- When you decided to start your own fashion label, what was most important to you?
It was always my dream to start a fashion label when I was younger. I knew I wanted it to be my point of view. When I started, I didn’t know what it was. But being exposed to fashion since childhood, my approached to my business transformed over the years, when I acquired the language to express what I felt: femme of centre, rather than operating within the gender binaries. Sustainability has always been paramount, I had the privilege of learning from Myriam Laroche (of Vancouver Eco Fashion Week), I was still educated within the Western fashion industry practices. I was taught to make sample sizes in size 4 or size 6, but those don’t translate into other sizes or body types or different sensibilities of style. Learning from conversations surrounding my work was very fruitful for the development of my work.
There was a period when I was disconnected from my work, just making clothes for the sake of making clothes, without my point of view or my experience. Early in my career, I was hesitant to include references to my Indigeneity, thinking that if I did, I would be pigeon-holed as an Indigenous designer or that my work would be seen as “niche.” But I was raised to be proud of my Metis heritage, and I was armed against the micro-aggressions that would come. I knew I needed to do something for myself, so the fist collection was called “Origin,” but the reception was pretty lacklustre, clients were gone, there was very little press and what did come out was placing my work in the realm of fantasy, treating it as the “other,” when in reality it was very utilitarian, real clothes, and just because the subject matter was perceived as Indigenous people perceived it as if it was not real. But I anticipated that and was prepared, but it really compelled me to continue doing my work. I always knew that I had to prove myself as a good designer; I knew I had to prove myself outside of bringing my Indigeneity into my work. You need to be twice as good to make it.
There is a difference between my 2016 “Origin” (angry, emotional) collection – I lost my grandmother in the middle of that collection, she never got to see the work, and it was meant to be for her in many ways. This collection was different. I didn’t want to place my people in the past, I wanted it to be about reality and the present, and it was different from anything I had done before. Then came “Atavism” (the collection I presented at the Indigenous Fashion Weeks in Vancouver and Toronto). And then I gave a talk at an arts event in 2017 about the history of my family and community that changed the way I do everything now. As I was doing the research on my community, I felt that I was armed with the proof, I was no longer speaking theoretically, and in the case of the “Census Print,” there was gov’t proof of the mis-identification of my ancestors.
- Your collections feature elements of Metis iconography and other Indigenous cultural references, on your podcast and in interviews you speak out for Indigenous rights, environmental justice, and intersectional feminism, do you conceive of fashion as a communication tool for artistic expression, and if so, in what ways does it allow you to reach wider audiences?
Clothing is a great leveler because everyone wears clothes. If someone can see the message and the intention behind my work and take it upon themselves to educate themselves and not rely on being educated, then there can be communication. The collection as a whole speaks to a greater movement or issue that is necessary to talk about in that moment in time. When you get into individual pieces like “Census Print,” it tells a very specific story about what my people went through, the history of Metis people that very few people know about because it’s not taught in history books. There was no word to identify Metis people as a people at the time of the writing of the Census document used in the print, and it was from 1916. Not a very long time ago by many standards.
[The Census Print originates from a 1916 Canadian Census document wherein Ducharme’s maternal great-grandfather, James Lavallee, is listed with a “French” racial origin, which was later scratched out and replaced with an “Indian” tribal origin. This speaks to the Metis Nation’s ongoing identity struggle and fight for recognition of their rights as Indigenous peoples. The Metis are a post-contact Indigenous nation descended from European settlers and Indigenous peoples.]
- Can fashion (and Indigenous fashion in particular) be a space/vehicle for social change?
That rests with the consumer. I’ve been doing my part of the work in many realms – in art, academia, politics, and fashion – but the consumer needs to do the work as well, by understanding your role as a consumer in this, applying this knowledge to your life. The burden has been placed on Indigenous people for so long to fight for our humanity. Fashion is such a ubiquitous and accessible medium because everyone wears clothes, but not every designer makes clothes that have something to say about the Zeitgeist or social issues. It’s a process, and it needs to be a symbiotic process between the maker and the consumer.
I’m trying to re-educate the consumer about what they expect from a designer. Most people don’t want to wait or attend fittings to get a piece of clothing they can order online and that can be delivered to their door. I operate on a slow fashion model, made-to-order, I don’t make clothes that don’t have an order. This has to do with ethics of sustainability, ethics of labour, and ethics of emotional labour that goes into my work. I do one collection a year because they are always heavily-researched and thought-out. I want to be conscious about what it means to wear an Evan Ducharme garment. It means that you have the appreciation for the craft of garment-making, sustainability, demand sustainability in the things we buy, not just clothing, but life-style in general.
It is also made from an authentically Indigenous point of view. I won’t go into the experiences of other Indigenous people and bring them into my work because that wouldn’t be authentic. For example, I’m always asked why I don’t have floral beadwork in my work an it’s because it was not part of my community. It was not a part of my experience. I don’t feel like I have the right to include that in my work unless I gain that knowledge in an ethical way. I was raised in a mission town, my ancestors lived under the ruling colonial power, and the beadwork knowledge was lost along with the language (Cree) and other knowledge (about plants and medicines) that was not passed down to the children, and I want people to know that this is what my ancestors had to go through. I want people to know my reality and where I come from.
- You have presented your collections at the Toronto and Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Weeks, could you speak about the differences between the two that were most noticeable to you as a participant and presenter?
The structure was very different. In Vancouver, it was part of an Indigenous Arts Festival (Talking Stick); in Toronto was operated more like an arts event, funded by art grants. They were the first events that focused on bringing together of communities of makers – that didn’t exist before with that kind of regard and with the allure of a Fashion Week. Vancouver was 3 days. Toronto was bigger, lasted 5 days, and had showrooms that were selling to the public.
I don’t think I’ll do a non-Indigenous-centered event again. I had a great experience at the Vancouver Eco Fashion Week and learned a lot, but my Indigeneity was never part of the conversation, which was my choice; I showed in the fall of 2018 at a queer fashion night called “Water Me,” and it was great to be part of a community of queer designers, but I’m very much in need of a space that is made to hold all the intersections of my identity together at once. Thankfully, that’s changing, and I have a hand in the creation of that environment, which is a privilege.
- What suggestions do you have for the Canadian fashion community in terms of how we all can support local, ethical, innovative, Indigenous fashion makers better?
Buy their product! Running a fashion label is incredibly expensive on all scales, even on a small scale. Do the work to educate yourself about why brands do what they do. Why do you buy what you buy? Is it a fresh point of view with something you actually connect with on a level outside of aesthetics?
- Do you have advice for young designers who are considering starting their own labels or businesses?
Bring all of your self to the table. You don’t need to lay yourself bare for others, but for yourself personally, throw out the ideas that you need to compartmentalize all your different identities. I would have been even further along if I didn’t hold my different intersections back earlier in my career. Never try to hold back any ideas about your point of view, that’s what makes your work beautiful, the fact that you have something to say. Be completely authentic to your point of view, and if you don’t know what that is, be serious about finding out.
- How would you describe the Vancouver fashion scene? Is it inclusive? Innovative? Sustainable?
It’s definitely not inclusive, the industry still operates within a Western colonial framework, it’s elitist. There is a reason why the stereotypes about fashion exist, but there are also pockets of very talented individual designers who’ve maintained creative integrity in their work. You can see a piece and know that it’s from that designer, and it makes me proud to know that this is the community I’m part of, despite all the negative aspects of the fashion industry that we experience.
- How do you see your own work evolving and what are some things that are more important to you now that you are more established as a designer?
I want to reflect the diversity of my clientele in my advertising and visual brand identity more. They are custom and made-to-order clients of every ethnicity, economic background, and body type, and so far, my visual brand has prioritized Western fashion ideals, prioritizing thin white bodies, and I want to change that moving forward.
- How do you think about “fashioning reconciliation” in Canada?
In my family, the project of reconciliation has made no real change in their lives. It’s difficult to see the value in the rhetoric and project of reconciliation. It was never meant to be for my community. My family has been doing nothing but reconciling their customs, their world view, their identity. The project of reconciliation is about quelling the settler guilt. The idea of reconciliation has nothing to do with my work.
Evan Ducharme was born on the traditional territories of the Anishinaabe, Cree, Dakota, Metis, and Oji-Cree Nations (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada); and raised in the lakeside Métis community of St. Ambroise (Treaty 1). With Cree, Ojibwa, Saulteaux, and French ancestry, he grew up completely immersed in his Metis culture, having performed traditional and contemporary Metis dance for over 15 years. Many of his inspirations and philosophy in design derive from his Métis heritage and the naturally diverse surroundings of his traditional territory. Ducharme currently lives and works with gratitude on the ancestral, traditional, and unceded territories of the Musqueam, Tsleil Waututh, and Squamish Peoples (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.) For more please see: https://www.evanducharme.com/