Have you ever felt all dressed up with no political statement to make?
Perhaps some background: The first time I met Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, was at a book launch taking place at the Royal Ontario Museum. I was rushing down a hallway, late as always, and I saw a woman who looked vaguely familiar dressed in a stunning Dorothy Grant ensemble. As a fan and supporter of Indigenous fashion, I stopped to get a better look.
Grant is a Haida designer, one of the first to incorporate elements of her culture into her fashion designs. And I didn’t normally see many non-Indigenous people wear such designs so proudly. I always found this odd, since I know so many successful First Nations people wearing dominant-culture couture. Gathering dust in my closet, I have Armani, Robert Graham and Giant Tiger hanging right next to my Pat Piche, Tammy Beauvais – and yes, Dorothy Grant. But other than the odd T-shirt and umbrella, there seemed to me a certain reluctance for many of the dominant culture to don the magnificent work of our Indigenous designers.
I wondered why. Their work is amazing. Could this be caused by a fear of being accused of cultural appropriation? I asked around a few Caucasian communities (I have a cottage in one), and some have told me they were concerned about someday being at some function and hearing clucks of “shame, shame” as they sashay down a hall proudly wearing something with clear origins in the Métis or Haudenosaunee community.
Is this an issue?
Like true business people, many of the Indigenous designers I have talked to wished more non-Indigenous people would gravitate towards their designs and embrace them – just as we have embraced the dominant culture’s mighty Crocs. It’s felt that some people put too much politics into looking good. Essentially, rent knows no nationality. Commerce and trade can be colourblind. But style is universal.
Sage Paul, founding artistic and executive director of Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto (IFWT), believes “people should be buying Native. Supporting Indigenous artists and designers contributes to greater economic sovereignty for Indigenous communities,” she says. “There is no issue with wearing and buying Indigenous-made fashion.
“With this approach, it is our responsibility as designers and creators to create and sell work that is appropriate for general audiences and consumers to purchase and wear – knowing that once we put something for sale online, for example, that we are essentially inviting anyone to wear what we make.”
I own a pair of black dress shoes stylishly covered in sealskin, designed and created by ENB Artisan, an Inuit-operated fashion company based in Iqaluit. Amazingly cool though somewhat ironic, their sealskin shoes come with care and maintenance instructions that clearly tell the wearer to not get them wet. You learn something new about seals every day, it seems.
That said, ENB Artisan’s founder, Nicole Camphaug, says their sales policy does include a political message: She appreciates the “wearing/buying to support (and for the love of) Indigenous designers. We find this helpful, supportive and is appreciated. I would sell any of the shoes we had to anyone who wanted [them] – say, at a market sale,” she says.
“However, I would take an order for someone who would promote the importance of seals to Inuit,” she adds. “Not even intentionally, but if they were going on TV or onstage with seal fur. Although, every pair we sell promotes seal.”
I guess it’s no different than a First Nations restaurateur encouraging white people to chow down on an Indian taco or some corn soup. Definitely not a matter of cultural appropriation or racism – unless of course they are using chopsticks. Then things get really confusing.
But Paul, the IFWT founder, wants the clothes-buying public to be aware that “non-Indigenous people should not be recreating anything from our cultures – whether it’s fashion, art, music, etc. I just want to make that clear, as I know my perspective is pretty open to who wears Indigenous-made fashion.”
Back in 2015, Canadian designers Dsquared2 released their fall collection in Milan under the title “Dsquaw”, a play on an offensive and derogatory term for Indigenous women. The collection mimicked what they seemed to think were Indigenous designs – including fur-trimmed hoods on what they called an “Eski,” an abbreviation of the dated word Eskimo, another derogatory term. To put it mildly, it did not play well here at home. They were forced to issue an apology – a year later.
Ironically, that same year, Métis artist Christi Belcourt worked with world-renowned Italian fashion house Valentino to develop a line of haute couture designs, and a few years later, her work also graced the purses of Canadian luxury handbag company Ela.
So all you settlers out there with disposable cash, you know what to do.
Unless, of course, you’re pondering the purchase of an Atlanta or Cleveland baseball jersey or hat – that’s something a little different.
Drew Hayden Taylor is an Anishnawbe playwright and humorist.