Joleen Mitton is the founder of the Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week. Identifying as Plains Cree from the Sawridge Nation in Alberta, Joleen was born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia.
As a child, Joleen’s ambition was to be a police officer and a basketball player, but the opportunity to travel to Taiwan as a fashion model when she was just 15 years old took her on an entirely different path. For eight years she worked internationally in the world of beauty and fashion.
And as exciting as that early experience was, it came with challenges. “Being a model is like not having your own identity for a while because you’re a blank slate for all these different clients.” So, when Joleen returned to Canada, she felt she really needed to reconnect to her roots.
Joleen began volunteering (and later, working) with the Pacific Association of First Nations Women, and their Urban Butterflies programme. Through this programme, First Nations and Metis girls aged 7 to 14 who are currently in foster care come together to explore their culture, their spirituality, and the emotional challenges they face being separated from their families. These girls provided Joleen with a profoundly different perspective. “The kids were really amazing and super sweet. I felt it was like the thing that was missing because modeling and that whole world is quite shallow.”
The girls also inspired Joleen to reconsider inclusion in the fashion industry. “A lot of these kids are living with families that are not First Nations….When I noticed this, I was super troubled by it…. I just wanted them to like being able to look up to someone who looks like them instead of all these Disney characters which had nothing to do with them or had represented them in any way.”
Joleen decided to bring together her two worlds and provide young Indigenous girls with inclusive role models by creating the Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week. “I have a lot of friends who are artists, have a lot of friends who work in social justice, have a lot of friends who are obviously really deep into their culture. So [I] try to swirl all the things together at once.”
Many of the girls from the Urban Butterflies programme became runway models for Joleen’s Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week, which began in 2017. “That first little group of young people that we’ve had, who’ve never walked the runway before. Who’ve never been seen before. A lot of these kids don’t feel seen in their homes. So having them walk down the runway just changed a lot of lives, I feel.”
The Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week is an enormous annual affair requiring a lot of effort, teamwork, strategy, and of course money. But the results it can reap are invaluable. Joleen reflects on the positive effects modeling can have on the children who participate in the shows: “Some kid who’s had a rough year and then you see them walk down the runway and everything’s worth it. All that crazy production stuff, like finances, all those things. That’s all worth it just to see that one like girl going down the runway and is killing it. It’s just amazing!”
Joleen wants everyone who participates in her shows to feel the pride of who they are. “Fashion Week kind of brings an opportunity to present yourself in the best way you can. You’re representing your family. You’re representing your clan, all those things. So that’s one of the beautiful parts of Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week.”
Joleen’s mother experienced the trauma of the “60s scoop”: when masses of Indigenous children were snatched from their homes by the Canadian government and sent to residential schools, where they often suffered physical and emotional cruelty and were denied access to their own culture. So it seems fitting that along with the creations of Indigenous designers, the Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week also carries some powerful political messages. “Our red dress event for the dedication to the murdered and missing women, which was really amazing, and was probably my favourite night. Some of these looks are like New York scale. [We] have some really great talent here on Turtle Island that a lot of people don’t know about.”
Joleen’s mother had the opportunity to reclaim some of her Indigenous culture heritage during Joleen’s events, as youngsters and elders all came together to celebrate Indigenous fashion. “My mom, being like a very darker skin person than myself, she had a hard time in school and not feeling comfortable about being Indigenous. And getting my mom a ribbon skirt [a traditional Plains Cree garment symbolic of sacred womanhood] for the first time and doing all these things with her, what she wasn’t comfortable doing back in the day. It’s like Fashion Week is for her and for the older people as well, it’s not just for the younger people.”
When it comes to the Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week, Joleen is proud to say, “It is more like ceremony, but there is definitely a flare to it where there’s something for everyone at fashion week!”
Special thanks to Jessica Dee Humphreys for authoring this blog post.
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