Vancouver-based designer sees growing interest in Indigenous fashion

Eric Plummer, December 18, 2019

Alicia Stephens has focused full-time on her art for the last seven years, and in 2019 exhibited during New York Fashion Week. She was recognized at the Nuu-chah-nulth Urban Gathering in Vancouver on Dec. 5. (Eric Plummer photo)

Vancouver, BC — 

It’s been an exciting year for Alicia Stephens, culminating in exhibits of her fashion work at shows in Vancouver and New York.

The Ahousaht designer, who grew up in Victoria and has lived in the Vancouver area for the last 20 years, reflected on the past months during the Nuu-chah-nulth Urban Gathering in Vancouver on Dec. 5. Her designs were most recently showcased at the Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week from Nov. 18-21, preceded by an excursion to Manhattan in September for New York Fashion Week. Stephens was one of two Canadian designers invited to showcase their work by Oxford Fashion Studio.

“I got lots of media,” said Stephens, whose exposure from the event included Glamour magazine. “It’s opened a lot more doors. I’ve been invited to a few more fashion shows.”

In New York Stephens presented Resilience, a collection of clothing dedicated to all survivors and non-survivors of Canada’s Indian residential school system. Stephens’ mother and grandmother are former residential school students.

“Her life goal is to stop this cycle and create a new path for our children to grow, learn and understand,” states Oxford’s profile on the designer. “Today, Alicia sees strong, independent, and courageous women who struggled and overcame this cycle. This collection will depict a strong and powerful look with the form line of First Nations art.”

Participation in the event was a massive undertaking for the Burnaby-based designer, including an entry fee of over $10,000 Canadian – plus travel expenses to New York. After nine months of raising the expense costs, she recalls frequently encountering film shoots while in the city.

“It was so unreal. I was in a movie studio everywhere I turned,” said Stephens. “I know I want to do more fashion shows, just continue with my work. My work is non-stop because it’s my full time job. That’s all I do every day, is paint and create new things.”

Oxford encountered Stephens’s designs by combing the Internet for original work to showcase. Online promotion has allowed Stephens to progress from the odd jobs she relied upon while in her 20s and 30s. Her breakthrough came in 2012 when Stephens published a photo of shoes with a design inked on by a Sharpie marker, a Facebook post that began a stream on interest. Since then the designer has focused on shoes, purses, jewellery and clothing.

“I buy the product, and I add the design to it,” said Stephens, who works out of her basement studio. “When I’m looking at a blank piece, I can see it in my mind and it just comes out.”

She sells her pieces throughout North America, and more than half of her customers are non-Indigenous. Stephens is seeing a growing interest in Aboriginal-themed fashion.

“There’s always a story behind it and history,” she said.

A lifetime artist, Stephens learned First Nations carving, beading and drum making while in high school.  But she emphasizes that her pieces are contemporary, and not to be confused with regalia or traditional Aboriginal art.

“First Nations art has been around for many, many years. It has been practiced, and there’s also a cultural part,” she said. “With my art, I don’t try to push it to be a traditional art piece, but more modern and contemporary.”