“I like how loud fashion can be,” says Sage Paul. “It’s a language within itself.”
For Sage, an award-winning artist, fashion designer and artistic director, expressing herself through creativity was a vocabulary she learned very early on.
“I grew up with it,” she says of life as the child of two visual artists. “My parents always had art supplies around. I really liked to experiment with process, with the actual act of making.”
“It started young,” agrees Sage’s younger sister Skye, also an artist who creates stunning beadwork. “Our mom really gave us those tools to be creative. She worked with textiles, and I was always sewing and creating clothes.”
The Paul sisters’ father is Dene from the English River First Nation in Saskatchewan, and Sage remembers her parents making a conscious effort to keep her connected to that heritage, even though they lived thousands of miles away in Scarborough, Ont.
“We would do workshops about beadwork and drum-making, and make regalia and wear it to our local powwow in Scarborough,” she recalls. “They were really exciting moments.”
Though Skye didn’t have quite the same connection to their Indigenous culture as a child – the family moved from their Scarborough neighbourhood when she was still small – she regained it as an adult. “I feel like Sage created that community for me,” she says.
Now, the Paul sisters are prominent creators in the Toronto art scene, committed to fostering opportunities for the next generation of Indigenous artists and sharing that creativity with the wider art world.
“I want to make sure there’s that understanding of Indigenous fashion, and the innovation and excellence in it is seen,” says Sage, whose work has been shown in the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario.
“I just want to show my kids that we can have a career doing traditional work in this modern life,” says Skye. “I want to show them they can do whatever they want.”
Indigenous ways of doing
The year 2013 was a pivotal time for the Paul sisters. Skye had just had her first son and was feeling a new impulse to really connect with her culture. Sage, for her part, was ready to take her lifelong love for fashion seriously. Despite having gone to fashion school, she had struggled to believe she could really make a career in the industry.
Together, the sisters applied for – and received – a grant to do a project around traditional skills like hide tanning. One of the conditions was that they involve more of the community in what they were doing, which led to the formation of the Setsuné Indigenous Fashion Incubator. (Setsuné is the Dene word for “grandmother.”)
“We were tanning hides, we were making corn husk dolls, moose hair tufting … it was very grassroots, run by all Indigenous women, here in the city,” says Sage. “It was very evident that the work we were doing together was filling a gap.” Programming like that was a rarity in Toronto. “It’s hard to access in the city because it’s mostly happening on reserves or in communities that have a larger visible Indigenous presence.”
It was an experience that shaped the trajectory of both women’s lives. For Sage, it sparked the impetus to start Indigenous Fashion Arts (IFA), a multiplatform arts organization focusing on crafts and textiles.
The thriving organization hosts an annual festival in Toronto that this summer showcased the work of more than 100 Indigenous artists and designers. IFA also recently wrapped a curated show at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche art event and will travel to a trade show in Milan to further foster the appreciation for Indigenous talent overseas. (Sage, who previously worked at the imagiNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, credits that experience for teaching her about running large events.)
Advocacy is a key pillar of IFA’s work. The group speaks with galleries, arts councils, corporations and other groups to, as Sage puts it, “advocate for Indigenous ways of doing, and make sure we’re a part of the national landscape, and this narrative [of] what fashion is.”
This year’s festival, which took place at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, also included a marketplace where Skye was a vendor selling the beadwork from her Running Fox line. Skye learned to bead from her aunt as a teenager using her grandmother’s designs, and she’s been doing it full-time since 2015. She says it was a “surreal, unreal” feeling to be in a room with so many like-minded Indigenous artists.
“Even just the [shared] understanding of what it is!” she says. “People are like, ‘Oh, you do crafts,’ and it’s so much more than that.”
“That’s the feeling we work for,” says Sage. “We want to create this space where the designers and artists we work with get to be together, and the energy is palpable.”
It’s about understanding the value of their work “as beyond just a woman’s hobby,” Sage adds.
“For people like Skye, this is their livelihood, and I want to make sure I’m creating a space that supports that, and they can continue to do that without feeling like their needs are not met.”
Sage says watching the industry grow has been inspiring and motivating for her.
“When I came out of fashion school, I didn’t really see a place for myself,” she says. “I hope that IFA exists far, far into the future, so that when other young people are coming out of school, they see this as that landing place.”