Designer Sage Paul Preserves Indigenous Traditions and Stories Through Fashion

While she grew up in an Indigenous housing complex in Toronto, fashion was part of Sage Paul’s everyday. She learned how to sew her own clothes, make beaded earrings, appliqué powwow regalia and was taught the meanings behind specific imagery, symbols and colours.

“For native people across the country, textiles and crafts are a large part of our cultural and artistic expression,” says Paul, an urban Denesuliné tskwe and a member of the English River First Nation. “Growing up, it felt more like a way of life than it did a career.”

But after studying fashion at Toronto’s George Brown College and working at the ImagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, Paul began to see the connection between the cultural garments she made as a child and the mainstream fashion industry. In 2018, after a decade spent focusing on her own designs, Paul founded Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto (IFWTO), a biennial festival spotlighting Canadian and international Indigenous designers, artists and crafters. The four–day event was an instant success: She was bombarded with designer submissions and media requests, and tickets sold out. “It was proof there wasn’t enough representation in mainstream fashion weeks,” says Paul.

August 26, 2019
Models wearing pieces from the Giving Life and Rations collections
Pieces from Sage Paul’s Giving Life and Rations collections heading down runways at shows in Montreal and Toronto.   Photos: GRL Photographie (2018 FMD); Chelsea Brimstin (Urbani-T in Toronto)

IFWTO actively pushes back against tokenism, cultural appropriation and the exploitative aspects of the fashion industry. Paul’s own designs follow a similar ethos – they fuse her identity, art and fashion (like regalia constructed from Plexiglas), and she sees them as a conduit for much–needed conversations about colonialism. Her most recent collection, Rations, which launched in June, features dresses with bulbous silhouettes, elongated sleeves and shimmering sheer fabrics, and is a commentary on the federal government’s early colonialist tactics to ration Indigenous communities’ access to food and materials.

“The collection isn’t traditional in the way it looks,” says Paul, “but it brings people in to share a part of that history of Canada. That’s what I really love about fashion: If you do it right, it can compel people to ask questions.”

The George Brown alum recently developed an Indigenous fashion course at her alma mater, where she instils these values in a new generation of designers. “I remind students that fashion isn’t about Eurocentric retail or mining other peoples’ cultures,” says Paul, who’s also a member of Ryerson University’s fashion advisory board. “Instead, I ask them, ‘How do we find inspiration from our own identities? And if we are inspired by other cultures, how do we ensure their voices are in there?’”

Sage Paul inspects costumes
Sage Paul checking out costumes on a tour of Cirque du Soleil’s HQ during last year’s Festival Mode et Design in Montreal.   Photo: The SAV Collective

These days, Paul is busy working on costume designs for TV, film and theatre projects, including the upcoming CBC Gem sci–fi series Utopia Falls and Marie Clements’ play The Unnatural and Accidental Women, showing this month at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. She’s also planning next year’s IFWTO, which runs from May 28–31. The full lineup of designers is yet to be announced, but Canadian new–media artist Skawennati is working on a collection of resistance wear, while visual artist Amy Malbeuf will be contributing home–tanned leather pieces for all body types and gender expressions.

Since launching IFWTO, Paul has connected with the wider Indigenous fashion community in Canada and beyond: She was in Calgary last fall for their Indigenous fashion week, Otahpiaaki, and in London in February to produce Curtis Oland’s collection, Delicate Tissue, for the International Fashion Showcase at London Fashion Week, which highlighted 16 emerging designers from around the world. From the Okanagan Valley and of Lil’wat heritage, Oland was the showcase’s first Indigenous designer from Canada chosen to participate.

“There is a global movement of designers who are not just clothing our communities, but carrying on traditions, stories and our ways of life,” says Paul. “There is so much happening in Indigenous fashion, it gives me hope for the future.”

Three Spots to Shop

Kensington Market, Toronto “I love finding beads, fur, printed materials, vintage jewellery and interesting textiles that can be transformed and upcycled.”

Halford’s, Edmonton “They have so many hand–tanned hides and other incredible materials here.”

Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto marketplace “The handmade items are traditional or contemporary, and come with stories rich with Indigenous culture, history and beauty.”