Indigenous Culture, International Stages: Jill Setah Designs a Future in Indigenous Fashion
“I just do it because I have a vision of bringing Indigenous culture to those international stages,” Jill Setah shares, speaking to the motivation she has in her work as a fashion designer. Setah is from the Yunesit'in Government and resides on the territory of the Westbank First Nation. She’s the middle child among six siblings and her own children inspired her to get into the work she does as a designer.
Setah grew up on the powwow trail, knowing the joy of being proud of who she is, dancing and getting to know people as part of a celebration of culture. Her son needed new regalia as he grew out of his tiny-tot outfit and so she set out to make a junior boys grass dance outfit, sewn by hand and by memory of attending powwows. That outfit was the first of many and a whole new life in fashion.
As a mother of four, her days are long, between work and family responsibilities. She gathers, hunts and fishes with her husband and explores her culture. As she made that first outfit by hand, her husband suggested a sewing machine would be easier. She didn’t know how to use one and he showed her. She made some more outfits and while working at the Kelowna Friendship Center Society, she was thirsting to pursue fashion.
She talked to the cook at the Centre, daydreaming about moving to Vancouver to pursue her dream. Her colleague suggested she check out the local program and after taking a tour, she wanted to go so badly, but worried it was too short notice to get band support. They ended up coming through for her and now she’s a fashion designer.
“I create only for myself because I love the things I create.”
“My favourite part is being able to bring my visions to life,” she explains, describing the way she gathers fabrics and notions, not knowing what she will create until she starts cutting the fabric and her visions start to come together. Many designers sketch what they will make in advance but Setah takes a more intuitive approach. Everything she makes is a one-off, as she doesn’t have the manpower to create in volume.
When she thinks about the favourite thing she’s made, Setah can’t choose. “I think all of them are my favourite because they all tell a story. I wanted to incorporate more of our storytelling into things like women's shirts, ribbon skirts, just so that we could keep our stories alive and well in our culture. Every piece I create is my favourite because they all come from my vision,” she smiles.
She tells people who ask what she does that she’s an international Indigenous designer because she’s shown in international fashion capitals, in Vancouver, LA, New York, Paris, and just recently London, England. She’s found support for her work through the First People's Cultural Council to fund these ventures, along with fundraising, GoFundMe, and social media requests to get herself on those international stages.
Her travel experiences have been exciting but she’s faced some judgment navigating cities like Paris as a plus-sized woman. She feels eyes on her as she eats in public but she holds tight to her pride in those moments. “I am who I am and I'm super proud,” she grins.
Not graduating from high school didn’t stop her from achieving her dreams. She encourages her children to pursue their education and she found going to Fashion Design and Merchandising school challenging. Her advice to youth considering going into fashion is, “learn to take breaks and not give up. There were many times in fashion school that I wanted to give up. Because just learning the inches, quarter inches, three-quarters of an inch, it was definitely challenging and hard. I remember the halfway point of my two years, I was crying and I was telling my husband, ‘I just want to give up, I don't want to do it anymore,” she recalls.
She made a mistake on her jacket and had to buy more expensive material to fix it. Setah just wanted to give up. In that moment of frustration, her husband bought the material and offered to help. “He was such a huge support and he still is to this day,” she recounts. She didn’t want her kids to think giving up on finishing college was okay. In addition to her fashion program, she’s completed an Aboriginal community support worker certificate and she’s trained as an Indigenous doula.
“Everything in life is hard. Nothing comes easy. But it's all worth it in the end.”
Thinking about the future, Setah is full of hope. She talks about what she wants most, “to see our Indigenous people succeed. I want the world to understand that we, as Indigenous people, have been through so much. I want us to start healing, even if it's taking small steps, so we can all thrive.” In that healing, she sees a new way forward. “I think we can be such a powerful nation,” she dreams aloud. She hopes non-Indigenous people will learn the true history of Canada and why there is so much pain so they can understand better.
Growing up, raised by residential school survivors, the struggles and poverty meant they didn’t celebrate birthdays. As an adult, she experienced domestic violence and her two eldest children’s father died by suicide at the age of 19. She raised her children and felt isolated in following the ways she learned to deal with things as a child.
“We didn't talk about it, and you cried about it, and then you had to just keep walking,” she recalls. She wants people to know that just because her fashions appear on runways around the world, it does not mean she has walked an easy road. “I've worked hard for everything that I have now,” she explains, thinking of how she maintained a Habitat for Humanity house on reserve. “I just want the younger generation to know: don't give up. If the road does get hard, learn to rest and keep going, because it's not easy, but it's so worth it,” she advises.
Jill Setah has a vision of bringing Indigenous culture to those international stages with unique designs, one at a time. The struggles she’s experienced have felt ugly, but she’s making beautiful clothing and setting an example for her children through hard work, determination and intense pride in who she is and how far she’s come. She creates for herself but in sharing her vision, she’s creating space for others on runways by promoting Indigenous fashion. Her heart is in community, but her dreams are international, and they are coming true.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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