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An Interview with Riley Kucheran

by Ciana Hamilton

When we think about ways to create paths of cultural healing, we must not ignore the very basics of culture. Things like art, food, medicine and language need to be restored and brought back to a place of admiration if we expect true healing to occur. Clothing is no exception. Today, Indigenous fashion designers have begun to make a powerful shift in reclaiming pieces of lost Indigenous culture. Riley Kucheran devoted some time to speak with The Peak Magazine about his work around the revival of Indigenous cultures by honouring the legacies, and diversity, of Indigenous clothing.

Can you introduce yourself and tell me a about your current project, Fashioning Reconciliation?

I’m an Ojibway PhD student from Biigtigong Nishnaabeg studying Indigenous fashion design resurgence at Ryerson and York University in Toronto.

In 2016, I was hired by the School of Fashion at Ryerson to work on Fashioning Reconciliation. Initially it was a three-hour lecture and panel in an undergraduate fashion course open to the broader Ryerson community. The project has transformed into a community-based project to share truths about the role of clothing in colonization and to mobilize Indigenous resurgence with fashion design.

We still hold annual events at the School of Fashion that continue to uplift Indigenous perspectives on cultural appropriation and Indigenizing the fashion industry, but these conversations are now happening across Canada and around the world. 

Fashioning Reconciliation has grown to reflect and shape my PhD research based on the relationships I’ve cultivated in the Indigenous fashion community. It’s now an upcoming edited collection and symposium. The book will fill a gap in literature on the history and contemporary context of Indigenous fashion in Canada and beyond, and the symposium is going to coincide with Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto 2020.

This issue of The Peak is centered on Healing Legacies, with a focus on decolonizing and mending cultural trauma. How does Indigenous clothing shift from being targeted by colonizers to being a tool to create a resurgence of Indigenous culture?

To explore how fashion was used as a weapon during the attempted cultural genocide of Indigenous people, I did some archival research that shaped the core of my upcoming dissertation, “Decolonizing Fashion.” I found that the role of clothing was used as a tool for assimilation: children entering the residential school systems were stripped of their cultural clothing and made to appear closer to a Western ideal, if properly clothed at all. This process was carefully photographed and documented, and was used as propaganda to sell cultural assimilation as a “successful” venture in Canada. There is inherent power in telling this truth, in revisiting these archives, in finding examples of children resisting this process, in order to clear a path for counter-narratives and resurgence. By engaging with contemporary Indigenous fashion designers, who are often revisiting their own ancestry and history, we can begin to heal and move forward. Indigenous fashion is holistically sustainable and community minded, and when designers create from an Indigenous perspective, it uplifts everyone.

Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto had its first year in 2018. Why is it important to create a platform where only Indigenous fashion is highlighted, celebrated and respected?

There is systemic inequity and a rigid hierarchy in the fashion industry that works to exclude marginalized fashion designers, particularly Indigenous designers. The exclusion is followed by commodification and appropriation of Indigenous designs; a direct result of the colonial framework we are living in. A counter-narrative was critically needed, particularly in Toronto. Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto, led by Sage Paul, is about carving an alternative path to amplify these voices beyond the Euro-centric lens of the broader fashion industry. Gathering is so critical for the resurgence of Indigenous culture—for decades it was illegal for Indigenous people to gather under the Indian Act—but now we can gather, strategize, mobilize, and build our own Indigenous fashion systems.

Outside of the world of high-profile fashion design – how can everyday Indigenous folks reclaim lost culture through clothing?

Design and dress practices, whether customary or every-day, are generational in many communities. Clothing is passed down and it often comes with teachings that were typically lost in the process of colonization. I think everyone can try and reconnect this way—by going through our families closets and recycling or upcycling what’s already been made. I also think that purchasing less fast fashion and trying to be mindful of sustainability is also inherently Indigenous and reconnects us with our culture: dressing should be ceremony.

Reclaiming culture can mean anything from finding a way to relearn traditional skills and apply them in a new context, to buying and supporting Indigenous-made designs that you feel connected to. or even simply having conversations with the communities you have access to. You can share memories, stories, and feelings on clothing practices and making.

How does one, who is non-Indigenous, support Indigenous clothing/art?

Creating safe spaces for conversation, fostering long term reciprocal relationships, and understanding the work that goes into each piece is crucial. Supporting Indigenous designers and makers is number one. When purchasing Indigenous products, ask yourself: do you know the maker of what you are buying? Are the profits supporting the artisans or designers themselves? Luxury and fast fashion companies often incorporate Indigenous iconography or designs in their collections and outsource the labour to cut costs without considering Indigenous artisans that work tirelessly to make sustainably-minded garments or accessories that hold meaning in every stitch, shape, or bead. Support them, not multinational companies.

What do you hope to see as a result of your work around Indigenous culture and fashion?

I hope to continue working on structural changes and cultural resurgence, or providing the resources and opportunities needed for Indigenous fashion designers to receive the recognition they deserve. I’ve had many difficulties but also privileges in life, and I want to mobilize universities and education to the benefit of community. I hope to nurture and support the Indigenous fashion movement, and educate people about this crucial history and the beautiful future that awaits.

Riley Kucheran is an Ojibway PhD student from Biigtigong Nishnaabeg studying Indigenous fashion design resurgence at Ryerson and York Universities. He’s the Indigenous Advisor in the Yeates School of Graduate Studies and an active community member in Toronto. His research called #FashioningReconciliation is based in the Centre for Fashion Diversity and Social Change

Ciana Hamilton is a happy nappy freelance creative writer & journalist. When she’s not writing she can be found doing fun shit with her kids.

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