Ryerson’s first Indigenous designer in residence, Angela DeMontigny (centre), has shown her designs in fashion weeks all over the world. (Ryerson File Photo)

Ryerson’s school of fashion has made its latest move to become a more inclusive and diverse environment for students. Last month, Angela DeMontigny became the school’s first Indigenous designer in residence.

DeMontigny, an internationally acclaimed Cree and Métis fashion designer, has been in the industry for 25 years and has shown her designs in fashion weeks all over the world.

Since 1995, her custom-made, all-leather clothing collections and accessories have been sold in specialty boutiques throughout North America and Europe. Much of her work is inspired by her Indigenous heritage, making her a trailblazer for Indigenous fashion.

Ben Barry, chair of the school of fashion, said that this appointment furthers the department’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

“It’s really important to us at this school to foster diversity, inclusion and sustainability in fashion,” he said. “We want to bring in different ways of thinking about fashion and different ways of doing fashion.”

DeMontigny said that in her new position at Ryerson she hopes to teach students to push for change.

“I’m advocating for authenticity, for students to change fashion the way we know it, to create things that are truly unique and maybe come from their own background or cultures, as well as creating fashion that does something to help people,” she said.

DeMontigny said that when designing, she always tries to use something that inspires her, whether it’s a story, an art piece or a particular animal. This can sometimes be manifested through the colour and shape of the piece. Her designs have meaning behind them, which is something she wants to encourage more fashion students to do.

Along with teaching students about business tactics and design processes, Barry said DeMontigny’s appointment is a step forward for helping the school begin to decentre their design curriculum, which has been more focused on Western design.

“We are providing faculty with opportunities to bring Angela into the classroom and talk about different design practices that are not Western, but that are valuable in fashion,” he said.

Moving past cultural appropriation

Barry also said part of this collaboration is to empower students — especially those from marginalized communities — to draw from their own lived experiences and incorporate them into their designs, much like DeMontigny has.

“There’s obviously been this really common practice in fashion to culturally appropriate from marginalized cultures,” said Barry.

He said he believes it is important to have more open conversations about cultural appropriation. Through them, people can discuss ways in which they can design culturally-inspired clothing respectfully and collaborate in ways that share and transform power.

Lynn Chen, 20, is a fourth-year fashion design student at Ryerson, and said that as a Chinese designer, she incorporates much of her culture in the work that she is doing for her final collection.

“I’m researching more about the symbolic and historic significances (of the culture). This is where my inspiration is coming from,” said Chen. “I’m not taking specific details and turning it into a costume, it’s really about research and reading about it.”

Chen said much of the fashion design curriculum is focused on the various issues in the industry, such as the lack of representation and inclusion of people of different backgrounds, gender identities, and body types.

“Right in first year, they tell us to design for the future, and to step outside these parameters that have been set by the industry for so long,” she said. “The design students here in Toronto are often from different cultures and backgrounds, like myself.”

She continued to say that the school encourages students to look at things from a different perspective, because there is always something to learn from someone else’s culture.

Ryerson’s fashion school has long been a pioneer in the Canadian fashion industry, constantly pushing for change to revitalize its contemporary landscape.

DeMontigny said she is proud to be part of this time in the school of fashion’s history.

“Change has to happen and Ryerson is showing leadership in that area,” she said. “I’m proud of Ryerson for starting all of these major changes towards diversity, inclusion and equality. I’m really proud to be in this position to assist them in that journey at the start.”

She said her hopes for her term lie in changing the way the fashion industry sees Canadian design. And she said that this starts with students.

“I want them to create an actual unique and authentic identity for Canadian fashion.”

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