Reconciliation on the Runway – Sage Paul Makes Indigenous Fashion As Art

Sage Paul: Indigenous artist and fashion designer who is a driving force bringing Indigeneity to the Canadian fashion scene

By Sarah Jean Harrison

girl with tattoos leaning against tree

Sage Paul is busy. Very, very busy. From designing costumes to creating evocative collections like her 2017 Giving Life, which included the iconic rawhide and sinew bust, her work as an Indigenous artist and fashion designer is the driving force bringing Indigeneity to the Canadian fashion scene. She is also the mastermind behind the first Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto running. If you haven’t heard of Sage Paul yet, you definitely will soon.  

Sage, from the English River First Nation, is an outspoken critic of cultural appropriation in fashion and advocate for bringing Indigenous perspectives to the runway. Sage spoke with Sarah Jean for Clear Life about her the creation of IFW, who should wear Indigenous fashion and her development as an Indigenous designer in Canada.

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Sarah Jean: Tell me about Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto (IFWT). How did it come about? And why is it so important?

Sage Paul: I work with a lot of Indigenous women from Toronto and across Canada. And we create work that is, of course, representative of ourselves while also battling cultural appropriation. Within this creative space there’s a profound desire and need for us to be working on revitalizing and sustaining traditional practices. Because we’re not living on reserves, and because of colonization, I think it’s very important that we actively sustain these practices. IFWT was born from my own personal need as a designer to want to know where I’ve come from and make sure that I’m sustaining those traditional practices.

It was from within the space of these desires, mine and the community’s, that we pulled everyone together. We wanted to create a space for all audiences, where we can celebrate our culture in way that isn’t angsty and isn’t cultural appropriation. I really wanted to have a space where we could celebrate who we are and self-represent ourselves as Indigenous peoples. And where people could feel confident in purchasing locally made, Indigenous made work and actually meet the designers and the artists that are creating this work.  

Sarah Jean: It sounds like IFWT is going to be more than just a walk down a runway. What else is planned for the event?

Sage Paul: IFWT is definitely more of a festival. I call it a “fashion week” because that title makes it accessible in terms of what people understand. I was worried that if we started changing the language we’d lose people. I wanted us to be seen as a legitimate platform for Indigenous fashion. There are runways but we’re working with a choreographer and pushing forward how fashion is being presented. We really wanted it to be more of a performative and artistic presentation of fashion. But we also wanted to maintain some of those traditional aspects of a fashion week to make sure it’s still relevant to buyers and people who want to purchase. We’re going to have a marketplace section, 4 dyeing and weaving workshops, as well as panels and lectures on entrepreneurship, cultural appropriation, etc. There’s also a key note presentation with Kent Monkman to discuss connections with fashion and the radical symbolism within his work and the work we’re doing.

Sarah Jean: That is a lot going on in one fashion week! Okay, so the marketplace is great because designers need to connect with their audiences. But what do you think about people like me, white girl settlers, wearing Indigenous fashion? Is that appropriation?

I think it’s awesome for everyone to wear Indigenous fashion! But there’s got to be some proactivity. People have to take initiative and know what they’re wearing. If you’re going to H&M and you purchase something that looks kind of Native, it’s totally appropriating culture. That’s not shopping with integrity. That’s not being a conscious shopper. I’m really trying to encourage people to be conscious of what they put on their bodies. These are our bodies, we should be totally aware of what we’re putting on ourselves. Whether it’s materials that are toxic for the earth, whether its mass-produced fur or whether it’s something that is appropriating and exploiting an entire group of people. I think it’s really about conscious consumerism.

It’s amazing when people proudly wear Indigenous made work and celebrate it. But you have to know who made it and really be able to say this artist made this piece and this is where they came from. Knowing that background gives much more value and meaning to what people wear. We should be excited and proud to wear an Indigenous designer. Just like Marc Jacobs shoes or an Alexander McQueen, people are stoked to tell others “look what I got!” because it’s a big deal to make a purchase like that. I want to see that same excitement and celebration of Indigenous designers.

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Sarah Jean: Tell me about yourself as a designer. What drew you to fashion as a way of expression? When you speak, and from what I’ve read about you, it sounds like fashion is a truly way of storytelling the world for you.

I think it was my upbringing. I was raised using my hands, so it’s really always been a part of my life. I came from a family with not a lot of money. If I wanted something I usually would have to make it instead of purchasing. It was out of necessity that I began making clothing. But I also was interested in all these other crafts. From the white side of my family there is this long history of textiles and weaving and embroidery. And from my Native there also these long histories of craft.

When we all when we look at each other fashion is the first impression we get. It’s the first thing we see. The Dene, which is my nation, were called Chipewyan by the Cree people. You can still see Chipewyan on the maps. We call ourselves Denesuline, and there are many different Dene peoples, but Chipewyan in Cree means “the people in the pointed hats”. I find this so interesting because it points to the history of how we identified different people around us specifically through clothing. Clothing is able to speak so much about groups of people, as well as one’s own individual experience and expression. And it can also speak to entire movements of people. I feel like fashion is a very profound medium for expression.

Publisher’s Note: Sarah Jean Harrison is a sustainability communications specialist at Peace Flag House, working with sustainable fashion and lifestyle brands. Her work has appeared in The Canadian Organic Farmer, Spin Off Magazine, FORWARD Fashion and Eco Warrior Princess.