Decolonizing the Runway: Otahpiaaki Indigenous Fashion Week

As the European fashion week scene faces its trinity days between S/S and F/W 2019 shows, a young but impactful fashion event has just taken place for the third time in Calgary, Alberta. Not only does this event present us to talented designers and new collections, it also challenges our ideas of what a fashion week is and can be. The Otahpiaaki Indigenous Beauty, Fashion and Design Week was founded three years ago at the Mount Royal University in Calgary AB, Canada. The idea came from a group of young, female fashion students, and the first show took place in the hallway of the business school. Last year the project had matured and gone from two designers in one night to fifteen designers from fifteen different nations spread over three nights of fashion. A few weeks ago, the third event was held in City Hall, Calgary, with returning artists as well as sixteen new designers. The show isn’t dictated by international fashion rules, but build on a Black Foot world view. And so Otahpiaaki is more than three days of spotlights and runway walking. A research unit of students and professors, indigenous and non-indigenous people are working together on various projects associated with the event, with the common aim to decolonize the runway. A few months ago DANSK met up with Mount Royal professor and co-founder of the event, Patricia May-Derbyshire, to learn more.

“We deliberately call it Otahpiaaki Indigenous Beauty, Fashion and Design Week” Derbyshire explains when we meet in her office, a spacious workspace in The Bissett School of Business at Mount Royal University. “We put Beauty at the beginning because from a Blackfoot First Nations perspective beauty is intellectual, it’s spiritual, it’s cultural, it’s physical. We even go beyond the idea that beauty comes from within. In indigenous design, beauty is total. That’s a really important space for us to define and protect.”

In 2015 The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) released 94 “Calls to Action” regarding reconciliation between Canadians and Indigenous peoples. Established in 2008, the purpose of the committee was to document the history and impacts of the residential school era. The work of Otahpiaaki was inspired by these Calls to Action and addresses several of them to advance the process of reconciliation. ‘Otahpiaaki’ is a Black Foot term that describes the moment where the vamp, the decorative part of a moccasin, is sewn to the rest of the boot. And the name very well illustrates what the work of Otahpiaaki is about: “It is a moment of coming together, of being stitched together, typically very tightly,” Derbyshire explains. “We see fashion as an opportunity for reconciliation, and what we have found is, that fashion and creative practice is a gentle but powerful way to get at this work of building healthy relationships again.”

To define a clear focus the Otahpiaaki event is presented under a different theme each year. Last year it was Truth, Youth and Reconciliation, this year it’s Pride and Protest: “This year, we present designers who are quite bold and upfront. We have pipeline controversies in Canada and we are dealing with the epidemic and recognition of missing and murdered indigenous women. Each of this year’s designers were picked for their unique voice. Sage Paul’s work for instance, is interrogating the idea of fair access to health care for indigenous people. In some remote communities, people have to fly for the most basic health care, because it is simply not available to them on their nation. So although this is couture work, and as impressive as any you would see internationally, all of these collections come with a story and a mission this year.”

As maybe the only fashion show globally, Otahpiaaki has a program of research underneath   it. The program of research was defined after Otahpiaaki’s second year when it came clear to the organizers, that the designers often struggled with the same issues. Isolation, challenges related to scaling production and capacity building, lack of access to traditional materials and the risk of appropriation of their designs, were some of the matters they dealt with in their everyday creative practices.

“One of the obstacles for the designers was that they, even if they lived in a big city, felt isolated. Fashion can be a very solitary endeavor and some people thrive on that. But some of   our designers talked about this yearning for community,” Derbyshire explains. To address this, a designers collab project was established to facilitate moments for the designers to get together to discuss everything from creative practice to business plans and entrepreneur knowhow. Another initiative has developed specific market-entry tools that make the business side of things more manageable to young designers. Although, for indigenous designers, hiring a beader or seamstress is not only a question of financial resources. Often, very specific sewing or beading skills are required and so a third initiative addresses the issues of scaling production and capacity building. Led by Otahpiaaki designers and co-facilitated by Sewing Seeds (founded by Canadian Sun Ice founder Sylvia Rempel), it targets youth and women on reserves to build technical sewing and beading skills and reintroduces traditional use of natural materials.

“Another issue was access to traditional materials. How that wasn’t available on the designers own land, so you end up ordering it from the US or China or Hong Kong,” Derbyshire adds. To address this obstacle the team has build a seed to runway business model, a project run by student Braden Etzerza. The model is aligned to the TRC Calls to Action, but also to the UN Declaration of Sustainable Development: “There are indigenous communities that have rich land resources, and the idea is, that if we start growing textile and crops again on the nations, we’re answering the designers desire to be able to get materials from home. And so this summer, Braden has started indigo crops on different nations, as well as here in Calgary, in an urban setting.”

Sadly, one of the biggest risks to indigenous designers is appropriation of their designs. Patti May-Derbyshire mentions a recent example where a UK fashion house made an exact copy of an Inuit garment. “It was owned by an individual so his family were custodians of it,” Derbyshire tells and continues. “The community could confirm this, and that there was no way it should be on a runway. The design house just took it from a photo. They didn’t understand its sacred meaning, its spiritual meaning, that it was owned by the family and that it was important to the community.”

Taryn Hamilton, Justice Studies student and part of the Otahpiaaki research team has for the past 18 month worked to find a way for indigenous designers to protect their work.

Derbyshire says: “Intellectual property laws for indigenous communities just doesn’t work. Its based on a bunch of colonial ideas, and indigenous fashion is appropriated constantly. And by some fairly big players, which is problematic. The brands do it deliberately, because they know that they can rely on the intellectual property law, which is based on this very visible set of colonial ideas. What Taryn has done is to unpack what those are; it comes down to this idea, that if you create something, I should have access to it. The law has to change, and so we’ve decided to take that on.”

For the indigenous designers to be assisted in the courts, they have to discuss, document and file their designs in their home communities. “What Taryn has done is essentially to prepare a challenge to the law. We consulted our Elder, Jeannie Smith Davis, who suggested that traditionally you would have a dialogue with your Elders, and that this dialogue would be recorded or documented. You would present your design to them, not to get their permission, but for their witnessing and confirmation. They can also add stories about the family pattern, and tell you about its lineage. And so the sketches and the thoughts on the collection, get filed in the community. In that way, the community becomes the custodian, the protecter.”

Elaborating on her thoughts on big brands using indigenous designs in their collections Derbyshire notes: “We think that if we decolonize fashion, everybody will benefit. As far as partnership goes, I have a strong belief myself, that the first major brand that comes to one of these incredible designers and says, let’s work together, we’re going to license this the way we would license with Michael Jordan or Katy Perry. We’re not going to take, we’re going to give. The first brand that does that, will change how all of this works. And so we’re waiting for that person to come forward.”

The issue of appropriation might also raise the question of whether indigenous designs are for everyone to wear. Can you wear them and how do you wear them as a non-indigenous fashion lover? “There is not a single designer that we work with who doesn’t want you to buy and wear their clothes,” Derbyshire assures us and elaborates: “What is important when wearing indigenous design is to say, I’m wearing Justin Lewis and he’s from the Muskogee First Nation. He challenges this idea around the use of mascots and how inappropriate that is. And so I am a big fan of his work. And that’s a little different from buying Louis Vuitton or Balenciaga. Those brands make beautiful objects, it’s completely valid for people to be purchasing and wearing them, but there is nothing to explain there, right. But when you wear a piece that has a story to it, that’s your role.”

Words by Anne Ulrikke Bak
Learn more about Otahpiaaki at www.otahpiaakifashionweek.com