When Karoniénhawe Diabo launched her business, She Holds the Sky Designs, about six years ago, she didn’t think heading to New York Fashion Week was in the cards for her.
“I’m extremely excited. I’m a little bit nervous to be honest, but I’m really looking forward to the show and to see how my models do, and my collection,” said Diabo. “I think it’s just going to be a really, really great time for everybody.”
She’s putting together a spring-summer collection consisting of 20 looks for RISE NYFW, a complementary segment of New York Fashion Week that aims to platform independent designers held on February 10.
“Pushing forward, I want to break into more modern-looking clothing with Indigenous and Mohawk style. So that’s what the collection will be,” she said.
For her production process heading to the runway, Diabo redirected the focus on the community by scouting Indigenous talent – artists, models, and a hair and makeup team – to work alongside her.
She decided to incorporate beadwork into certain looks to showcase the artistry within Indigenous communities.
“I’m really excited for that because it’s going to really bring a different light to fashion week with this beadwork because it’s so different and something they’ve never really seen,” said Diabo.
Jadie Cross is one among the handful of beaders whose handiwork will be featured as part of Diabo’s collection. “I’m honoured that she chose my work. It’s exciting,” said Cross. “She purchased a few of my earrings during the summer to go with her outfits. Then she was recently looking for beadwork for her show and I just sent her what I had and it went from there.”
A pair of moccasins and a yoke featuring a beaded floral pattern in a blue, red, and grey palette on an off-white and beige base are among Cross’s pieces to be styled with Diabo’s designs.
After the show, Diabo’s will put her one-of-a-kind garments for sale on her website, along with the beadwork with the artists’ permission, in an effort to draw more eyes to emerging local businesses.
The designer’s approach to get the community involved didn’t go unnoticed.
“She wanted to raise up the whole community to be a part of this big thing. So it was really nice to see her be so inclusive with everybody,” said Karennenhá:wi Goodleaf, whose handcrafted earrings will be donned by most of the models.
Goodleaf started her jewellery brand Massing Bird less than two years ago, which began as a hobby but quickly pivoted into a business after garnering attention from friends and family. The name is a nod to her great grandmother, who was once a renowned seamstress in Kahnawake.
“It’s a pretty long process to make these earrings because they’re made out of clay and they’re all individually baked,” she explained.
Goodleaf often looks to nature for inspiration and also draws from her cultural roots, mixing tradition with modernity. “Throughout our history, we had wampum shells and stuff that we used as jewellery, so I wanted to make a shell earring,” she said.
Although getting her designs on the big stage is a noteworthy accomplishment, Goodleaf sees an even bigger takeaway.
“What I really want people to take away from doing a show in New York isn’t the style of the earrings or anything like that, but the fact that if you put your mind to something, you can do anything. I’d like to show future generations that every single one of us is capable of great things,” said Goodleaf. “It’s just really exciting to show other people that things like this are possible for Onkwehón:we women and men, to do something big like this.”
This was the collective sentiment from those involved in the show, including the models, some of whom are hitting the runway for the first time.
“I think it’s going to be incredible for Indigenous youth, our community, showing the world that these Indigenous artists and designers are just as good as everyone else. I think it’s incredible honestly,” said Wahatehontsathsén:ri Delormier, one of 20 models.
It’s only recently that Delormier thought of pursuing modeling. “There weren’t really those faces out there so I never really thought of it as obtainable. But then seeing more Indigenous representation with TV shows and models, it kind of gets more real, you kind of see yourself in those shoes,” he said.
“It’s a big step in our representation, especially in the fashion industry, which I think is well-needed, and it’s going to be great, I really believe that,” Delormier added.
By putting on a show at RISE NYFW, Diabo is using her designs to represent Indigenous culture and talent, adding to a narrative about Onkwehón:we communities that is sometimes dominated by social injustices and traumas such as residential schools and murdered and missing Indigenous women and people.
“The most important to me is to be known and to be heard,” she said. “I’m paying homage to these types of injustices, and I think it’s so important because our voice is coming back.”
By bringing in people across several Indigenous communities, Diabo strived to highlight their individualities. “When people think of Native American or Indigenous or First Nations, they all have one representation of who we are. But I want to show people that we have different styles, we have different traditions, we have different ways of dressing,” she said. “I want to show the people that we’re still here and we’re growing, as people and as a society.”