Making A Fashion Statement

A Yukon-based fashion designer shows her work in Milan

On a narrow street in Milan, motor scooters are parked on the side of the road and people are rushing by. A woman is wearing a black dress with floral patterns. It’s not just any dress she is wearing: it’s a dress inspired by the Granny Hanky and designed by Indigenous fashion designer Robyn McLeod who is based in Ross River.

On her social-media profile, she was sharing behind-the-scenes pictures of her trip to Milan in February. The Granny-Hanky dress made the long journey to Italy, along with other dresses from McLeod’s collection. “This dress got a lot of attention,” she said. It’s a dress with the typical floral print of Granny handkerchiefs, which are not only worn by Yukon First Nation Elders, but also by elderly Ukrainian women.

McLeod was asked to showcase her work at White Milano, the trade show for international womenswear in Milan, Italy. The Indigenous show was part of the White Milan Fashion Week section for up-and-coming designers. It’s a trade show centered around luxury items. The designers offered a diverse glimpse into the Indigenous fashion community.

While Indigenous fashion is featured on platforms like Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week, being present at Milan Fashion Week was the next big step for Indigenous designers to be recognized. “Indigenous fashion just started showing on an international stage. What we show is beautiful and unique,” McLeod said. She was one of six Indigenous designers from all over Canada: First Nations, Inuit and Métis designers were represented at White Milan Fashion Week.

McLeod is a member of the Deh Gáh Got’įę First Nation in the Dehcho (Deh Cho) Region of the N.W.T. where she grew up. Making clothes was in her being, she said. She grew up in a family whose members would constantly make clothes. It was natural that she would do the same. “Fashion is an important form of expression for me and helps me to show my creativity in a way that no other form of art could give me. For Indigenous people, it has so much deeper meaning. 

“Fashion, to me, is magic, love and healing.”

McLeod took a two-year fashion-design program at the Blanche Macdonald Centre in Vancouver. Five years ago, she moved to the Yukon and attended the Yukon School of Visual Arts (SOVA) in Dawson City. She now lives with her two kids and her partner in Ross River.

She is constantly designing dresses, jewellery and accessories. Her recent collection is called Dene Futurism. She mixes typical northern styles—Granny Hanky patterns and moosehide skirts—with futuristic-looking accessories such as fluorescent visors with beaded details. The women in her family did the bead work.

From Milan, McLeod is bringing back a worldly experience of fashion, she told What’s Up Yukon. She is also proud of being selected for White Milano. It was the first time that a delegation of Indigenous Canadian designers have gone to Milan, the epicentre of European fashion. The initiative was organized by Indigenous Fashion Arts (IFA), with the support of the Canadian Embassy, Canadian Heritage and the Canada Council for the Arts. Sage Paul, co-founder of Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto, was leading the group.

The trip to Milan was an opportunity for McLeod to experience fashion on an international stage. “I live in a small community, so I don’t have experience [with] what people want to buy in fashion.” She learned that people are looking for upcycling fashion and was inspired to do her Upcycled collection.

“I learned that the world loves sustainable and upcycled fashion, and I am here for it.”

This idea meets the challenge of getting materials for making fashions in the North. McLeod has to order almost everything online and pay for shipping. Working with used material could be the solution.

Another observation McLeod made in Milan was about the way people dressed. She said, “In Milan, everyone wore black.” When she came back to the Yukon, McLeod noticed that Canadians were wearing far too many leggings: “We look like we are about to go hiking,” she said jokingly.

White Milano was not the only fashion show for McLeod. Last June, she was selected to attend Toronto Indigenous Fashion Week as part of the Fashion Forward initiative supported by the Yukon First Nations Culture and Tourism Association (YFNCT) and Yukon government’s Department of Economic Development.

Robyn McLeod is thinking about the future: she wants to add commercialization to her luxury couture. “I just add a commercialization to it,” she said, referring to her work. “Maybe my clothing can be affordable in the future. Looking towards that future, McLeod added, “I’ll keep doing what I am doing.”

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