By S. Ritchie

Clothing is so much more than just pieces of fabric we put on in the morning. The way we dress our bodies is a visual representation of our culture and identity. It is an expression of our people, our environment, our art and our stories.

Fashion is a global language, one that both unifies and distinguishes. In northern Canada, Inuit clothing is deeply rooted in the traditional use of seal skin and fur. In the southern hemisphere, Australian Indigenous clothing can be identified by its flowing fabric and vibrant dot art. Even on Turtle Island, the art of moccasin-making varies greatly between nations and tribes.

Photo credit: Nadya Kwandibens, Red Works Photography

Yet, the westernized fashion industry suffers from a lack of inclusivity and cultural appropriation, and over the years Indigenous fashions have too often been stereotyped, commodified and exploited. This is starting to change, though, as Indigenous designers take to the world runways, reclaiming and showcasing the beauty of their cultures through cutting-edge couture.

This shift can also be seen in the rise of Indigenous fashion weeks, taking place all over the world in recent years, in places like Paris, France; Sydney, Australia; Sante Fe, USA; and Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto, Canada.

Coming up in May 2020, the second biennial Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto (IFWTO) is bringing together more than 23 Canadian and international Indigenous artists and designers to share their cultures through design, fashion, textiles and crafts. While the name says fashion week, the four-day event is really a celebration of art and culture. In addition to four main runway events, IFWTO also features special programs, a marketplace, an art exhibit, workshops and panels.

Photo credit: Nadya Kwandibens, Red Works Photography

For many Indigenous designers, fashion is a way to tell their stories, and IFWTO centres its runways around the art of storytelling. Each of the four 2020 runway showcases focuses on a different theme of water, encouraging each designer to tell a story that is unique to their culture, and to them. TU GH’EH NAH (Water is Life) features fashions created as a form of protest; TU CHO (Big Water) showcases designs celebrating the way water connects us; TU GH’EG TL’E’TH (Streams) spotlights rivers as the earth’s lifeblood; and TU GH’EL T’ILHN (Water Carriers) celebrates women as carriers of life.

“The programmed runway artists and designers are diverse and individually unique in vision, style, skill and form,” said Sage Paul, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of IFWTO. “They have created beautiful collections of garments, accessories and jewellery that carry cultural continuity in their artistic creation and presentation and promote the economic development of our communities that I think will insightfully captivate audiences.”

Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto takes place May 28-31, 2020. For more information on the event and to see the complete list of designers, go to

Photo credit: Nadya Kwandibens, Red Works Photography