Ribbon Skirts More than a Fashion Affair

Collaboration contributes to Indigenous reconciliation

Clockwise from the top: Fashion Arts student Blake Lambie works on a traditional ribbon skirt; Prof. Jenifer Forrest (right) works with students Allison Visnaw (left) and Aoi Takeda; the blue flower on the ribbon skirt is a special symbol that signifies Mother Earth’s beauty for the Anishinaabe women; Aviation Operations student Caitlin Lyder (left) and Seneca graduate Emma Greenfield receive ribbon skirts from Fashion Arts student Kaylani Gatchalian (right); and Fashion Arts student Hourieh Dorali Beni shows off a ribbon skirt with the spiritual motif of a feather.

When a collection of custom-made ribbon skirts was wheeled into Seneca’s Odeyto last week, there were tears in the First Peoples@Seneca centre at Newnham Campus. But that’s because these skirts are no ordinary fashion garment. They are sacred regalia worn by Indigenous women at ceremonies and gifted by School of Fashion students.

“Many of our Indigenous students have never seen or worn a ceremonial skirt because they were raised in the city away from their cultural roots,” said Peggy Pitawanakwat, Co-ordinator, First Peoples@Seneca. “They can now borrow these sacred skirts and wear them at ceremonies such as the water blessing or the Sisters in Spirit vigil for the missing and murdered Indigenous women.”

A collaboration between the School of Fashion and First Peoples@Seneca, the ribbon skirts were created by students in Prof. Jenifer Forrest’s fashion class. Ms. Forrest, who conceived the project in close co-ordination with Ms. Pitawanakwat, said the exercise was infused with learning at every step. As part of the course, students were required to read the summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report and learn about the history of residential schools and the Orange Shirt Day.

“Fashion students have been very responsive to this project,” Ms. Forrest said. “They understand the connection we have with our clothing in terms of identity, family ties and feelings of being protected and safe. They understand what it would mean to have that taken away.”

Ribbon skirts, distinctive in the colourful ribbon trims along the hemline, are a traditional symbol of the strength, resilience and sacredness of Indigenous women who wear them at ceremonies and other important events.

Each motif on the skirts is of special significance to the Indigenous people. Feathers denote spiritual strength and flowers the beauty of Mother Earth. Orange flowers edged in white honour the survivors of residential schools while those edged in black are a stark reminder of the children who did not survive. The vivid colours are symbolic, representing nature and the traditional beliefs of the Indigenous people.

From left: Caitlin Lyder, Aviation Operations student; Peggy Pitawanakwat, Co-ordinator, First Peoples@Seneca; Kissa Zhara, Fashion Arts student; Prof. Jenifer Forrest, School of Fashion; and Emma Greenfield, Seneca graduate.

Caitlin Lyder, a first-year Aviation Operations diploma program student, wore one of the skirts — her first ever — and said she felt both proud and humbled by the gift which showed the tremendous effort made by the fashion school students to learn Indigenous traditions and history. To her, the project symbolized the coming together of two worlds.

Emma Greenfield, a recent graduate who has been working at Odeyto to help develop the Indigenous curriculum at Seneca, was equally moved as she tried on a ceremonial skirt, also for the first time. She said she was touched by the fashion students’ gesture and the skirts brought her closer to the Indigenous community and to Seneca.

“This is such a practical and meaningful way to contribute to reconciliation and build relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people,” Ms. Greenfield said.

For the fashion students, the four weeks they spent designing and stitching the skirts not only helped them hone their skills but also provided them with an invaluable opportunity to connect with First Peoples@Seneca.

“We have read about Indigenous traditions in school but this project helped us interact directly with the First Nations people and understand their symbols,” said Kaylani Gatchalian, a first-year Fashion Arts student. “For instance, the flower that I stitched on a skirt signifies Mother Earth’s beauty and is special to Anishinaabe women.”

The project, funded by the K.M. Hunter Charitable Foundation, also reinforced the principles of sustainable clothing and zero waste. The skirts have been made with a blend of biodegradable materials such as cotton and hemp. The polyester ribbons do not have any harmful chemical residue and can easily be reused. The design of the skirts produces minimum waste during cutting and all the leftover pieces are used to make medicine bags.

“Fashion should not be perceived as something for a small segment — fashion shows, magazines and blogs,” Ms. Forrest said. “Fashion is about serving people in a more responsive way and the ribbon skirts will foster a better understanding of Indigenous history, traditions and culture in the Seneca community.”

Connecting Students with Industry at Insights 2030

Insights 2030 is a business conference for fashion students and academics from the three top colleges in Toronto: George Brown College, Humber College, and Seneca College. Our purpose? To explore a variety of topics, which will have an impact on the future of business in general and, specifically, the world of fashion in the next decade. 

The conference combined expert keynote speakers and panel discussions with networking opportunities, all of which are designed to inform, educate, and inspire.

The event kicked off with a keynote by Carrie Kirkman, President of Kirkman Consulting, Inc. 

Carrie brings over 25 years of experience in management for top women’s apparel brands with titles including President of Global Brands Group Canada, President and Chief Merchant, Sears Canada, and Jones Group Canada. Carrie is recognized as a leader in the womenswear industry in Canada. She is currently Chair of the Board of directors for G(irls)20. She is also on the Board of Directors for The Canadian Club of Toronto.

Carrie has been profiled in top Canadian publications, including The Globe and Mail, The Kit, and Women of Influence. She is also a blog contributor to Huffington Post Canada. Carrie has been on the nominating committee of CAFA- Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards, featured on CBC radio, Sirius Radio, and speaks globally on the roles of women in leadership.

During Carries chat labeled “Is the Future of Retail the End of Wholesale” she discussed The Changing Retailer/Vendor Relationship, New Revenue Models, Metrics Beyond Sales, and Emerging Labels can use a Wholesale Model for Quick Wins.

Following the keynote, the students enjoyed a panel discussion on Technology in the 2020’s Moderated by Ashley Barby – COO SPECSY with panelists, Ahmer Beg, Founder of Authentic or Not, Crissy Gow, Founder of AccessAR, Megan Page, Senior Director, Digital & Social at MSL Group, a Public Relations Firm.

The event closed with an insightful presentation on the Future of Fashion Retail, presented by Claire Santamaria, Vice President, Yorkdale, Oxford Property Group. Claire is responsible for maintaining Yorkdale Shopping Centre’s position as Canada’s most successful retail destination based on sales per square foot throughout a period of unprecedented growth. Claire’s leadership in guiding internationally-renowned brands into the Canadian market ensures their entry into Canada is thriving.

During her tenure at Yorkdale, she has led the property through the opening of a 300,000 square foot expansion anchored by Nordstrom, created and hosted an interim Canadian Fashion Week, and helped Oxford Properties launch an innovative and award-winning permanent pop up concept to give independent retailers exposure to some of the country’s most enthusiastic shoppers.

The Insights conference closed with networking, where students had a chance to meet peers and industry.

Bloor Street Entertains, 2018 Highlights

T-1 Week until or Event Management, Event and Exhibit Design students assist with the setup and decor for Bloor Street Entertains, Canada’s largest and only fundraising gala in support of HIV/AIDS research.

This annual event is organized by the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR). The goal of Bloor Street Entertains is to deliver a world-class event, which raises funds and awareness for this important cause and to ultimately reduce the number of new HIV infections in the country. The support of guests, sponsors, and partners at Bloor Street Entertains is the driving force that allows CANFAR to continue moving forward in its mission to end the HIV epidemic in Canada. Last year, the School of Fashion and School of Media students supported CANFAR’s 23rd Bloor Street Entertains by transforming Bloor-Yorkville’s storefronts into luxury dining spaces.

Event Management students designed the dinner decor at storefronts including Brooks Brothers, Harry Rosen (pictured above), Liss Gallery, Lumas Gallery, Rimowa and William Ashley, while Public Relations – Corporate Communications students supported with public relations and social media efforts. Visual Merchandising students also participated by setting up the luxury silent auction.

Seneca students and faculty have worked on Bloor Street Entertains for more than 11 years. The annual event raises between $500,000 and $1 million annually for CANFAR, the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research. Stay tunned for photos/coverage on the 2019 event!

Arc’teryx ‘Leading By Design’ t-shirt competition

On March 28, 2019, Arc’teryx hosted a community event at the Yorkdale store celebrating the fantastic response to their Arc’teryx ‘Leading By Design’ t-shirt competition in partnership with Seneca Fashion, George Brown and Humber College. The competition invited partner students to submit a design localizing the Arc’teryx brand and incorporating unique aspects, and visual representation of diversity and inclusiveness in the outdoors/the city of Toronto.

Congratulations to our very own, Farwah Daanyish for coming in third place and to Katarina Kamps (GBC), Ricky Chen (GBC) for finishing first, and second place (respectively), with the first place design printed in- store in partnership with SBC Media/The Baitshop on limited edition t-shirts.

The event was filled with industry networking, and an engaging keynote presentation from Nina Boccia, Interim Creative Director at downtown Toronto’s Design Exchange highlighting innovation and the role design can play in the world.

We look forward to working with Arc’teryx on future experiential learning initiatives!