Beaded earrings by Jessie Pruden. Photography by HAND BY MOLLY PRATT. Graphic by Leo Tapel

Long before “sustainability” became a buzzword, Indigenous manufacturers were cultivating environmentally friendly designs.

Long before fast fashion brands had resale platforms and luxury brands used recycled leather, Indigenous artisans cultivated a community of makers who harvested the land responsibly and created unique and meaningful designs in the process. Our clothes were designed for survival, using resources that protected us from the elements while celebrating our heritage. And we rejected the 20th century throwaway culture of more traditional makers who, as a mixed-race designer Justine Bois said, embraced the ethos of “How can I make this garment the fastest while paying the least?”

But the Western world is slowly catching up, and Indigenous creators are (finally!) being recognized in the process. During her installation ceremony, Canada’s first Indigenous Governor General, Mary Simon, wore a dress by Inuit designer Victoria Okpik adorned with beads by artist Julie Grenier of Kuujjuaq. Warren Steven Scott – from the Nlaka’pamux Nation in British Columbia – has exploded on social media during the pandemic for his colorful earrings. And Jessie Pruden, a Métis pearler from Manitoba, is now working with New York fashion retailer Flying Solo for Paris Fashion Week.

Despite this recent surge in popularity, the practices, techniques and traditions of these Aboriginal designers remain steeped in history and connect their garments to the future and the past. Here are some sustainable Indigenous practices to consider for creating your own fashion footprint.

Consider the source

The sustainable fashion practices of Indigenous designers are not just about who makes the clothes; they are pretty much where the material for clothes comes from. Haida/Cree designer Erin Brillon talks about the traditional economy, where Indigenous peoples traded with those closest geographically first. Métis artist Wenzdae Anaïs Dimaline explains that local sourcing reduces shipping and emissions, supporting the community’s economic resurgence. Her boutique, Culture Coven, which opened in March 2022, works with brands from people of color and the LGBTQIA2S+ community. Woods says it’s a “gift economy” because it relies on broad participation of people who give and receive according to their abilities and needs. Payout is not exclusive to money market funds; rather, it is open to the exchange of gifts or services. It encourages shoppers to consider alternatives to buying new things and disposing of old ones while simultaneously building a strong community

To slow down

My father grew up on the land. He told me that time works differently for native people. There was never any need to rush; it was about patience and following animal patterns: taking what you needed, not what you wanted, to preserve the earth and its resources. Métis designer Anne Mulaire Dandeneau’s intention, shared by every Indigenous artist in the industry I’ve spoken with, is to take care of the planet you walk on. It was the original form of slow fashion – the one that focuses on the whole process. The art and practice of beading is another good example; you are forced to slow down and breathe.

waste nothing

By the late 1800s, bison were nearly extinct. Animals that Indigenous peoples once depended on for sustenance were over-hunted by settlers because parts of their bodies were valuable. In contrast, Aboriginal people used every part of the bison, leaving nothing to lose. This practice continues to be a priority for Aboriginal designers working today. Leftovers from different seasons are reused. Victoria Kakuktinniq takes scraps of furs, skins and other materials and uses them for accessories like gloves, headbands, hats and handbags. Just like in the 19th century, 100% of the animal is used and the trapping and harvesting is done ethically.

Make it meaningful

Lesley Hampton, an Anishinaabe designer from Temagami First Nation, says clothing should be “an intimate, personal choice” that, like a story, is passed down from generation to generation. Rather than being discarded, the object – and its intent, meaning and craftsmanship – is a source of pride and honor. For example, the ribbon skirt is a symbol of resilience and survival; traditionally, the fringes of the skirt touched the earth and its remedies. Elder Myra Laramee says that this way, “Mother Earth will always know who is making their presence felt on her back”. Fashion as a lineage transcends trends and as a result badges are worn repeatedly for years. Haudenosaunee designer Niio Perkins points out that Caroline Parker, a Seneca beader, wore a cotton dress and beaded skirt in the mid-19th century that is still around today. Talk about sustainability.

This article first appeared in THE FASHION April issue. Learn more here.

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