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Indigenous Leaders: Sagamok artist drawing global accolades for traditional designs

Tracy Toulouse has something to say — and fashion lovers are listening

Following a successful run at Paris City Fashion Week, artist Tracy Toulouse now has her sights set on conquering the fashion world’s capital: Milan, Italy.

Sagamok First Nation-based Toulouse, whose traditional fabric designs have found favour with artists, actors and musicians, will be heading to Milan for September’s week-long exhibition of world fashion designers, alongside industry titans Versace, Fendi and Prada.

In the fashion world, it’s akin to being called up to the big leagues.

“The reception from the mainstream fashion lovers audience has been really warm,” Toulouse said. “I feel like they have embraced the message that Indigenous artists have to share.”

That message includes being in control of the traditional narrative around Indigenous culture, Toulouse said, which is finding a voice in the fashion world in recent years. Vancouver, Toronto and New York all host annual Indigenous fashion events, which Toulouse and her company Swirling Wind Designs often contribute to.

“It’s about changing the narrative to becoming, I guess, respected as a people and respected for our culture, rather than having someone tell us who we are,” she said.

“It's time for us to tell the world who we are.”

In addition to her work in North America, the past two years have seen Toulouse’s work featured in Canadian shops — retailer Simon’s recently included several pieces in a capsule collection of contemporary Indigenous designers. Her creations have also appeared across runways in fashion hotspots of the world, including London. The recent Paris show, in particular, drew an ovation from the crowd of designers, buyers and social media influencers.

“I really got a lump in my throat, because it's an acknowledgement that we’re still here,” Toulouse said. “It’s an acknowledgement that we're still here and we have something to say.”

For Toulouse, sharing the Indigenous story through art comes naturally, and the inspiration reaches back generations. Some of her earliest memories are of rifling through her grandmother’s old sewing bags on the living room floor, and stitching together fabrics with shreds of old clothing.

“My [grandma] was always quilting in the living room, you know, as she would watch her soap operas,” Toulouse said. “And my other grandmother made me dresses. There was always that twinkle in her eye when she would finish a dress for me and have me put it on.

“There was a light in her; she just lit up.”

Toulouse is now designing dresses for her own daughter, who also made the trip to Paris, modelling her designs on the runway.

“It's humbling. It's very humbling. And it's surreal,” she said. “I remember standing backstage after everything was done. And talking with my daughter… it was like, ‘Wow, we did it.’

“It was just a quiet moment between us that no one can ever take this away from us,” she said. “We're not the first ones to go and be there on that stage, and we're not the last. But we're able to say ‘I did put my feet in that sand. I made my mark.'” 

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But the road to making that mark wasn’t so straightforward. Following a stint at Laurentian University, and briefly contemplating a career in law, Toulouse was accepted to Fanshawe College’s competitive program for Fashion Design, where she picked up the technical skills she uses today.

Later, she returned to her community of Sagamok, 100 kilometres west of Sudbury, settled down to raise a family and take a desk job in the community. It was low-key, with little of the day-to-day challenges of being an entrepreneur in the fashion industry.

“I enjoyed it, you know, being part of that network,” she said. “But at the same time, I was always being called back to what I feel I was gifted to do.

“That was, for me, a no-brainer.”

Toulouse followed her love — fashion — back to Toronto, where she studied alongside world-renowned fashion designer Linda Lundström, who made her own mark with iconic outerwear La Parka.

It was during a fashion show that Toulouse’s own work caught the eye of a passing musician — ShoShana Kish, the cofounder of musical group Digging Roots. The two artists struck up a conversation.

“I ended up, through that process, making her a red carpet outfit for the Junos (music awards),” Toulouse said.

“It really made me realize that maybe there is a place for me in this industry, and I can really make a go of it.”

Through the ups and downs of the volatile fashion industry — Toulouse called it a “tough” and “competitive” world — she hasn’t lost focus on the storytelling aspect of her art as she moves forward.

“It's a bit overwhelming at times,” she said. “I try not to think about it too much on that larger scale, but just focus on what is in front of me and staying true to my craft. Expressing what is in my heart and in my mind, and having that come through via fabric and design.”

As she makes preparations for Milan Fashion Week, Toulouse said she’s not losing sight of what matters most to her: the connection between family, friends and community. To that end, she is planning on filming the Italian experience for a documentary project.

“I want to bring a small group of women, and we're going to capture the footage to share this experience and have our stories be told,” she said. 

“Just to bring other people on board to show them what's possible if we just dream it.”