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Wearable art with an indigenous twist

Sage Paul's specialty is wearable art, one-of-a-kind handmade clothing pieces she has begun to exhibit in runway shows. YONGE STREET/Tanja Tiziana

Sage Paul inhabits the curious juncture between fashion and art, the city and nature, and synthetic and real. This balancing act has shaped her artistic practice. The slight, soft-spoken, 28-year old woman is from a family of artists, where being an artist was encouraged. “We had the environment to really go free,” says Paul. “To do what you need to do.”

Paul graduated from George Brown’s Fashion Design program in 2006. She is the Events and Communications Director at the imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival in addition to pumping out two fashion collections a year, caring for her dog and getting very little sleep. Her specialty is wearable art, one-of-a-kind handmade clothing pieces she has begun to exhibit in runway shows.

She works solo, rendering themed sketches of her wearable art in conjunction with her fashion collections. She tends to complete the sketches in their entirety at first, sourcing out the materials after the fact. “Then it’s the matter of a hunt,” she grins. “Going to find this perfect fabric. It’s fun because it really pushes you, you have that vision, and sometimes you have to change what you want based on what you’re able to find.” She prefers working with natural materials, fabrics with minimal synthetic integration. “I like working with things that are real.”

She’s fleshing out the details of her newest project based on food. “All my friends are trying to be really healthy. It’s trendy right now to do the 100-mile diet, and people are saying ‘THIS is Aboriginal eating.'” She chuckles at this definitive proclamation as she describes a movement based on eating food sourced from within 100 miles of your dinner table. “It’s just eating smartly, the way were supposed to eat, and what is around us. I think that is what it was inspired by.”

The slippery realm of attempting to unilaterally define what is ‘authentic’ and what is not is of particular interest to Paul. Her entry to the world of wearable art from the world of commercial fashion raised certain questions. “I got funding from the Ontario Arts Council to do my next collection as an emerging artist. I applied through the Aboriginal Arts program, which is open to any art form. And as far as I know, there was a lot of discussion around my application because it is fashion-based. I have to be honest and ask: What is mainstream fashion? What is wearable art? And where does the dividing line go?”

There is a marked sense of derision from the art world towards the fashion realm, considered commercialized and vacuous. “I’m not interested in mainstream fashion. I’m more interested in fashion as art,” says Paul. “The mainstream fashion world is very cutthroat. It’s a hard field to work in. You definitely have to have money to be a part of that.”

Her break from exclusively mainstream fashion came in showing her Synaptic City Collection along with its wearable-art counterpart during the Planet IndigenUS festival at Harbourfront last August. Paul notes that it was based around “the idea of using a natural element, like light, that can bring life to all those within it… a synapse, a space to bring people, animals, cells together, to gather.” The result was a mash-up of ’70’s glamour with traditional regalia, re-imagined using synthetic materials such as Plexiglas. “I like to play around with different materials and possibilities,” says Paul. “It’s like sculpture.”

During the performance, traditional dancers wore the regalia-like art pieces and the models wore the commercial line. Through a series of vignettes, the dancers would take off their regalia and place it on the models, as if ritualistically dressing them. “It could be interpreted in any way, but it was really about self-reflection. Looking at myself, looking at where I am.” By juxtaposing natural and synthetic pieces and presenting them in surprising and iconoclastic ways, she opened up the discussion for new interpretations on traditions, on notions of identity, and on self-reflection.

As an urban artist whose background is in fashion, Paul is a bit of an anomaly in the aboriginal community. Her mother is of mixed European descent, and her father is Dene. Growing up, her parents ensured that she practiced a lot of the traditions and ceremonies. As she became an adult, she felt compelled to explore these origins in earnest.

“There’s so much that was lost. My dad went to residential school, so growing up, he would talk a little bit of Dene to us, and he wouldn’t talk about residential school. My dad can speak fluent Dene. It’s a very hard language to learn, so I ask him certain words and he will try to teach me, but he teaches like he’s a nun, because the nuns were the ones that raised him. And then it just brings more questions. Why is he teaching me like this? Why is this Dene filtered through a European lens?”

While many aboriginal artists focus on motifs specific to their own peoples, Paul’s work does not make such purist attempts. She parses elements together in a mélange of aboriginal and non-aboriginal influences. “She is a cit-Native girl, with a lot of pride in her identity. I love that her clothes transmit that truth about Sage. Even though her designs push new boundaries for her, her designs aren’t trying to be something that she’s not,” says Kerry Potts, ImagineNATIVE’s former Director of Development.

Paul’s inspirations are broad: from Alexander McQueen to her own Hungarian grandmother. “A lot of the Hungarian [embroidered] floral work is very similar to Dene floral work. It’s something I want to explore in the future.”

Yet appropriation, no matter how informed, can put one’s work in the hot seat. “People have never said it outright to me, but fashion is viewed as superficial. It’s something that is not considered as important as music or visual art. It’s important to be aware of how people could potentially react and be prepared to answer, so they understand where it’s coming from. Of course I want to have my own opinion and go ahead and push myself and not worry about what it is that people are thinking. But at the same time I’m researching enough to know that I’m being respectful, so I’m doing myself justice, and I’m doing the community justice.”

“My ideas are my ideas,” says Paul. “I hate explaining my ideas because I don’t want to preach or impose interpretations on others.”

Ultimately, she wants her work to open up greater dialogue about our collective history, so that understanding can supplant where ignorance abounds.

This article first appeared in Yonge Street.