion Week in TO. It’s really exciting to see how she is working to bring visibility to other Indigenous designers on the world stage.

For the trip to Milan, Sage was accompanied by 7 designers and brands – Evan Ducharme, Lesley Hampton, Niio Perkins Designs, Robyn McLeod, Section 35, She Was a Free Spirit and Dorothy Grant.

We spoke to Sage about the barrier-breaking trip to Milan, why fashion is an integral part of her identity as an Indigenous woman and artist, and why the world should be more open to embracing slow and sustainable fashion.

IFA/White Milano panel with Indigenous designers from Canada during Milan Fashion Week, 2023.

Can you first tell us about Indigenous Fashion Arts, and how you are involved? 

Indigenous Fashion Arts is a non-profit art organization that sustains Indigenous practices across various art forms through fashion, craft and textiles. With amplified visibility of and led by Indigenous women, IFA is inclusive, accessible, and committed to celebrating Indigenous people and our culture with integrity, innovation, and excellence. 

IFA was founded by me and Kerry Swanson, a leader in Indigenous arts. The collaboration and support from our colleagues, friends, mentors, and community members culminated into the creation of IFA. Through my training and aspirations, I saw the possibilities for creating space for Indigenous people in the fashion industry. I felt empowered in knowing our art and culture have an important role in the greater landscape of Canadian culture and beyond.

This year, you took 7 Indigenous Designers to Milan Fashion week. How did this event come about? 

Yes, this year we took seven Indigenous designers to showcase their collections at WHITE Milano; Lesley Hampton, Evan Ducharme, Section 35 (Justin Louis), Niio Perkins, She Was a Free Spirit (Erica Donovan), Dorothy Grant and Robyn McLeod. We were first introduced to WHITE Milano by the Canadian embassy in Italy. After we visited the show and their team attended the Indigenous Fashion Arts Festival here in Toronto, we were excited to begin working together on a partnership. 

Can you tell us about the partnership with White Milano and what you hope to achieve with IFA? 

The partnership with WHITE Milano was developed as we shared the values of craftsmanship, tradition, expression, and quality. With this collaboration and event, we hope to increase the visibility of Indigenous designers and promote the growth and advancement of our community members.

Your goal is to increase visibility of Indigenous Fashion designers at MFW. Why is this important to you?

It is important to me that designers receive increased visibility at White Milano during Milan Fashion Week because our communities need it. Indigenous communities face many barriers, and projects like these can improve our subsistence and self-determination. I also believe our inclusion in the global market will direct the industry towards generative innovation in design, style, storytelling and sustainability.

How did you select the designers who will be going to Italy? 

The designers that were chosen are all in different stages of their careers from all over the country. The selection process involved ensuring that a diverse representation of identities from our communities were included. We want to represent Canadian Indigenous designers as we are – multi-faceted and exciting. 

We’re all familiar with the term “fast fashion”, but many of these designers are hoping to spread the word about slow and sustainable fashion. Can you tell us more about this?

Many of the designers we work with innately work in slow and sustainable approaches. However, that is not to say it is something they choose to “spread.” I liken this common similarity amongst Indigenous creators to the values and traditions of our communities and ancestors, from whom we’ve learnt to only take what we need, use everything we take, and share the extras.

How are Indigenous communities impacted by increased visibility and opportunities such as this one with MFW? 

I hope the Indigenous designers who participate in our programs, like our Trade Program that took place in Milan, will relay their teachings and profits into their communities. When that happens, economic circularity is strengthened, and therefore, strengthens aspects of our communities’ well being.

How has fashion impacted your life and identity as an Indigenous woman? 

My identity impacts fashion and my life. Once I realized that, I had the confidence to assert myself and my community into spaces I believe we should be in, or to build the infrastructure for our own spaces, like Indigenous Fashion Arts Festival. 

What do you hope buyers and attendees of MFW will learn and love most about the Indigenous designers they will get to see?   

I hope the designers made lasting relationships with buyers and other industry reps in their time at White Milano. I hope the buyers are challenged by Indigenous approaches to fashion, which includes quality, substance, beauty and immense value. Value is subjective, and I believe our communities have a lot to share in that regard.

To learn more about Indigenous Fashion Arts click HERE. Follow Sage Paul on Instagram and her website.

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