Design Mind: Joleen Mitton, Founder of Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week

For our design issue, we sat down with some of the city's most interesting makers, organizers and artists—including Joleen Mitton, who is moving the fashion dial.

September 7, 2018

By Laryssa Vachon

Vancouver’s first Indigenous Fashion Week (VIFW) may have extended its runway only last July, but this display of the city’s Aboriginal roots left a strong imprint on the local fashion scene thanks to the work of VIFW founder Joleen Mitton a former model of Plains Cree descent. After working in Asia for years, she thought she was done with the fashion world—until she realized she could use this part of her to inspire Indigenous youth.

Outfit: Sho Sho Esqurio. Photo: Evaan Kheraj. Shot on location at the Polygon Gallery.

How did you start up VIFW?

The idea came up about seven years ago, and it came into fruition last year for Canada’s 150-plus excursion. It was kind of timely for Canada’s 150th birthday—to have the fashion week during that time [when there were protests all over the country that highlighted Indigenous history, culture and rights].

Do you ever want to coordinate with Vancouver Fashion Week?

We can definitely talk about collaboration, but I think Indigenous fashion and the regular fashion world don’t really go together in terms of sustainability because the fashion world is a dirty place…a very dirty place. The fashion industry is the second-largest polluter on the planet, between clothing waste and the water that’s used for mass fabric production.

Vancouver doesn’t really have an identity. It’s still a young city, so it’s kind of figuring out where it’s supposed to be.”    

How do you think that your work specifically has impacted the way Vancouverites experience the city?

It makes us [Indigenous people] visible. I guess it’s too soon to tell—like, we just had our fashion week. It seems like people want it again, which is a great feeling. Indigenous ways of being can help a lot of people, and not just First Nations people. They can help everyone.

How would you describe the style and design scene in Vancouver?

Vancouver doesn’t really have an identity. It’s still a young city, so it’s kind of figuring out where it’s supposed to be. It’s still in its teenager stage for sure.

What inspires your own personal work?

Mostly the kids that I work with. I was a community support worker before all this [VIFW] stuff started. Basically, those kids didn’t feel comfortable in their own skin and they were really looking up to some people that I didn’t think they should be looking up to. I know fashion is a vehicle to figure out who they are. It’s hard to keep the kids engaged and what kept them there was media and stuff that’s shiny and beautiful. So that’s kind of what sparked the idea for fashion week.

I really didn’t want to go back into fashion or be a part of that industry at all, and I guess the reason why I didn’t want to be with VFW, a bigger fashion week, was because I think what we have is small but it’s also pretty sacred. And I really don’t wanna globalize it too much because it’s such a niche thing.

How has your view of design changed since starting VIFW?

Seeing the city and watching it turn more Indigenous with art—when I was a kid, I didn’t see that stuff. So having the Survivor [Totem] Pole that was raised a couple years ago in Pigeon Park and seeing more Indigenous stuff pop up, it just makes me feel more comfortable in a city that’s Indigenous because I’m Indigenous.

Outfit: Sho Sho Esquiro. Photo: Evaan Kheraj. Shot on location at the Polygon Gallery.

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