Evan Ducharme is a multidisciplinary Métis artist with ancestral ties to the Cree, Ojibwe, and Saulteaux peoples, and was raised in the historic Métis community of St. Ambroise, Manitoba (Treaty 1 Territory). Launched in 2012, his eponymous clothing label, Evan Ducharme, examines dress through Indigenous perspectives on gender, queerness, and environmental responsibility. The label applies ancestral and contemporary Indigenous knowledges to garments that affirm a modern representation of Indigenous peoples within fashion.
Ducharme currently lives and creates with gratitude on the ancestral, traditional, and unceded territories of the Musqueam, Tsleil Waututh, and Squamish Peoples (Vancouver). In the following interview, Ducharme talks about caretaking in fashion, and the responsibility of holding every part of his self within his work.
Jessica Johns: You’ve worked in fashion for over seven years. You’ve exhibited eight bodies of work, showing collections in Vancouver, BC, Toronto, ON, and Seattle, WA, with your most recent work, HIRAETH, exhibited at the first WATER ME Queer Fashion Expo. What have you learned about the fashion world throughout this time?
Evan Ducharme: Through my years in the fashion industry, I’ve come to realize two things: fashion is the second most polluting industry on the planet, after oil and gas; and there is an increasing interest in the Indigenous aesthetic, but not always from an ethical point of view. Ethical, here, meaning that the clothes are coming from Indigenous peoples and are telling their own stories—it isn’t a pan-Indigenous point of view.
JJ: So there’s a white-lens very much on and manipulating it?
ED: Exactly. So I feel really fortunate right now to be in this space where the Indigenous fashion industry is starting to bloom. I’ve had the good fortune to have a hand in how it’s going to operate, and what we need to rid ourselves of in the mainstream fashion industry for us to caretake our communities and attempt to decolonize fashion.
There’s so many conversations right now about decolonizing fashion. Riley Kucheran talks about it a lot, Sage Paul, Jeneen Frei Njootli, Tiffany Creyke, and of course Joleen Mitton from Vancouver. But, with the exception of Sage, none of those people are designers. In mainstream fashion the designers are this puppet for the industry, and I feel like in the Indigenous fashion community the designers need to be more at the forefront. We need to be the leaders in how this industry is going to operate, and in how we’re going to bring all of our unique knowledges and points of views together while still honouring our individualities at the same time. It’s a balancing act, like anything when you have to work within the colonial world.
JJ: This sounds quite similar to the literary world, where proper representation of Indigenous voices and caretaking of communities usually only comes from the communities, and not the colonial institutions that surround it. Does that feel like a lot to hold?
ED: I was ready to quit fashion a few years ago, I was so over it. I was tired, especially in Vancouver. I felt like me and my contemporaries were getting hung out to dry. No one was fostering support for anybody, and that’s not just me as an Indigenous designer, that’s almost every designer in my “generation.” And I was annoyed. All of us put so much physical labour, so much money, so much emotion, tying ourselves up into our work, and then it just goes unappreciated.
That was completely different when I began working with Indigenous Fashion Week Vancouver and then getting to go to Toronto and be welcomed into this community where that wasn’t the case. I wouldn’t say there was an absence of ego, but I think that ego wasn’t the driving force as to why everybody was there. Of course, we’re all human beings and we all have our moments, but I felt like everyone knew why we were there and that reason was bigger than us. It had really nothing to do with individual gain, it was more for the collective, for the kinship networks that were being created.
JJ: That sounds like quite a shift in focus: thinking about kinship and community and care.
ED: And not feeling like “What is this for?” I don’t make my work for the mainstream fashion industry anymore, I make it for the community, I make it for myself, I make it for the ancestors, I make it for my family.
Even if my community doesn’t agree with what I do because I’m sure they don’t. Métis people have a lot of Catholic baggage. They’ve been very influenced by Catholicism. And in the same way that I needed to peel myself away from all those things, there’s work that needs to be done there too. Some might not believe it, but I do what I do to make sure that people know that our ancestors existed.
JJ: So what does caretaking for your communities mean for you? What does that look like? What does caretaking in fashion, generally, require?
ED: I think it’s very important that people see themselves in the work. Especially after Indigenous Fashion Week in Toronto when there was a lot of discussion around body diversity. I realized that my clients are every shape and size, but every bit of branding I ever put out, almost every runway, has been all thin bodies. So, that’s something that I’m working towards: showing potential customers and also showing the industry that it’s up to us to create this new standard of what is seen in fashion, that it doesn’t always just need to be those thin, “economical” bodies.
I used to get all tense and sore when someone would say that I only made clothes for thin people. But if people aren’t seeing themselves in the work and they’re not seeing somebody that looks like them, then how are they supposed to know? It’s creating this queer Indigenous lexicon, this group of work and knowledges—and this includes every artistic medium—that future queer Indigenous people can look to as a roadmap that can fortify them in some way. Our generation has very few queer Indigenous ancestors, for many reasons. Now there’s so many of us, and we’re all reaching a certain amount of acclaim, and our work is being held up to where it needs to be, so I think that’s not going to be the case for “those who have yet to come,” to borrow from Maya Angelou.
JJ: It’s almost as if [laughs] caretaking in itself is decolonial! Gasp!
ED: [laughs] Yeah. Caretaking is my decolonial practice, to get into my full academic-ness.
JJ: Can you tell me about your newest collection, HIRAETH?
ED: When I started developing that collection I wanted it to be about the joy that I feel about where I come from, the joy of being in community, and the joy in my work. But then, as I tried to be like “Oh no, that’s too nostalgic, that has too much of a bitter taste to it, that’s too real,” I realized that I can’t sanitize my work so that it’s easier for people to consume.
I don’t want to play to anyone’s guilt just to sell clothes, you know? Obviously, my business needs to make money for it to sustain itself. But I’m not willing to shave down the truth to get to where I need to be. There’s a reason I am where I am, and I think that I’m not doing anybody any favours if I’m sitting here giving some rose-coloured-glasses version of my history and my people’s history, and how this country became a country.
Then, I come upon the word “hiraeth.” Hiraeth kind of encapsulates everything that I’m saying with this collection right now. It’s this deep longing for home, a place that maybe never even existed.
But even when trying to sit in that joy and the happiness—there’s a reason why my people are so keen for a kitchen party, for a little bit of uninhibited joy and gathering and community. That’s what they did to survive. They created their own language, they created their own ways of dance, they created their own music. They created an existence. They thrived in their survival. And I can’t talk about the good things without remembering what was lost or what was sacrificed for me to be sitting here doing this interview.
After every collection, you always learn a little something new about how you want to move forward. To tell the truth, it’s not always going to be sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. That might be something that would prevent somebody from buying my clothes, but if my clothes and what I say with my clothes makes you uncomfortable then maybe you shouldn’t be buying them or wearing them because you don’t really believe in or agree with what I have to say.
A friend of mine said hiraeth was like a combination of everything I’ve done. It was like all of the threads came together. I think it was a true representation of where I am right now, and that’s all that we can ask for. Because before, I was kind of doing that thing that mainstream fashion industry was doing to me. They were keeping me in two different categories. I’m not these two seperate things. I’m all of it, at once.