Helen-Oro-and-Tori-Lynn Wanotch
Helen Oro (left) and Tori-Lynn Wanotch in Her 4 Designs studio in Saskatoon.

SASKATOON, Saskatchewan, Canada (WOMENSENEWS)–When Tori-Lynn Wanotch saw the annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show three years ago she was aghast but not surprised.

Cultural appropriation has been the norm in the fashion industry for decades.

The Mohawk Canadian intimate apparel designer watched a tall, blonde-haired Caucasian model strut down the runway in underwear and a knock-off of a traditional feathered headdress.

"Headdresses are not part of the fashion industry. They are meant for our leaders," she said. "Headdresses are the way we honor each other and those feathers mean something. To be able to just slap them on something is a disrespect and it’s cultural appropriation, even though I hate to use that catchphrase."

Sitting in her design studio in Saskatchewan, a province in Canada with one of the highest per capita indigenous populations in the country, Wanotch has another piece of advice for fashion-forward shoppers who are concerned about avoiding cultural appropriation: Check the label and support indigenous designers.

One of the major criticisms of cultural appropriation involves money. In addition to failing to acknowledge the significance behind colors, design and technique, cultural appropriation also keeps indigenous women outside of business, profit and opportunity.

"In an industry where indigenous designs are so sought after we should not have designers who are just making ends meet," Wanotch said. "We should be able to move forward into prosperity."

Wanotch belongs to the fashion collective Her 4 Directions, which is led by indigenous women.

Members encourage shoppers to try their local indigenous designers first, where it’s likely they’ll come across some beautiful finds. They also suggest looking at who collaborated in the designs; if indigenous artists are part of the mix then it’s good to grab your credit card and pay what it’s worth. And a reminder: Never buy a headdress.

Supporting Local People

"People just have to ask a question," Wanotch said. "The fashion industry doesn’t have to be so serious, you don’t have to go through the histories of every item. But when it comes to indigenous clothing and indigenous messaging and designing it is important for us to be able to support the local people."

Helen Oro, another member of Her 4 Directions, makes couture accessories with traditional beadwork she learned from her Kokum, a Cree word for grandmother.

"There is so much tradition behind bead work," Oro said while working in the designers’ shared studio space. "You are taught different things. You are taught patience. You are taught things that you are not supposed to do when you bead; like you are not supposed to bead when you are sick or when you are angry, you will find that your thread gets knotted."

The collective has a few goals: to provide women with stylish indigenous designs, create awareness around indigenous issues and build opportunities for their aboriginal sisters.

Since 1980 nearly 1,200 indigenous women and girls in the country have gone missing or have been murdered, finds a report by the national police force.

More than 36 percent of aboriginal women lived in poverty, double the number of non-aboriginal women, and single mothers were especially vulnerable to low standards of living, finds a 2006 report from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.

Those high rates of poverty have disastrous consequences, including a life expectancy seven years less than that of the overall Canadian population and an infant mortality rate that is almost twice the national average.

"I’m not well off. I have a young family and all of the money I make goes to my family," Oro said. "A lot of these women (designers) are single mothers and they make stuff because they want to share their culture but they also want to make money."

Grassroots Transformation

Wanotch said that since Victoria’s Secret’s infamous moment on the runway there’s been a grassroots transformation about indigenous culture and design with the traditional bonnet banned from multiple music festivals throughout North America and even at the U.K.’s biggest festival, Glastonbury.

There was an uproar online when the label Dsquared2 unveiled ?their 2015-16 line called #Dsquaw, with squaw being a derogatory term for indigenous women. At the start of October, Valentino caused controversy with its "tribal African" inspired designs adorning white models on the runway.

It’s clear revolutions, even in fashion, don’t always come quickly but Wanotch pointed to a collaboration between Canadian Metis visual artist Christi Belcourt and world renowned designer Valentino for the 2016 Resort Collection as a sign of change.

"Valentino did it in a great way. He worked with an actual indigenous artist. He is getting so much love from the indigenous brothers and sisters now because of this," she said with a laugh. "If designers really do want to go that route then work with someone who is an indigenous artist who can give the story and give you something more beautiful than just a (trending) headdress."

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