A Conversation with Sage Paul on her Canadian MFW Showcase
WHITE Milano, a luxury trade show which runs as part of Milan Fashion Week (MFW), showcased Canadian indigeneity on a global scale during their showcase from February 24-27. This international collaboration can be largely credited to the hard work of Indigenous Fashion Arts (IFA) founder and a Toronto-based Dene designer, Sage Paul.
Paul’s decade-long dedication to uplifting the work of fellow Indigenous designers in the country has allowed her to platform six outstanding artists and bring them on a first-time trip to the global fashion capital. The WHITE Milano showcase allowed these Canadian designers to present their work to a global audience of press and consumers. The selected artists included Evan Ducharme, Lesley Hampton, Justin Louis, Niio Perkins, Erica Donovan and Robyn McLeod. Together, these six artists helped introduce fashion’s key players to the diverse world of Canada’s Indigenous creative identities.
We sat down with Paul to discuss this successful endeavour.
How did you come in contact with the representatives of WHITE?
We actually reached out to the Canadian embassy in Italy. We asked them about good connections for us to have, and we let them know the kinds of platforms we would like to connect with. Especially for international projects, we focus more so on industry development opportunities as opposed to the more runway type of showings, something we do ourselves with our festival. The embassy connected us with WHITE Milano, and their values really aligned with ours, so we immediately started working together.
There was some outside funding provided to help cover travel and other expenses. Could you tell me more about this?
It was the Canadian Council for the Arts who supported our travel and artists’ fees. The Department of Canadian Heritage along with the embassy supported programming and our connections within the industry which were needed. The City of Toronto also helped cover some of our projects because this year marked the twentieth anniversary of being the twin sister city with Milan. Due to this, there was a timely reason for us to be there as a Toronto-based organization, so the city helped us out.
How did you select the six designers?
It was a solicited approach for us to do at IFA. When I am making selections for these types of programs, on a first-off program, we will curate it and make selections internally just because there are so many new factors and new relationships in partnerships like this.
There were various reasons and decision-making points to consider. We have to assure we represent a broad diversity of Indigenous people, which of course is hard to do with only six individuals. We want to make sure we are representing all First Nations, Inuit and Métis identities. We also need to make sure the designers are market ready, or at least at the point of almost being market ready. Additionally to all of this, we brought on a mentee designer with us to further share the knowledge being learned while we were there at the event.
Were there any difficulties faced on the road?
The road bumps faced included the fact of it being challenging bringing in flora and fauna to foreign countries. There was also the fact we worked with designers from across the country, so not everyone is based in Toronto. Due to this, costs ran high because we were working with designers who live as far north as Whitehorse, or in places outside of Montreal, etc. So it was difficult making sure we had all the resources to bring those designers to Milan with us.
The goal is really the same, the saying goes ‘teach someone to fish and they’ll eat for a lifetime,’ so we wanted to make sure we were providing resources which may be challenging for the designers to have on their own so they can focus on building the relationships within the industry while in Milan.
Overall, how did the showroom go?
It went really well, it was very well received. The designers were able to make great contacts, we don’t have an exact report on this, but from what I hear, the connections made were very great. Seeing as it was an industry show, this is typically how it goes, the relationships crafted are more long-term as opposed to immediate like a final consumer kind of show.
When you’re dealing with buyers like we were at this show, it’s rare to make a sale right on the floor. This show was meant for building relationships which are larger purchases. If you look at other kinds of trade programs, within a year to two years we could be looking at tens of thousands of dollars, if not up to hundreds of thousands. This is always the goal, to make sure the designers are making a great return on investment for having been in Milan.
What would you cite as the importance in fostering these kinds of relationships for designers who might not otherwise have the opportunity to do so?
It’s an advancement of their work which then develops and grows their businesses and puts them into a global market, which is very important. It’s a big decision for an entrepreneur, an artist, or a designer to make. This is a very different market from the Canadian market and local economies, so it involves great learning experiences for the designers as well. To bring this knowledge home, teach and share it within their local communities or other collaborators in Canada is a big deal.
What learnings will you take from this experience?
The IFA trade program has the goal to work with a group of designers and bring them through a series of projects and events like this one. Immediately, next month, there’ll be a virtual program which involves speaking with buyers in New York, and then we’ll be going to Mexico for a consumer show there, and this is for the designers to be able to apply everything they have learned in Milan.
We are going to do this every two years to ensure we spread these opportunities beyond these six designers, but we want to make sure we are giving the designers an opportunity to not only have created this visibility for their work but also focus on building really solid infrastructures for the work and the way they do business with businesses and the public.
Enjoyed reading our talk with Sage Paul? Check out “A Conversation with: Charmaine Gooden of Black Fashion Canada” on Glossi Mag.
Thomas Publow is a contributor at Glossi Mag. Currently finishing his degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University, Thomas considers himself an expert in all things VMAs and Beyoncé.