In conversation with Sage Paul, Artistic Director of Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto

In conversation with Sage Paul, Artistic Director of Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto

Since its launch in 2018, Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto has reached new heights–collaborating with fashion retailer Simons, and improving the visibility of Indigenous artists, even amidst a pandemic

Image courtesy of Sage Paul.

Sage Paul–Toronto-based Dene designer and member of English River First Nation, has become a name synonymous with Indigenous fashion in Canada. Her work centres family, sovereignty and resistance for balance, and as founding collective member and Artistic Director of Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto (IFWTO), Sage works to create space where Indigenous fashion, craft, and textiles can thrive. We caught up with Sage to discuss IFWTO’s first digital festival, textile art that has inspired her, and the innately political nature of fashion today. 

When did you begin working with fashion, craft, and textiles?

Some of my earliest memories involve fashion and textiles, so I guess it has always been a part of my life–certainly an important part of my life, culturally. In the community I grew up in, making our own clothes, regalia, and beadwork were celebrated practices taught to us by our mothers. Professionally, I started working in costume design after I finished college. I was working at the imagiNATIVE Film Festival, which was a space where I fostered the skills of clothing and garment design. It was formative to the work I do now–allowing me to take the narrative of textiles and confidently create work that reflects how I was taught to create it. In media, we often see the same images of fashion, and I never questioned it until I began working at imagiNATIVE, where all the stories that my elders shared with me as a child were suddenly centre-stage. To be able to challenge the western-eurocentricity of the industry and hone my voice as a designer was crucial.

Can you tell us a bit more about your role as Artistic Director of Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto?

I believe it’s important for Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto to operate as a space that doesn’t trivialize, exploit or tokenize Indigenous-made work. As Artistic Director, I have the opportunity to safeguard this space with an incredible team of collaborators who understand the crossover between Indigenous culture and fashion as a medium of expression. Hopefully, by showing an authentic representation of Indigenous culture and people, we can diversify the mainstream notion of what fashion looks like. I consider it my responsibility to make the artists we feature feel confident and comfortable with the way they are represented.

Our festival would have taken place this past May, but was unfortunately postponed due to the pandemic. Alternatively, we are excited to announce that we will be launching a digital festival toward the end of the year! We’ll be hosting many programs, including an online pop-up market for designers, as well as a number of short films that capture the performativity and movement of the designer’s work–something you’d normally experience from a runway show. We want to create something that doesn’t replicate the explicitly commercial presentation of fashion online, while still creating space for designers.

Image courtesy of Sage Paul.

What properties of Indigenous fashion make it unique from the mainstream fashion industry?  

A narrative unique to Indigenous fashion is the intergenerational knowledge we are able to share and hold on to. Something I learned recently is that the Kayak was an Inuit invention regarded as an article of clothing. Made of sealskin, a common material in Inuit clothing, it was seen as wearable fashion used to allow movement through water. From a western point of view, it’s common for people to mistake Indigenous fashion as something that is solely historical. We’re a global community, however, and Indigenous people from around the world have generations of knowledge and innovative concepts of fashion to offer. I think Indigenous fashion also emphasizes an important relationship between designers and the land from which their textiles come from. Gratitude for the materials that come from the land adds to the value around the craft and practices that go into the adornment of a garment.

Tell us a bit about the recent collaboration with Simons.

IFWTO recently collaborated with fashion retailer, Simons–curating an all-new capsule collection that features the work of eight Indigenous designers from across Canada. Sharing similar values in wanting to support local fashion, sustainable practices and Indigenous art–we’ve been able to bring the textiles and craft of Indigenous fashion to a mainstream platform. Simons worked openly with our team to overcome some fast-fashion challenges by reducing the quantity and inventory of pieces. This way, the establishments of the Simons collection could be made and completed here in Canada where the attention to detail and reciprocal relationship between designers and their craft could be respected. The response has been really hopeful and encouraging, with most of the collection sold out!

What role do institutions like the Textile Museum of Canada play in supporting Indigenous art?

I think it’s a responsibility for institutions like the Textile Museum of Canada to authentically represent the communities they serve. This includes Indigenous communities and Indigenous nations in North America that were here before colonization. We’re in a place now where these spaces, which were originally guided by colonial-systemic practices, have the opportunity to open their arms and welcome in new perspectives. The Textile Museum is a space for people to visit where they can access textiles from around the world, their collection is incredible and influential to the way people go about understanding textile art. So, by showcasing Indigenous work, not as an anthropological study of Indigenous people, but as a celebration of the culture that is very much still here and still practicing–they are upholding that responsibility.

Are there exhibits you’ve been particularly inspired by?

Yes! Facing the Monumental, was Rebecca Belmore’s exhibition/solo show curated by Wanda Nanibush. Rebecca is a performance artist that does a lot of textile work and is definitely one of the artists I’m most inspired by. I feel like material culture and Indigenous culture hold such a strong relationship, it’s certainly a relationship I grew up with in my community, and something I recognize in Rebecca’s work. Her approach to this art moves me to see material and fashion beyond the commercial sense.

Another exhibit I loved was Beads, they’re sewn so tight, curated by Lisa Myers at the Textile Museum of Canada. Showcasing a group of artists from across Ontario, the idea went into the strength of beadwork and its familial connections of community. There was a beautiful piece by Jean Marshall that was based on her Chief. She had created moccasins with quillwork design on top of them, placed in a circle to represent the gathering of Chiefs and their nations. When we see clothing, we automatically see people in that clothing, so it was a particularly striking moment for me to look beyond the fact that this is an object, I could really see the gathering of these nations, it was beautiful, the whole exhibit was amazing.

jean marshall art
Jean Marshall, "Ring of Fire 1" (2015); Porcupine quills, home tanned deer hide, commercial tanned elk hide, beaver fur; Dimensions variable. Photography by Toni Hafkenscheid

Is it important for fashion to speak politically?

I think fashion is innately political. Even when we think about codes-of-dress, whether it be for an event or place of work, there are often dress codes enforced. I think this comes from a history of power and control. What naturally follows that asserted control is resistance, and for good reason. Indigenous people specifically, including my father, were put into residential schools, forced to cut their hair, forced to wear clothing of a certain material, specifically for the purpose of being controlled. So, I think it’s important to see the power that clothing has and what it means when we put it on our bodies. In our community, and in a lot of oppressed and diverse communities, there is a lot to resist. By rejecting the clothing that was forced upon young Native children, and using the textiles and fashion expressions that had once been stripped from us, we can find sovereignty and agency within our communities.

What do you see for the future of Indigenous fashion?

I hope that Indigenous creators, designers, and community members continue to lay down a foundation so that seven generations from now, creatives continue to practice that which has been passed on. I think in the future of Indigenous fashion, we continue to wear what we choose and celebrate the craft and artistry of textiles. In the larger scheme of things, I hope to see a growing agency and sovereignty within our communities that allow us to celebrate our identities.

To see more work by Indigenous fashion designers and artists, visit