From a sealskin puffer jacket to a colourful atikluk dress, designs from Northwest Territories artists stunned attendees at the fourth edition of Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week.
This year’s event, which ran from November 20 to 25 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver, featured 15 Indigenous artisans and designers from the NWT.
Cheryl Fennell, who said she is Yellowknives Dene, showcased her collection “Drums in my Heart,” with designs incorporating hide, beads, fish skin and fur.
“My concept for all my designs is really nature and the natural world, which I really believe is what grounds us all,” she told Cabin Radio.
Fennell said this collection was inspired by the drum.
“The drum was really meant to provide teachings to people,” she said. “It was all about love and unity and how people can work together in order to survive.”
Items in the collection included a sealskin bathing suit, an igloo dress, and a mermaid dress with a long water train and fish skin. Fennell said people particularly “went wild” over a sealskin puffer jacket she made, with rappers, musicians and artists all wanting to try it on.
Fennell said some of her earliest memories are of her mother attending Dene drum dances or asking her to make a dress for her doll.
She described the fashion event in Vancouver as “an extraordinary celebration of Indigenous creativity and culture.”
“The importance of the event is to celebrate the diversity among Indigenous peoples but also the creativity, the oneness, to make connections – which we really did – and to build understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples,” she said.
Taalrumiq, who grew up in Tuktoyaktuk and is Inuvialuit and Gwich’in, shared her collection Anuuraat, which means “clothing” in Inuvialuktun. She said it began with more traditional designs and ended with pieces showing her more modern bold and colourful style.
“It was a reflection of Inuvialuit Gwich’in identity across time,” she said. “My intention was thinking of Inuvialuit and Gwich’in, all Indigenous youth, to see my clothing on the runway, to recognize their culture and to really feel proud of who they are and to know that they can do all this stuff too.”
Taalrumiq said she has always loved fashion and being creative. One of her earliest memories is of her mother making her a sewing kit. As a toddler, she said, an Elder rubbed her hand in a tray of beads and said told her she would become a good beader.
“It’s just following in the footsteps of my mom and all my Inuit grandmothers who are expert seamstresses. My Gwich’in Juju was a master beadwork artist like my Gw’ichin auntie as well,” she said. “So just carrying on the family tradition and talent in my blood memory as well as incorporating my western education and training in art and fashion.”
Taalrumiq said her experience at Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week was “a dream come true.”
She was among several designers featured in an article in Vogue about the Red Dress showcase. She said it was important for her to share the story of Frank Gruben, her relative from Aklavik who has been missing since May.
“I can use my work not only to promote myself or my brand, but to uplift my community and to highlight issues that are important to us.”
Tishna Marlowe, who is a member of the Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation, showed her line Dene Couture – Heirloom Collection. She said the collection is about her past, present and future, and inspired by her grandmother and other women in Łútsël K’é.
Marlowe said she began creating fashion that showcased her Indigenous culture because she wasn’t seeing it anywhere else.
“When I was 23, I moved to Vancouver and it was quite a culture shock,” she said. “I just felt like I could never self-identify.”
Marlowe said getting to showcase her work at Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week felt “like going home” and she left feeling inspired.
“It’s 100 percent pure celebration of fashion, Indigenous culture, diversity, inclusiveness,” she said.
Marlowe said events like this are important because Indigenous people were forbidden from wearing their fashions for many years. Until 1951, Canada’s Indian Act banned Indigenous people from wearing traditional and ceremonial clothing, and traditional dress was also forbidden in residential schools.
“Now that we’re in such a safe space, people are just wanting their culture back and wanting to self-identify,” Marlowe said. “This is just the tip of the iceberg, we are just beginning.”