Indigenous fashion designers are gaining recognition on international catwalks

Melrene Saloy’s love of fashion began in childhood, making clothes for her dolls after her grandmother and aunts taught her how to sew.

Today, Saloy runs her own business, Native Diva Creations, which makes jewelry and accessories appropriate to First Nations culture. In September, she takes a collection of her pearl jewelry and accessories to Paris Fashion Week.

“Everyone who works with me there is Indigenous. So my hair, my makeup, my models, my photographers, everyone is Indigenous,” she said.

Saloy, a Blackfoot designer from the Kainai Nation, started her business nearly eight years ago.

After maternity leave, she decided she didn’t want to return to retail management. So she founded Native Diva Creations and never looked back.

A hat made by Saloy that was shown on the runway at New York Fashion Week last year. (Submitted by Melrene Saloy)

Saloy made her first fashion show in 2015 in Santa Fe, NM, and last year models wore her designs on the catwalk during New York Fashion Week (NYFW).

“I was literally crying all the time,” Saloy said of her NYFW experience.

“It was so hard for me to sit there because it was like, ‘Look at my culture. Look at all this going on.'”

Saloy is one of many indigenous fashion designers to showcase their work on national and international catwalks. She was recruited to bring her designs to Paris through the non-profit organization International Indigenous Fashion Week Inc. (IIFW).

The organization helps Indigenous designers navigate their way into the mainstream fashion industry and connect with each other.

Finally in the spotlight

Chelsa Racette, founder and executive director of the IIFW, said she created the organization so that Indigenous designers could be in the spotlight and not sidelined from fashion shows.

“I was working on several fashion shows in the United States and Canada, and they would only feature one or two indigenous designers, so I thought we needed ours,” she said.

Pearl jewelry made by Saloy. The fashion designer says many non-Indigenous artists have appropriated Indigenous cultures without permission, and now is the time for Indigenous designers to be recognized for their work. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Since its founding in 2012, the IIFW has taken Indigenous designers to fashion shows across the country and the world, including New York, Paris and London.

Racette, who is Cree from the Nekaneet First Nation in Saskatchewan, said one of her main goals with the IIFW is to bring Indigenous designers into mainstream fashion circles and network with other designers. worldwide.

“There have been Indigenous designers for a long time, and I think people understand now,” she said.

We are more than beads and feathers…we are not just what you see in a gift shop. We are so, so much more.– Melrene Saloy, Blackfoot fashion designer

Saloy agrees. She said many non-Indigenous designers throughout history have appropriated Indigenous designs without permission. Now is the time for Indigenous designers to be recognized for their own work.

“We finally have a good point where there are enough artists that we can say, ‘Hey look, we’re there. We are here to stay. We have been here a long time. We have a lot to show,'” she said.

“We’re not just beads and feathers. We’re not just the powwow. We’re not just what you see in a gift shop. We’re so, so much more.”

‘Healing Through the Wires’

Livia Manywounds, a member of the Tsuut’ina Nation, brought her couture dresses to the Toronto Aboriginal Fashion Arts Festival in June. The experience was unforgettable.

“It was one of those moments where I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m really here with all these great Indigenous designers. How could I be here, right?’ she declared.

“Then I think back to my story, I’m like, ‘Wow, it really took me hours, hours. It wasn’t easy being one person to create all these beautiful clothes.'”

Manywounds said she considers her journey in fashion design to be “healing through the wires”. Her father died in 2016 and the same day her mother was diagnosed with cancer.

Tsuut’ina Nation member Livia Manywounds says she considers her journey in fashion design to be “healing through threads.” After her mother was diagnosed with cancer, Manywounds returned to beading as she sat by her mother’s bedside. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Sitting by her mother’s bedside, Manywounds went back to beadwork. After her mother’s death, she continued her art as a form of healing.

Manywounds said her work started to become popular online through social media and she started getting a lot of commissions. She thanks those who supported and purchased her early designs for helping her get to where she is today.

Indigenous designers being able to showcase their designs on the runway is important for historical reasons, Manywounds said, particularly after the residential school system attempted to rob Indigenous communities of their cultures, languages, traditions and beliefs.

“It’s not a costume. It’s something more special than that because it has a meaning behind it. It has a purpose. It has a story.”

Manywounds said there are now many influential Indigenous designers making their way into the mainstream and getting their designs on red carpets. She hopes the same will one day happen to her work and that more opportunities will open up for Indigenous designers, models and artists.

As for Saloy, she hopes her appearance at Paris Fashion Week will help her not only gain exposure to international buyers, but also start a broader conversation about Indigenous designers.

“I want to open those doors for other artists to come in, to see more Indigenous people.”

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