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Lesley Hampton is an important Indigenous face in the Canadian fashion landscape.

Salini Perera/The Globe and Mail

Since launching her brand in 2016, occasion-wear and athleisure designer Lesley Hampton has become known not only for her creative work but also for her advocacy around mental health and body positivity issues. With Anishinaabe and Mohawk heritage, she is also an important Indigenous face in the Canadian fashion landscape. Hampton, who has lived in Australia, Indonesia and various cities across Canada, is now based in Toronto, and in addition to showcasing her wares at Toronto Fashion Week this year also displayed her work at the city’s first Indigenous Fashion Week in 2018. Her outspoken nature has garnered as much attention as her eye-catching evening garments and she recently shared her thoughts on cultural appropriation and inclusivity with The Globe and Mail.

In your bio, you describe yourself as a third-culture kid. Can you explain what that means and how it informs your designs and your brand?

I define myself that way because I’m of one culture but I grew up internationally, so I grew up in many different cultures. It’s kind of an international student phrase. … It means you’re of one culture but within another culture and then that almost becomes another culture in itself. I’m of Indigenous descent, but my mom was adopted so we didn’t – and she didn’t – grow up in that culture at all. We didn’t have that connection as much.

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The school that I went to in Australia was very typically outback Australia, very country. I felt different because I wasn’t white and I had this “American” accent. I felt segregated. And then transitioning from that to an international school – everyone was the odd man out. Because of that, we all felt really included and like a community. I relate that to my fashion design because fashion very much has that segregation aspect, if you allow it to. I didn’t want anyone to feel left out who had a different body shape or skin colour or different height; all those things that make you feel like you’re not invited into the fashion industry. I didn’t like that at all. I chose to make my brand so inclusive and so diverse in order to break those stigmas down.

How much do you see yourself as a designer and how much, if at all, do you feel like you’re an advocate or activist, or someone who has to speak for one or more groups who aren’t being included by the industry? Does it ever get exhausting having to wear these different hats?

I think designers these days have to wear all the hats. I do think that people are more interested in my brand because of my upbringing and the messaging and the conceptual basis that I bring forward. I would definitely say I consider myself an activist for body positivity, mental health awareness and as a representation of Indigeneity in the fashion industry as well. I wouldn’t say it’s exhausting, but it’s definitely something that maybe a male white designer wouldn’t have to deal with as much. I’ve spoken to some and I ask them, have you ever gotten the question “How does your skin colour or your background affect your designs?” because that’s a question I get a lot. And they’re like, no, I’ve never been asked that. I find that really interesting. And as I grew within the industry, I got asked that question a lot more.

I get a lot of messages from people congratulating me for putting other Indigenous artists on the map. At my fall/winter 2019 fashion show in February, I brought on two designers who are Indigenous, as well as Manitobah Mukluks, to accessorize my show; it established presence at such a commodity-based fashion show and I really wanted to make it authentic as an Indigenous brand.

You also did an extended-sizes athletic collection. What is it like to be part of a sort of “rebranding” of what it means to be fit and healthy?

It stemmed from the conversation around the evening-wear brand. I would always say, if the runway is fantasy, why can’t the fantasy be comfortable in your own skin? And more confident? That progressed into wanting to do an athleisure collection, one reason being that I only wear leggings and sweaters and wanted a more comfortable brand for myself. There was definitely a lack of size diversity whenever I would go shopping for workout clothes. It’s very much about figuring out what being body positive means to you as an individual, and not like, the Instagram term for it, because there might be people who have different struggles with their bodies. It was a conversation I wanted to start within the fashion industry and to see where it goes. The majority of my sales are XL and above.

Let’s talk about people who aren’t from an Indigenous background but who are interested in wearing your brand.

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I wouldn’t say my brand is trying to replicate Indigenous dress; it’s pretty much just designs I find interesting and its Indigenous design because I’m creating it. Depending on the season, I do pull from powwow ceremonial outfits and such, but it’s not consistent. But, the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation is something that’s not discussed enough.

Let’s discuss it.

If you’re putting money into an Indigenous brand and you’re not Indigenous, you’re still supporting that person and community; that’s appreciation. But putting on a headdress for a music festival or Victoria Secret runway show – it’s not an Indigenous company releasing that for you to wear. It’s colonization and people thinking it’s okay to take from [the culture]. If you’re supporting the right people – if you’re supporting beadwork made by an Indigenous person and not beadwork made with a stolen design and that’s made in China – then you’re able to tell that story and share that company and really push more authentic thinking.

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