"The eye has to travel," said the legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland, and when Valentino creative directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli were looking for a spark for their next resort collection, they set their sights on Canada. More specifically, Espanola, Ont., and Métis artist Christi Belcourt, whose pointillistic painting Water Song has been transformed into nine covetable looks that will be hitting stores later this autumn.
Belcourt collaborated with the label's fabric research and development manager Francesco Bova, who worked from high-resolution photographs of the work (which is part of the National Gallery's permanent collection) to create luxurious floral prints and embroideries. Bova travelled to Toronto with fabric samples for Belcourt's approval before they were combined with Valentino's feminine silhouettes to create a striking assortment of garments from haltertops to evening gowns.
While designer-artist collaborations have been popular since the days of Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dalí, indigenous artwork has more often than not been appropriated without consent. "When fashion designers raid the world's closets for inspiration, they often do so without permission," says Susan Scafidi, founder of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School in New York City. "Too literal copying of culturally significant designs can amount to cultural misappropriation."
Belcourt, aware of fashion's tendency to misinterpret indigenous symbolism, was skeptical at first. "One of the first things I wanted to know was their view on appropriation and if they've ever been accused of appropriating anything," she says. "Have they ever put models in headdresses walking down the runway?" Her environmental activism is one of the reasons she agreed to entrust her work to Valentino, citing the label's position at the top of Greenpeace's list of "Detox Leaders" in the fashion industry.
Her acrylic paintings pay homage to Métis beadwork techniques, which she sees as a continuation of the Métis's artistic legacy. Water Song is comprised of hundreds of thousand of bead-like dots, set on a black background, depicting a cluster of flora and fauna forming a large root. "It's about water, the sacredness of water around the world. Within many indigenous cultures, water – rivers, lakes, streams, even the rain – is considered sacred because of its ability to give and sustain life," explains Belcourt.
Now in her late 40s, Belcourt began painting over two decades ago to reclaim her Métis roots. "I realized that I didn't know enough about beadwork or plants to be able to do them justice, so I had to really delve into both those areas," she says. She is a co-founder of the Onaman Collective, which mentors youth in indigenous land-based traditions, art creation and native language, and started the Walking With Our Sisters project, a commemorative art installation for missing and murdered indigenous women. The memorial incorporates almost 2,000 pairs of moccasin vamps, created by friends and families of the missing women.
Whenever starting a new project, Belcourt thinks about how her work will affect positive change and she is pleased with the complimentary feedback the Valentino collaboration has received. While fashion may not have been the most likely place for Belcourt to inspire a new audience, her collaboration sets a precedent. As Scafidi views it, "[the collaboration] represents a significant step toward broader recognition for indigenous artists and provides a model for other fashion houses."
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