On Sept 12-16th, 2017 I had an unexpected opportunity to explore weaving in a completely different context as a part of Western Canada Fashion Week in Edmonton, Alberta. Amy Malbeuf and Becca Taylor of Ociciwan Contemporary Art Collective received funding to bring three indigenous artists whose work involves the body. As an organization run by indigenous women, Ociciwan advocates for innovative and experimental creative practices and research in contemporary art. It was an honour to be asked to participate in their vision.
“Ociciwan Contemporary Art Collective in partnership with Western Canada Fashion Week (WCFW) is proud to present three Indigenous contemporary artists and designers at the Fall 2017 WCFW. The artist designers explore fashion and the body, using traditional material or traditional garment making techniques to inspire and inform contemporary fashions. Jeneen Frei Njootli, Meghann O’Brien, and Sage Paul work across and in-between various artistic disciplines merging the lines between fashion, performance, and visual art.
Each artist has created a fashion line that narrates histories and innovations of Indigenous people; creating a surface of insights on cultural complexity and diversity, that can be worn for special occasions or in daily life. Highlighting their cultural identity, these artists are creating works that are not confined to ideals or appropriation but are diverse, transformable, and changing the conceptions of Indigenous identity in fashion.”
This event was such a special opportunity present work outside of an anthropological context, or even an indigenous specific fashion event. It was a major shift and statement for the artists to be shown alongside fashion from across all of Canada. Ocicwan provided extensive support to execute our unique visions: models, hair dressers, lighting, sound, and makeup artists. Due to the fact that most of my work is accessory-size and labour intensive to create, I borrowed a number of works back which were either on exhibit, loan, or in private collections. In a way it was kind of a like a retrospective of the past ten years. Some of the pieces date back to my very first year of weaving!
On the day of the event, we had an opportunity to share our story on the local news. Jeneen was kind enough to let Sage and myself join Becca as there were only the three seats.
We arrived at the venue with four hours to prepare prior to show time. I would have had no idea how to prepare for this. The next four hours were some of the most fast paced, intensive, and decisive that I’ve ever experienced! I had each outfit laid out in the suitcase with the accompanying accessories and shoes, yet it was still a total chaos of fitting each piece to a model. I didn’t’t expect it to be as difficult as it was but was happy to have each model suited to an outfit that seemed to work!
I love that even though I didn’t have time to share with everyone in the audience or on the runway what each piece was and meant, that after the fact I am able write about it and use this as a platform to communicate with those who may not have necessarily been interested in visiting an anthropology museum or art gallery. So much time has been dedicated to each work and much can be read about the individual pieces on my blog.
To complete each outfit, I made some of the dresses by hand stitching them out of linen and canvas (I don’t have a sewing machine), and others were designer consignment or vintage thrift store finds. Sometimes these garments merely referenced parts of plants, by way of color, or ideas of what clothing is, as in I designed it to be functional for certain activities. For example the dresses had to be able to let me squat down for harvesting, and lift my legs for bike riding. And for example, the Wolford polk dot tights represent the Haida clan I belong to, Kowaas, which means “sea eggs” or row. Following is a more detailed overview of what was included in each outfit.
The aftermath of the show was as chaotic as the preparation of it. It was absolutely amazing to me that we had the chance to participate in this, and yet none of the designers got to see each others show because we were all so busy in making sure the models were all ready to go.
For the multitude of ideas and excitement around exploring fashion as a possible place for Northwest Coast weaving, the reality of it left me with even more questions. Is by including culturally significant works in the oftentimes frivolous and fast world of fashion leading it down a path that will result in diminished meaning? Does showing it on a runway cheapen our culture? Can these things be worn by people who don’t know or understand the societies of the Northwest Coast? Is by going down this road allowing this art to be absorbed into the massive world of fashion, become a trend that there by can become disposable?
Or will it be able to plant seeds in that world that could hold the potential for large scale societal change in the way we form relationships with clothing?
Indigenous Fashion and Ancient Couture
The idea of clothing and textiles containing meaning and power has been held by every indigenous group around the world. As fast fashion and consumption of cheaply made garments continues to escalate, we find ourselves in a world where clothing has become more disposable. In fact, the fashion and textile industries are now among the top polluting industries in the world, and much clothing is so cheaply made that it cannot even function as second hand clothing. Indigenous worldview and values have the potential to bring back the idea of clothing having meaning and power. Equally, the fashion world has the potential to give renewed relevance for our worldview in a contemporary context, without having to alter the techniques and materials. To me this is an amazing merging of two seemingly distant worlds, each with the potential to recontextualize, transform and inform the other.
The term “Ancient Couture” has been used by Dene artist/designer Sage Paul, and I love this. When we look back into the achieves of culture, there are so many examples of how western dress influenced indigenous dress. Our Haida and Tlingit ancestors acquired captains clothing through trade and it was seen to denote high rank in a culture that prized the rare and the exotic also. More specifically of interest to me is how Naaxiin robes were often ceremonially cut and fashioned into new pieces of regalia such as leggings or aprons. When I see this tradition extend to western-style clothing, it makes me think that any question I have about wether or not it is right to turn ceremonial regalia into everyday clothing is entirely valid and alright! It’s clear to me that our ancestors would approve of this juncture between ceremonial regalia and everyday clothing.
Despite the overarching trend of fast fashion in today’s world, there is still small facet that exists where clothing is still hand loomed, hand sewn, hand beaded, and embroidered. That world is haute couture. In my mind, I place the garments made in that strict French tradition in the same place as the clothing made by indigenous people. In France, the term haute couture is protected by law and is defined by the Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris based in Paris. The chambre syndicale de la haute couture is defined as “the regulating commission that determines which fashion houses are eligible to be true haute couture houses”. To me this is mirrored by the attempts of the Haida Nation to account for and validate those “real Haida” artists, or programs in Alaska such as the “Silver Hand”, aimed at ensuring that native art is indeed produced by true native artists.
This seed of connection was planted when I met native Parisian weaver Maite Tanguy while on a trip to France in 2012. She spent her days immersed in her apartment that had been completely converted into a workspace save for a small kitchen. What she wove was transformed into garments for the major couture houses of France: Chanel, Dior, and Christian Lacroix. Although she didn’t speak English, we shared a connection that only weavers would understand, and I knew she was an incredible woman with vision and knowledge, and that her work was of value.
This world of haute couture is something of such extraordinary quality that it deserves to be held up as the high art form it is. A lot of the time when we see things on a runway, the context of how they are made disappears, and as viewers we don’t understand why the prices are as high as they can be. So often fashion is seen as frivolous and unnecessary. Meeting the people who create this work and are paid a respectable living wage, I could more easily see why the prices are justified, and why some view this clothing as wearable art. This is a place where the quality of handmade textiles, beadwork, embroidery, and sewing is still held to a high standard and appreciated. I wonder sometimes if we are losing this as indigenous people increasingly participating in today’s world and leaving our old techniques and traditions behind.
For as beautiful as all of the haute couture work is, for all of its honouring of the handmade, I don’t see the kind of meaning layered onto their work as I do when I look at the work of our ancestors all over this continent. The kind of quality of the handmade, paired with the meaning that each design and symbol and material and technique carries, is a coupling of such overwhelming beauty and meaning that it leaves me completely without words as to even get close to how special what we have had is, and want to work so hard to find our weaving the respect it so deserves, rather than see it increasingly being relegated to the past.
To me it has been exciting to think of the possibilities of weaving haute couture dresses in Naaxiin or Raven’s Tail. I’ve recently become aware of some very exciting collaborations between indigenous artists and fashion labels, which to my mind maintain the high level of craftsmanship and artistry of our ancestors and bring it forward in such an exciting and beautiful way. In 2015, Valentino reached out to Metis artist Christi Belcourt with regards to using her painting as an inspiration for a couture dress. This is such an inspiring example of how two cultures can come together in such a graceful way!
The work of Jamie Okuma, a Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock artist and designer, is an incredibly inspiring example of this merging of tradition with the contemporary.
One of the earliest examples of the merging of European and Indigenous techniques is found in the work of Haida artist Bill Reid. He was the first Northwest Coast artist to employ the European goldsmith techniques of reposse and chasing to depict traditional crest designs. His work took jewelry of the Northwest Coast to an entirely new and exciting place that artists today still build upon, and the greater public enjoys wearing.
As an artist I wish to create work that is able to be worn in a way that gives reference and reverence to the materials and techniques of my ancestors, yet allows it to transform into a contemporary form for the everyday, one that reconnects our ancestral past to the communal present, the global present, where all cultures and worlds are converging and colliding. I have always been so drawn to weaving as a functional art, and the world of fashion is one that participates in the world today, not caught behind glass cases and separate from our everyday lives. The merging of two cultures and finding balance isn’t always an easy proces to navigate, but with an anchor deep in the soil of history, a heart and good intentions in the present, I see no reason why Naaxiin cannot retain it’s role as one of the ultimate of status symbols within Northwest Coast society, and become known as one in the broader world as well.