With a toddler at her side, Robyn McLeod sat at her sewing machine, back hunched as she leaned over the stitching in front of her. The rabbit and moosehide jacket was the final piece in her collection, Dene Futurism, which would be showcased on a Toronto runway later that week. There, at the Indigenous Fashion Arts Festival, hundreds of photographers, editors and national trend-setters would be seeing her work for the first time.
Although nervous, McLeod was excited for the opportunity to show off her inventive designs—a mix of traditional and futuristic looks that represent her Dene and Métis roots. “This is my first collection, so I was really making my own patterns right from scratch and trying out things I had never sewn before,” says McLeod, from her home in Ross River, Yukon, just days before the June 2022 event. “A lot of it is going to be contemporary designs or inspired by contemporary designs, but also inspired by things in the past.”
McLeod’s work reimagines how Indigenous women would have incorporated their own fashions with those of the settler women who first arrived in the North during the late-1800s. Dene Futurism includes several floor-length dresses and A-line petal skirts made with plaid and moosehide, and adorned with floral patterns often seen on "Granny hankies," as they are called.
She was one of several Indigenous designers from across Canada set to unveil their work at the Toronto fashion show. “I think it’s about time that there’s representation of Indigenous peoples,” says McLeod, who was raised in Fort Providence, NWT and studied art and design in Vancouver and Dawson City. “Hopefully… I can bring fashion from Denendeh and the Yukon forward to highlight [our] people.”
And the work of Northern designers belongs on the catwalk, because, McLeod says, Indigenous designs and high fashion are one in the same. “We’ve always had very high-quality clothes as Dene and Métis peoples. We always use the best materials, the best fabrics, the best beads. Everything [we choose to incorporate] is the prettiest, so you want to create something that’s not going to disintegrate after a few years.” McLeod says she still owns garments that have been in her family for generations.
The fast fashion of today would never have cut it in the North. Here, innovative Indigenous designers had to make clothes to withstand extreme temperatures and sometimes unforgiving landscapes. Creating these traditional pieces obviously took time, care and patience. McLeod, like other Northern designers, honours that dedication to quality by using the right materials and putting in long hours to create her unique designs.
This, according to NWT fashion designer D’Arcy Moses, is the essence of couture. High fashion isn’t necessarily embodied in the conspicuous mashups by Gucci or Dior. Moses says it’s all about the detail, expression and artistic skill the designer puts into a piece. “It’s like a discipline. It’s a culmination of embellishment techniques—whether that’s beadwork, embroidery, quillwork or ribbon work,” says Moses. “It’s also the discipline of constructing pieces that fit well and are extremely well-made. Quality is the most important.”
Moses has been a trail-blazing designer for more than 30 years. Today, his collections—featuring modern button dresses, digitally embroidered T-shirts, and fur coats—have earned him a place with high-end retailers like Holt Renfrew and Saks Fifth Avenue across North America, Europe and Asia. For Moses, every stitch requires careful consideration and must be done on the best fabrics. It’s no wonder he has practically become a household name in the fashion world.
He isn’t stingy when it comes to sharing his spotlight. The designer recently spent three weeks teaching other Indigenous designers how to build up their portfolios. At an artist residency in Banff, he helped designers hone their skills and bring designs from the development stage to the couture level by incorporating a variety of traditional embellishments.
Tishna Marlowe, a Dënesųłıné designer born in Lutselk’e, NWT and now living in Alberta, was one of 10 designers to participate in Moses’ program. She appreciated the opportunity to discuss ideas in sharing circles and learn traditional techniques from experts. “They brought in Lucy Yakeleya and Suzan Marie, who are both amazing artisans from the Northwest Territories, and they taught us beading and quillwork and tufting,” Marlowe says. “That was really nice to get hands-on instructions from such amazing artisans.”
Marlowe says she spent roughly 150 hours during that program creating a skirt and vest combination inspired by the Victorian era—a time period that has influenced her designs for years now. The ankle-length skirt was made from black taffeta, an upcycled vintage wool skirt and a chiffon underskirt. Embellished with dyed caribou antlers, floral embroidery and several types of beads, the look combines Dene designs with a Victorian silhouette. “I beaded the outlines of the embroidery with 14-karat gold, added fish scales and green [painted] antlers,” Marlowe adds.
When Marlowe began her career in 2012, Indigenous fashion had only just begun to spread into the mainstream. Indigenous Fashion Arts, a non-profit organization, had launched on a national scale that same year to promote Indigenous designers, and more artists began to branch out beyond their home communities. Marlowe began showcasing her gowns and corsets at fashion shows in Alberta, the NWT and Yukon, and later at bigger events in B.C. and Toronto.
Each aspect of embellishment—from drying and dyeing fish scales to sewing in each quill through thick fabrics—takes hours of concentration and skill, but, for Marlowe, all that effort has been worth it.
“I feel like I helped create platforms and an [Indigenous] voice in the fashion industry because I was there in the beginning,” she says. “My contribution to Indigenous fashion is changing the way we look at materials and designs up here in the North.”
Around the time Marlowe’s business was taking off, Nunavut parka designer Victoria Kakuktinniq launched Victoria’s Arctic Fashion, putting a modern twist on the amauti and atigi by creating more fitted silhouettes and using brighter colours for the fabrics.
It wasn’t long before Kakuktinniq was paving the way for other Inuit designers, when her work landed on runways in Paris and New York. She was recently featured on the cover of fashion magazine ELLE Canada, alongside Inuk model Willow Allen, actor Marika Sila and TikTok social influencer Shina Novalinga.
The growing acceptance (and adoration) of Inuit fashion both nationally and internationally has helped open doors for Pond Inlet, Nunavut designer Martha Kyak, founder of the brand InukChic. Kyak, who has been sewing since she was a child, made her debut at Vancouver Fashion Week this past spring. It was a dream come true for the artist, who had models flaunt her strapless gowns with traditional Inuit tattoos screen-printed onto the tops. Her show also displayed her pastel parkas, and dresses with fringe, floral patterns and rounded tails traditionally seen on amautiit.
Kyak likes to screen-print her own artwork onto some of her design. One gown at Vancouver Fashion Week featured the face of an Inuk woman with traditional tattoos and cat-eye sunglasses depicted in a 1980s-style illustration. The image is iconic. “A design is like an empty canvas and I can just do whatever I want to do,” she says.
The creativity and detail in her work has impressed audiences across the country, including curators at Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Inuit art centre, Qaumajuq. The gallery commissioned Kyak to create a piece for Qaumajuq’s opening exhibit, titled INUA, and she delivered with a silk dress featuring dozens of sealskin flowers, each with a pearl bud in the middle.
The dyed flowers took Kyak and her cousin months to complete because they had to be cut just right. “I had three different sizes and had to hand-cut the sealskin for each one and to put it together,” Kyak says. The dress closely resembles the vision she had of blooming flowers in tundra colours. “I call it Our Flourishing Culture,” Kyak says. “I wanted it to be like part of the land and the colours that we see in the tundra.”
It’s gratifying for Kyak to see her work reaching new platforms across the country, alongside other Indigenous designers taking centre stage. These artists reflect their own cultures and history through their work, reminding settlers of the diversity, ingenuity and beauty of Indigenous techniques and designs, carried on through generations and added to today.
Vogue model Quannah Chasinghorse, who is Oglala Lakota and Han Gwich’in from Alaska, has made that point at the last two Met Galas in New York. When she walked down the red carpet in May 2022, a crowd stared in awe as she floated in an upcycled aqua tulle gown with a hand-embroidered sparkling neckline.
What made the look even more striking was the jewelry she wore across her collarbone. Blackfeet and Cree artist Lenise Omeasoo created the custom piece, which featured dentalium shells, porcupine quills and beads on moosehide. Chasinghorse also had two eagle feathers woven into her braids. The model told Insider magazine that between her accessories and facial tattoos, it felt like her ancestors were walking the red carpet with her. “That made me feel more powerful.
“Quannah is pushing the bar even further and going places where no Indigenous person has gone before,” says Marlowe, who adds that seeing Indigenous fashion on runways brings her hope for the future. “There have always been Indigenous designers, but we didn’t have platforms. We didn’t have acknowledgement…from Canadian society. But now we do. It took a lot of work to get here—for all Indigenous people, whether they were singers, artists, or fashion designers.”
It certainly took a lot of work for Robyn McLeod to get there—hours of creating, reworking and perfecting her designs back home in Ross River. When she stood behind the runway’s curtain in Toronto, after ensuring for the last time that every outfit sat just right, she watched each model walk past. She could hardly look out at the crowd, who had mere seconds to judge the painstaking collection that took McLeod months to complete. How would they react? she wondered.
When the last model circled back, it was McLeod’s turn to take the stage and there, she saw the appreciation in the eyes of the audience. “I’m just really grateful to be a part of Fashion Week in Toronto,” she says. “I’ll continue to keep working and doing good work.”