Sage Paul is an urban Denesųłįné tskwe based in Toronto and a member of English River First Nation. A recognized leader of Indigenous fashion, craft, and textiles, her art and design work centers family, sovereignty, and resistance for balance. Paul is also founding collective member and Artistic Director of Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto. Her many accolades include recognition as a “Changemaker” by the Toronto Star (2018), one of 25 Canadian Women of Influence (2018), and a Toronto “cool girl” by Vogue (2018). In 2017, she received the Design Exchange RBC Emerging Designer Award (2017).
As a designer and artist, I’ve always felt like an outsider watching the mainstream fashion industry in the media—an industry that did not reflect who I am: an urban Denesųłįné woman. Styles from my community were not represented in the retail or media spectrums. When I did see what was intended to be Indigenous fashion, it was a disappointing pan-Indian stereotype. This is what compelled me to pursue a career in fashion.
In 2011, I started Authentic Appropriations, a street-style blog of urban contemporary Indigenous fashion. I created my first collaborative collection in 2012, a show at the Harbourfront Centre, an arts complex in Toronto, that brought together Indigenous fashion, jewelry, and accessory designers; choreographers; DJs; and producers. Those events were significant precursors to my present professional life.
After 2012, I saw the breadth of work being created in fashion and its connection to land, identity, and culture grow. For example, I noticed many artists and designers were actively reclaiming traditional practices like hide tanning, interpreting generations-old stories on contemporary ribbon skirts, and writing Indigenous languages and culture on jewelry and outerwear. Still, this made little impression on mainstream fashion platforms, and Indigenous representation continued to be tokenized or ignored altogether.
I realized: Native fashion needed its own platform. Together, Kerry Swanson, Heather Haynes, and I founded Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto (IFWTO) with the intention of bringing fashion, arts, and culture together, grounded in Indigenous knowledge, ways of life, and storytelling. We wanted a venue to connect audiences to artistic and cultural expression that celebrates and advances Indigenous artists and designers.
In 2018, IFWTO launched, presenting 23 designers at four sold-out runway shows that also featured Indigenous musicians, five designers in an art exhibition, 54 exhibitors in the marketplace, five hands-on workshops, six panel discussions, unprecedented mainstream media coverage, and a range of events that connected industry representatives and Indigenous designers. Most importantly, it brought together family, audiences, and diverse markets from across Turtle Island and the world to celebrate Indigenous expression in fashion, crafts, and textiles—success that extends beyond a single fashion show.
Evolving my first fashion show in 2012 to IFWTO in 2018 took an incredible amount of work, visioning, and collaboration. With many Indigenous designers and leaders, we carved out space for our fashion to thrive, staking out space for “Indigenous fashion.”