Meet the designer behind Toronto’s first Indigenous Fashion Week

Sage Paul is making Canadian fashion more inclusive

Sage Paul’s cozy Riverdale home is at maximum capacity. Lights and tripods stand in most corners, and film crewmembers weave a tight choreography through the hallway, attempting to set up for LocalLove.ca’s video interview with this groundbreaking designer. A makeup artist has set up shop in the kitchen, counters strewn with potions and powders. Paul is the eye of the storm, eyes closed, as the makeup artist dusts her skin with a creamy powder. Her beaded necklace by Ojibwe artist Mariah Quincy glints in the sunlight. Between musings on Indigenous sovereignty, she answers tactical questions lobbed from every direction (“Sage, can we move this mannequin?”).

Her cat, Tyga, saunters into the kitchen, wailing.

“My girl,” says her dad—who recently moved in with Paul and her husband—as he pokes his head around the corner. “When are you finished?”

But amid the chaos, Paul is calm. Grounded in the midst of a groundswell. It’s a necessary mindset as she embarks on her most ambitious project to date.

Paul, 34, is the founder and artistic director of the first-ever Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto (IFWTO), launching at the Harbourfront Centre on May 31. The showcase will feature Indigenous-made textiles, fabric and crafts, and has a broader mission of challenging mainstream perceptions of Indigenous people and culture, which are often stereotyped and commodified.

“I really see fashion as a language,” says Paul. “Indigenous artistic expression comes from generations of knowledge and storytelling, and [fashion was] a medium that was able to hold stories and symbols, a way of communicating with each other. I think that that’s a vital, vital part of Indigenous culture, and Indigenous cultures around the world.”

Art is in Paul’s blood. Growing up in Gabriel Dumont, a non-profit housing complex for First Nations people in Scarborough, Paul was surrounded by regalia, beadwork and craft—her mother made clothing and worked with textiles, and her father was a painter. Unsurprisingly, she went on to study fashion design at George Brown College, which propelled her into a career of fashion, costume design and a 10-year stint working at the imagineNATIVE film festival.

But once she moved out of the Gabriel Dumont community and into the Canadian fashion world, Paul felt pressure to become a stereotype of what an Indigenous designer ‘should’ be. It’s this homogenization—or, as she calls it, the effort to “Pan-Indian us”—that she wants to combat with IFWTO.

“I want to see Indigenous people leading how [they’re] represented,” says Paul. “I don’t want other people talking for us, and I don’t want other people telling us how we’re supposed to look.”

Indigenous fashion designer Sage Paul founder of indigenous fashion week

The commodification of Indigenous works is a problem with deeper roots than feathered headdresses at Coachella. Paul uses the Navajo rug as an example—traditionally, a tiny hole or slit was left in the rugs or blankets to honour Spider Woman, the Navajo goddess. But when the geometric rugs became trendy and mass-produced, that sacred hole was sewn shut. While the rugs are an important part of the Navajo economy, the commodification of Indigenous goods often means stripping them of their cultural value. The single bead that’s often left a different colour on Indigenous appliqués is another example.

“[Consumers] see that it’s a different colour, which looks like a mistake, but it’s actually [about] humility—to recognize that we’re not perfect,” Paul says.

In response, IFWTO aims to challenge the notion of commercial seasons—the typical driver of Fashion Weeks worldwide—by bringing it back to actual seasons. The runway portion of the showcase will feature 23 designers, divided into four programs based on parts of the year and named after moons.

New Moon, the spring showcase, will feature emerging designers like headliner Lesley Hampton, whose collection is inspired by overcoming mental illness. Berry Moon will celebrate pow wow season and the future of regalia. It will feature designers who put their spin on traditional works, like Saskatchewan artist Catherine Blackburn, who is reimagining beadwork with materials like Perler beads, plastic beads from the ‘80s that iron into melted tapestries. Harvest Moon will pay homage to matriarchs, highlighting the tradition and knowledge passed down through generations of women. And Frost Moon will feature seal fur, vibrant colour, bone, Inuk street style, and high Dene fashion—including pieces from Sho Sho Esquiro, whose intricate works made from fur, fish skin, and 24-karat beads sell for $40,000 to $60,000.

And between runway shows, IFWTO will present artist talks and panels, a marketplace for trade and commerce, and hands-on workshops on traditional techniques like natural fabric dyeing and Ravenstail weaving, an ancient form of twining and surface braiding. It’s all about cultural sustainability and honouring tradition, while shepherding its evolution into modern design.

This year, Paul’s own designs won’t be featured. In fact, she has trouble finding the words to describe her own work—Urban Dene styles that feature modern silhouettes and cheeky details, which she calls “authentic appropriations.” But once she pulls out a stack of materials peppered with Post-It notes on the designers that will be featured at Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto, she can’t stop talking. At her core, Paul is a champion for other Indigenous artists. And more than anything, she hopes IFWTO will provide a platform on which they can reclaim their voice and value.

“That value is not a trinket. We’re not these Indian dolls that are sold in a tourist store,” Paul says, her wide brown eyes calm but resolute. “It’s so important that we support each other to be able to push our ideas forward and keep creating. That’s what breeds innovation, and that’s what sustains our culture. It’s us working together.”