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Speaking with the producer of the first Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week, Caitlin Agnew learns it focuses as much on community as clothes

Until July 29, the Queen Elizabeth Theatre is hosting the inaugural Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week (VIFW). With more than 40 designers, artists and performers taking part, VIFW showcases authentic Indigenous art and design.

The four-day event is being produced by Joleen Mitton, a model who spent 17 years starring in campaigns for the likes of Kenzo, Vivienne Westwood and Clinique. Mitton was born and raised in East Vancouver and is of Plains Cree, French and Scottish heritage.

As a fashion model, Mitton often witnessed the global fashion industry's appropriation of Indigenous symbolism and culture, including on designs from a fashion house in Taiwan that she was asked to model.

"They didn't realize they were putting stolen iconography on a model who is connected to the source of those symbols," she says. "It was outright appropriation of Indigenous art with no concern for the meaning of them, for what those symbols represented or who created them in the first place. It was all just appearance – surfaces."

After leaving her modelling career behind, Mitton was eventually inspired by the young women she met at the Pacific Association of First Nation Women's Mentor Me program to create VIFW.

"They were looking for role models in mainstream culture, and saw nobody that looked like themselves, nobody who represented their culture. Being in foster care, very few of them had connections with their Indigenous roots," she says. "They were looking for identity that they could relate to, ways of wearing their identity that included them as whole people. That was when I realized that I could use my experience of fashion, and turn it into empowering experiences for the young Indigenous women I was working with."

As VIFW gets underway, Mitton says that, beyond showcasing Indigenous art and design, the most critical aspect of the project are the new avenues it's creating for young people.

"What's most important to the whole group, and myself, is that the mentorships and experiences that we can create for the girls and boys, young women and men finding their Indigenous identity and their ways in the world, stays at our centre," she says. "They are our heart."


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