One of the busiest hubs in Toronto, with its constant swarms of people perusing the racks in its 230-plus shops, the CF Toronto Eaton Centre is about to turn into a completely different space: the venue for the 2024 Indigenous Fashion Arts Festival. For its fourth edition, the IFA Festival will welcome more than 1,000 artists, designers and makers from around the world for fashion shows, panels, workshops and a marketplace. Weekend shoppers on June 1 and 2 will notice stalls offering Indigenous artists’ works—from beaded jewellery and quillwork to clothing and home goods—scattered throughout the mall in curated sections. Meanwhile, from May 30 to June 2, when regular stores close at the end of the day, a crew will quickly turn the shopping centre into a runway on which models displaying the latest collections from Indigenous designers will strut the length of the mall.

When I catch up with IFA executive and artistic director Sage Paul, she has just met with the festival’s set designer for an update on how the space will be transformed. “[It’s] a bunch of natives taking over the mall proper,” she says gleefully. The Indigenous-led festival will also make use of the outdoor screens at Yonge-Dundas Square and Trinity Square Park. “[The Eaton Centre] is unmatched [compared] to what our designers could potentially experience in any other kind of retail space. It sees a huge amount of foot traffic, so it was very exciting to think about having our marketplace there.”

This is why I love IFA—it’s not your average fashion event. With past iterations of the biennial festival (which was previ- ously held at Harbourfront Centre), the differences between it and a typical fashion week were sometimes subtle, like VIP front-row seating for Elders, and sometimes more overt, like the inclusion of a hide-tanning workshop in and around a teepee for the duration of the festival. The organizers always ensure that there’s an outdoor space—which they call “Auntie’s House”—where people can sit and decompress and where the welcome ceremony can be held. Paul hopes that this year’s space in Trinity Square Park will balance out the chaos and energy that participants may feel in a mall. “It’s really important for us to [offer] a very grounded experience,” she says. “Most people in our community are coming from their homes, which are not in cities, so we want to make sure that it’s not a culture shock. We really want people to feel like this is their space.”

Paul marvels at the opportunities the new location will provide for participating artists, including B.C.-based White Otter Design Co and Ottawa’s Delia Estelle Designs. The IFA organizes the vendors according to theme—more youthful offerings are sold in the Rez Vibes Only section, for example, and there’s a high-end section called The Showroom. As always, one part of the marketplace—the Abiayala Spotlight, which is curated by the family-owned and -operated Pacha Indigenous Art Collection, a Toronto store that helps promote Indigenous artistry—will highlight a particular group of artists. In past years, artists from Manitoba and the North received the honour; this year, Indigenous artists from Central and South America will be the stars.

Creating an opportunity for us to work collectively—prioritizing language and tradition—is of the utmost importance. Our similarities are inspired and shaped by the legacies left to us by our ancestors.

“The intention behind the spotlight is to open up those old trade routes,” says Paul. “There’s proof of movement around all of our nations, from North America to South America, and we’re constantly faced with barriers—like bringing materials over the borders—because of rules and customs and financial access to the resources that one would need to be able to participate in these kinds of events.” That’s why the IFA covers travel and accommodation for 10 artists from the spotlighted area.

The runway presentations will unfold over four nights, each with a different theme: My Tender Bundle, Fierce + Fearless, From This Ground We Grow and Materialize. Toronto-based Anishinaabe designer, model and stylist Lesley Hampton has been showing her namesake brand at the IFA Festival since day one. “[My] collection [this year] has something for everyone, whether you’re taking on the red carpet at a massive event or looking for a nice little bomber to take on your day,” she says.

When we speak, she’s readying her new collection, entitled Alkaline, which will feature eveningwear, gender-neutral statement jackets and suiting. She recently designed a custom jacket for Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares—and received a lot of great feedback—and is planning to release a version of it. “I hope that [these clothes] bring some sort of a balance to the fashion industry and [help offset] the acidity and toxicity that begins to form—either on social media or through these snowball effects that the media creates—around a certain body type or something that is polarizing in the media or the industry,” she says. “It’s a way to [create] equilibrium and stability, whether [within] the industry or yourself, and make you feel a little more comfortable and competent.”

For first-time IFA designers, the event is an opportunity for connection on a global scale. Anishinaabe artist and designer Jillian Waterman, a member of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan, is inspired by being among “the best of the best when it comes to Indigenous designers,” she says. She has spent many hours on a collection made from corn husks; she uses a variety of Bear Island flint corn grown in southern Michigan by an Indigenous farmer. Paul tells me that Waterman works the husks into modern designs and shows me sketches of cascading corn husks making up the entirety of a skirt.

Bobby Luke, the Maori designer behind Campbell Luke, will be bringing ready-to-wear pieces from New Zealand. “Culture is a significant drawcard for me,” he says. “The IFA is providing a space where we can connect with others on a global scale. As a Maori, I feel a strong connection to our First Nations whānau, [which means] ‘family’ in te reo Māori. Creating an opportunity for us to work collectively—prioritizing language and tradition—is of the utmost importance. Our similarities are inspired and shaped by the legacies left to us by our ancestors.”

Luke’s garments often involve upcycling, and his latest collection sees vintage fabrics and garments being transformed into contemporary pieces. “My inspiration for the collections stems from the nurturing essence embodied in the Maori concept of manaakitanga, or the art of caring,” he says. “When visitors were welcomed into our home, I would observe my mother bustling in the dining room alongside my aunties, preparing food with meticulous care. It was amid this activity that I absorbed the visual tapestry of our surroundings—the array of tea towels, aprons and tablecloths, each telling a story of warmth and hospitality.”

As someone who has attended past festivals, I can attest that there is a real sense of kinship and much excitement about the opportunity to celebrate talent in different fashion spaces—those who create garments, beadwork, accessories, leatherwork, metalwork—and this year is shaping up to be the best yet. “The talent is just incredible,” says Paul. “I think we’re finally gaining access to the resources and the spaces that allow us to flourish. It’s because of each other. We’re creating our own fashion weeks. We’re using our own materials. We’re working with other Indigenous people who really understand our intentions, the concepts we’re coming up with and the stories that are traditional to us, which allows us to create powerful work, even if it is just clothes.”

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