Lesley Hampton is an Indigenous fashion designer. That doesn’t mean her outfits come with feathers or whatever other signifiers non-Indigenous consumers presume she has to offer.
Believe it or not, these are the expectations people, particularly in the media, have of Hampton. She refers to the questions and comments she gets from settlers who look at her gowns and athletic wear and wonder where the fringe or headdress is at, or how she shows her Indigeneity through her designs.
“It’s Indigenous design because I’m Indigenous,” answers Hampton. “I don’t want people’s stereotypes of what they think Indigenous fashion is to be applied to my work.”
The Anishinaabe Mohawk designer is speaking to NOW from her studio, where her team is putting the final touches on their upcoming made-to-order fall/holiday collection. The collection is called Creatures Of The Present and it won’t be playing into any preconceived notions of what Indigenous fashion should be.
Hampton’s work is inclusive, made for a variety of body types and self-reflective, channeling whatever journey she’s on through fabric and flow – whether its healing, dealing with her mental health or reconnecting with her community. And that work has been finding its way on to runways, red carpets and your Instagram feed ever since Hampton’s first collection showed at Vancouver Fashion Week and ended up on Vogue Runway.
Last year, CTV’s eTalk host Lainey Lui was featured in Vogue, the Hollywood Reporter and BuzzFeed’s best dressed list for wearing a Lesley Hampton cape and gown to the Golden Globes, stealing some shine from Nicole Kidman and Kerry Washington. Earlier this year, singer Lizzo got eyeballs on Hampton’s Robust collection when she posted a video of herself sporting the gym wear while running and singing on a treadmill. And just a few weeks ago, Reservation Dogs star Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs presented at the Emmys wearing a Hampton-made tulle gown with sequins, beading and ostrich feathers.
“That had feathers on an Indigenous actress, but I think it was done in such a way that you didn’t make that connection,” says Hampton. She explains that she likes to play with expectations, making sure she doesn’t make anything that appropriates so that it can be worn by anyone.
Now Hampton is on our cover alongside Night Raiders star Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers modelling some of the wares from her upcoming collection, which will launch on October 14.
Creatures Of The Present
We’re on the rooftop of the Elevation Pictures downtown office days after the TIFF premiere of Danis Goulet’s residential school allegory Night Raiders, which opens in theatres Friday. Vancouver-based actor and filmmaker Tailfeathers plays a protective mother in the eerie dystopian thriller, which is set in a near future where children are removed from their families.
To our surprise, Tailfeathers is meeting Hampton for the first time. The two follow each other’s work, have plenty of mutuals and instantly connect like old friends while donning Hampton’s latest evening wear. At one point during our photo shoot, they are wrapped around each other so close Tailfeathers jokes that these can be their engagement photos.
Hampton is wearing a turquoise pleated crepe skirt and single-sleeve top, which has a lovely matte texture that can stretch to accommodate any size. The designer says she felt the stretch was essential considering everyone’s varying body journeys through COVID. She compliments the ensemble with Spirit Mukluks, white leather and fur boots from Manitobah Mukluks.
Tailfeathers is wearing a yellow tulle evening gown with laser-cut chiffon circles sewn to make waves as she moves. Along with the gown, she’s sporting a pair of earrings from Native Arts Society, an Indigenous Two-Spirit and trans-led storefront organization supporting their adjacent organization Toronto Indigenous Harm Reduction, which provides houseless people with health and food supplies and more.
These are the most colourful items from Hampton’s collection, which is largely black and white, and also includes a wool bomber jacket, two more gowns and versatile knitwear and lounge designs. The collection takes inspiration from Benjamin Chee Chee, the late Ojibway artist from Temagami First Nation (same as Hampton) who is famous for spare, linear and graceful drawings of geese. Like Hampton’s collection, most of Chee Chee’s portraits were black-and-white with notes of yellow and blue.
Chee Chee described his birds as “creatures of the present.” Hampton wanted to channel the emotions in his paintings into dress and translate the idea of being “creatures of the present” to living in the moment, with some post-COVID energy. “We’re finally reintroducing our evening wear, which we haven’t really been able to do in the last two years,” she says. “So it’s exciting to bring that back to our collections, as people are able to wear our work and go out into the world again.”
But Hampton also describes Chee Chee’s artwork as a reconnection story that feels reflective of her own journey. The designer has been consistently using fashion to explore her family’s roots and find her community. And the birds in Chee Chee’s paintings echo the migration pattern of Hampton’s own way home.
Hampton moved around a lot. She was born in Newfoundland to an Anishinaabe and Mohawk mother and Scottish father. She would spend years in Calgary, Yellowknife, New Caledonia, Australia, Indonesia and so on. “I always say where I feel most at home is on a plane.”
Like so many, Hampton grew up disconnected from her culture. She remembers being five in Yellowknife when a blond-haired, blue-eyed friend pointed out that National Aboriginal Day (as it was called back then) was celebrating Hampton and her people. “This girl already differentiated,” Hampton recalls, explaining how that was the first time she realized she was not just like her friend.
Hampton has been reconnecting with her Anishinaabe and Mohawk roots over the past decade, while studying art at U of T, and then fashion at George Brown. And she poured that energy into her designs. Her first collection, City Warriors, was about Indigenous people in urban landscapes. The collection, which was made in her first semester at school and showed at both Vancouver Fashion Week and Fashion Art Toronto, featured Hampton’s take on a jingle dress, a ceremonial outfit worn during powwows with cones that make music with movement.
“The sound the cones make when they hit together and the dance itself is supposed to have healing qualities,” says Hampton. “I really love the idea of translating that to an inclusive fashion show where there could be healing on the runway, where more people are included and invited to take up space.”
Hampton didn’t use actual jingle cones. That would have been appropriation of a sacred item. Instead, she incorporates hand-cut metallic tabs that would dance as the dresses moved. “That was my jingle for this collection.”
Tailfeathers – who has written in NOW about the importance of healing for Indigenous people who have been separated from their community – sees fashion, like so many other mediums and forms of expression, as a natural avenue to reconnect. She points to beadwork, which is being passed down to new generations from Indigenous elders. “It’s a form of cultural healing, given everything that’s happened to our people in our cultures and our forms of expression,” says Tailfeathers. “When it comes to Indigenous fashion – and beadwork especially – so much of that is rooted in family connections, lineage and learning from community.”
For Hampton, pursuing fashion has led her to community. Indigenous Fashion Week’s artistic director Sage Paul not only became a mentor but also tapped Hampton’s designs for wardrobe on films like Through Black Spruce and Darlene Naponse’s upcoming end-of-the-world romance Stellar (which also stars Tailfeathers). And Tailfeathers emphasizes how important it is that Indigenous filmmakers and designers are collaborating, correcting a history of settler-made cinema that has reduced traditional Indigenous fashion to fantasies of feathers and buckskin. That’s just a tiny example of how a new generation of Indigenous artists, designers, storytellers and multi-hyphenates are collaborating, uplifting each other, building safe spaces and community, reconnecting, pursuing narrative sovereignty and representing.
“You see a connection across all of those forms of expression that’s very community based,” says Tailfeathers. But she also adds that representing the community comes with its own set of responsibilities and ethical questions, especially considering the trauma that the Indigenous community grapples with and how a given work may impact them.
Hampton felt the weight of that responsibility earlier this year, when a dress from her Eighteen Seventy Six Collection meant to raise awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people (MMIWG2S) was deemed triggering. The cream-coloured dress worn by Miss Universe winner Ashley Callingbull in 2019 was covered in red dots representing the missing and murdered. The dress was initially a hit when Hampton and Callingbull unveiled it at during Toronto Fashion Week, bringing attention to the issue just months after the final report from the national inquiry into MMIWG was published. “As one of the only Indigenous designers who is showing at Toronto Fashion Week, I wanted to put this out in the world as an ally.”
But when Callingbull reposted a photo of the dress to her Instagram this last February (two years later), some commentators and activist took issue, saying that the dots looked like blood. They argued that the dress exploits the MMIWG2S issue, selling violence and traumatizes those who lost people in their lives.
“It was never my intention to make it look like blood,” says Hampton, explaining that she has since archived away all the images of the dress from her website out of respect for those who voiced their concern. “I’m just upset that I upset people.”
Hampton says a lot of the conversation that came from the controversy was considered and valuable, particularly in respects to how victims’ families felt. But others taking issue with the dress for being alluring had a “had it coming” tone that leans into victim blaming. Then there was the scrutiny over Hampton’s own identity, and whether she should be allowed to speak to MMIWG2S issues.
Hampton is visibly pained as she goes back over that period, admitting that it was very difficult and emotional to go through that controversy, particularly during COVID-19 lockdowns, when her mental health wasn’t great anyway. “I didn’t feel like I belonged to the community that I was trying so hard to be a part of. There was a lot of lateral violence. There is a lot of lateral violence within Indigenous communities. To feel a lot of that and not feel cemented in my Indigeneity was hard.”
“I don’t know if non-Indigenous people can necessarily understand what lateral violence is,” says Tailfeathers. “If people want to learn about it, they can read Frantz Fanon and learn about what internalized oppression is. It’s a way of taking trauma and aggression that comes from colonialism out on our own people, because maybe some of us haven’t processed the trauma that we’ve experienced throughout our lives.”
Tailfeathers adds that things have been particularly fraught within the Indigenous community after the misrepresentations of identity that happened with Joseph Boyden and Michelle Latimer, which created a “heightened sense of insecurity.” There’s been more identity policing and questioning of whether someone is Indigenous enough, which is harmful for those who have been disconnected from their communities.
These are not the things settlers consider when they ask why Lesley Hampton’s outfits aren’t wearing Indigeneity on their sleeves.
Hampton is now focusing on the moment, and the stories more intimately connected to her. Her Benjamin Chee Chee inspired collection is about her reconnection. And she’s already planning her next collection, which is going to be about her mom’s reconnection story.
Hampton just met her biological mom’s biological mom for the first time a month ago. And she’s been spending precious family time with relatives that didn’t even know she existed, which has been a lot to take in.
“The next collection is about processing those feelings.”