In­dige­nous fash­ion week in Van­cou­ver to cel­e­brate ‘cul­tural ap­pre­ci­a­tion’

The Hamilton Spectator - - STYLE - CAS­SAN­DRA SZKLARSKI

Or­ga­niz­ers of Van­cou­ver’s first in­dige­nous­fo­cused fash­ion week say the event will cel­e­brate “cul­tural ap­pre­ci­a­tion” for de­sign­ers and cre­ators who are used to see­ing their work ap­pro­pri­ated by others.

The Van­cou­ver In­dige­nous Fash­ion Week runs July 26 to 29.

Van­cou­ver-born pro­ducer Joleen Mit­ton says the four-day show­case will fea­ture col­lec­tions from about 32 de­sign­ers, most of whom are in­dige­nous.

The mod­els are also mostly in­dige­nous, and will in­clude former and cur­rent fos­ter care kids — a vul­ner­a­ble group that of­ten strug­gles with iden­tity and self-ac­cep­tance, says Mit­ton, whose her­itage is a mix of Plains Cree, French and Scot­tish.

“A lot of these kids don’t feel that they’re vis­i­ble be­cause they’ve been dis­carded by their fam­ily a lot of times and ob­vi­ously you don’t see in­dige­nous peo­ple in me­dia,” says the 33-year-old, who be­gan mod­el­ling at age 15 and now works with dis­en­fran­chised youth in Van­cou­ver.

The July ex­hibit will fea­ture emerg­ing and es­tab­lished de­sign­ers in­clud­ing Sho Sho Esquiro, Pam Baker and Je­neen Frei Njootli.

And it comes as de­bate over cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion is es­pe­cially frac­tious thanks to re­cent con­tro­ver­sies in the art and lit­er­ary worlds.

An out­cry over a white Toronto painter who em­braced an Anishi­naabe paint­ing style forced the can­cel­la­tion of her art show and sparked de­bate over the line be­tween in­spi­ra­tion and theft.

More de­bate fol­lowed with an edi­to­rial in the Writ­ers’ Union of Canada mag­a­zine that dis­missed the no­tion of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion and en­cour­aged writ­ers to ex­plore cul­tures and tra­di­tions that were dif­fer­ent from their own.

That also raised im­me­di­ate protest, prompt­ing the au­thor and mag­a­zine editor Hal Niedzviecki to apol­o­gize and re­sign from his post as de­bate erupted in var­i­ous me­dia.

Model and fel­low fash­ion week or­ga­nizer El­lena Neel says the is­sue is “com­pli­cated” for many out­side of the in­dige­nous com­mu­nity to grasp. And she finds her­self con­stantly de­fend­ing ef­forts to pre­serve in­dige­nous cul­ture.

She says the Neel fam­ily has been es­pe­cially en­trenched in the de­bate since her great­grand­mother, cel­e­brated carver Ellen Neel, be­gan mak­ing and sell­ing Van­cou­ver’s iconic totem poles in Stan­ley Park in the 1950s and 1960s.

“With the in­tro­duc­tion of mass pro­duc­tion, cheaper totem poles and mass-pro­duced totem poles started com­ing in from China and that started to af­fect her busi­ness,” notes Neel, a photographer and video artist.

In­dige­nous cre­ations — in­clud­ing cloth­ing — are more than just crafts or hob­bies, she adds. Clothes are of­ten hand­made and in­fused with mean­ing, iden­ti­fy­ing who you are, where you’re from and the First Na­tion you be­long to.

Mit­ton’s mod­el­ling ca­reer took her through Tai­wan, Hong Kong, Thai­land and Korea dur­ing her im­pres­sion­able teenage years, when she was asked to pro­mote prod­ucts that bla­tantly in­cor­po­rated in­dige­nous iconog­ra­phy.

“I look at the pho­tos now as a per­son who’s been through the fash­ion world ... it’s very in­fu­ri­at­ing. Those things have cul­tural at­tach­ment to them, spir­i­tual at­tach­ment to them.”

Mit­ton’s mixed her­itage al­lowed her to pass as half-Asian, and when she re­turned to Canada in 2008, she strug­gled to re­claim her iden­tity.

“I wasn’t re­ally happy. The fash­ion world it­self is pretty shal­low and op­pres­sive,” says Mit­ton, whose ca­reer in­cluded cam­paigns for Kenzo, Vivienne West­wood, Lancôme and Clin­ique.

“I’ve par­tied with Mick Jag­ger, Jamie Foxx, Bradley Cooper (but) I wasn’t re­ally proud of be­ing a model. Peo­ple would come up to me be­fore, they would be kind of stoked: ‘Oh, you’re on this mag­a­zine,’ or ‘You’re on this sham­poo bot­tle,’ or ‘You’re in this com­mer­cial in Asia.’ I was never su­per-com­fort­able about it.”

Mit­ton be­gan work­ing with chil­dren in fos­ter care as well as older girls ag­ing out of fos­ter care. She started mount­ing fash­ion shows to en­gage the older girls and teach them “to walk with pride and beauty.”

Mit­ton now sees the pos­i­tive in­flu­ence fash­ion can have on a young per­son, and hopes she can in­spire Cana­di­ans to know that high-qual­ity, unique de­signs ex­ist here at home.

“If you like in­dige­nous es­thetic, buy it from those who cre­ate it and live it.”


Van­cou­ver-born pro­ducer Joleen Mit­ton, shown here in a pub­lic­ity photo, says the four-day show­case will fea­ture col­lec­tions from about 32 de­sign­ers.

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