Meet the Woman Behind Vancouver’s First Indigenous Fashion Week
Model-turned-social-worker Joleen Mitton brings together a love of fashion and a passion for mentoring youth for her inaugural event.
July 12, 2017
When talent scouts plucked a 15-year-old Joleen Mitton from a crowd of faces at the PNE in 1999, she had no idea it would propel her into the globetrotting life of an international model. For eight years, Mitton was based in East Asia, living in Taiwan and Hong Kong and traveling to Korea and Guam while modelling for top international agency Elite. But while the lifestyle was a glamorous one, it ultimately proved hollow. “As a model you’re like a canvas for anyone, so you kind of get lost in who you are and what you’re supposed to be,” she says.
Facing an identity crisis after years of acting as a blank slate, Mitton left the fashion industry and returned to Vancouver in 2008 where she reconnected with her own Indigenous community and began mentoring Aboriginal girls in the Downtown Eastside. Now, the model-turned-social-worker is uniting her love of fashion with her passion for supporting and celebrating Indigenous culture with Vancouver’s first Indigenous Fashion Week, which debuts at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre this month.
While designers and artists come together in the city for other events like Vancouver Fashion Week, or Eco Fashion Week, Indigenous communities have often been sidelined from the fashion industry, says Mitton. Meanwhile, Indigenous imagery and designs are often incorporated in commercial fashion without the proper context, understanding of their cultural significance, or credit to their origins. This was something that particularly bothered Mitton looking back at her years abroad in the fashion industry—at such an impressionable age she often felt she didn’t have an identity of her own, even as the industry routinely exploited Indigenous culture. But she didn’t grow up with a strong sense of her culture either, Mitton says, noting her grandmother rarely spoke about her heritage—a mix of Plains Cree, French and Scottish ancestry.
Indigenous Fashion Week came about by accident, a result of Mitton’s work with the Pacific Association of First Nations’ Women (PAFNW). After coming back from abroad, she began working with the organization to lead cultural activities with a group of young girls aged eight to 14 in the Aboriginal Urban Butterflies Day Camp. Mitton hosted beading workshops, arts and crafts and day trips, but pop culture often overshadowed interest in these activities—the girls looked up to celebrities that embodied stereotypes and didn’t represent who they were. It troubled Mitton, who felt that she had grown up experiencing other cultures without opportunity to practice her own.
Later she worked with many of the same girls as they grew up through PAFNW’s Mentor Me program, which caters to girls and women aged 14 to 25 who are aging out of foster care. Unable to keep their attention with cooking lessons and resumé-writing workshops, many of them stopped attending. That’s when Mitton opened up for the first time about her modelling career and realized she’d hit on a point of genuine interest. She started organizing fashion shows to bring the girls back into the group, and it inspired her to go bigger with Indigenous Fashion Week, which will feature over 30 designers—most of whom are Indigenous—and many of the girls Mitton has mentored as models.
The fusion of fashion and Indigenous identity has created a powerful point of entry for many of these young women to begin to explore their own culture, says Mitton. “It’s a safe haven for them because it’s an Indigenous identity tool to get them more connected with who they are,” she says, adding it’s also given many of them a reason to stay in her programs. “I’ve trained them and they’ve stuck close, which is the nice thing because I think a lot of these kids don’t have places to turn.”
With some of Canada’s best-known Indigenous designers, such as Métis fashion designer Evan Ducharme and Kaska Dene-Cree designer Sho Sho Esquiro, on tap to show work during the four-day event, Mitton hopes her models will come away with a stronger connection to their culture—quite the opposite effect that she experienced while walking on international runways. “I have had a life that people would think that they would want,” she says. “[But] at the end of the day you need to know who you are and need to have a reason to be here.”
Indigenous Fashion Week runs every night from July 26 to 29, starting at 5:00 p.m. each evening at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. It will commence with an opening ceremony, followed by a Street Style event. For a Red Dress event the night of July 28 organized by activist Lorelei Williams, attendees will be asked to dress in red in honour of missing and murdered Indigenous women, before drawing to a close the following night. Tickets are free.
Check back to see a few of our favourite designs from Indigenous Fashion Week!