Cree fashion designer Scott Wabano took his collection to one of the world’s most prestigious runways at this year’s New York Fashion Week (NYFW) February 10. The semi-annual series in Manhattan is one of the world’s four major fashion events along with Paris, London and Milan.
“It was a life-changing experience I feel I’m still processing,” Wabano told the Nation. “I’m honoured I was able to share it with my friends, family and community members. We really felt the energy in that room and how powerful Indigenous people really are.”
Wabano brought a diverse group of Indigenous leaders and influencers to model his genderless garments, intending to challenge prevailing pan-Indigenous stereotypes. With significant representation from two-spirit communities, another common theme was overcoming binary gender terms.
“The whole premise of my brand is being inclusive, showing how diverse Indigenous communities are and the importance of community,” explained Wabano. “We’re representing not only ourselves but our communities as well. This is something I envisioned as a kid, to see Indigenous models, designers and stories within the industry.”
Born and raised in Moose Cree First Nation, Wabano sought escapism through fashion magazines in his school library. He was curious why he didn’t see Indigenous people in their pages despite being “some of the most innovative people within art.” It fuelled a quest to bring more representation to the industry.
Wabano began planning the brand long before leaving for fashion arts studies in Toronto, inspired by the ubiquity of teepees in Waskaganish where they would often stay with family. Connecting with that community proved particularly meaningful at one pivotal point when they were struggling to feel at home within themselves.
“I went back to Waskaganish and felt like I’d found a place called home that I was really longing for,” Wabano shared. “Community told me no matter where you go Waskaganish is always going to be inside you, you’re always going to take a part of home with you. I fell in love with that idea. Whenever I think of home, I always think of a teepee.”
Bridging Indigenous traditions with modern styles, Wabano’s stylized teepee logo is often emblazoned on natural or upcycled fabrics to minimize his company’s carbon footprint. He grew up surrounded by his late kokum’s moose hide clothing and making powwow regalia with his mother.
“I get a lot of inspiration from sustainable materials,” said Wabano. “I always believed Indigenous youth are walking in two worlds – the Indigenous traditional world and this western world. My designs reflect that balance.”
After working as an intern and stylist for Anishinaabe designer Lesley Hampton, Wabano made a splash with the launch of his first official collection in 2021. It sold out in two days and led to numerous press and modelling opportunities – the Globe and Mail even named him one of the best-dressed people of 2022.
Wabano has since become an influential social media presence, while working as a stylist or consultant for several media campaigns. Being invited to NYFW was a significant accomplishment, but raising the necessary funds to get there took a community.
“I was going to throw in the towel, but it was community that pushed me to pursue this opportunity,” said Wabano. “It’s very hard for me to ask for help, especially when it comes to financial things. But I decided to bite the bullet and I managed to fund the majority of my fees with sponsorships and crowdfunding.”
In New York, Wabano was accompanied by a powerful group of models reinforcing his core concept that Indigenous people come in all colours, shapes and sizes. Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty demonstrated her support for Cree youth by modelling a sleek black design.
“I really appreciate that he’s bringing an important subject forward, looking at two-spirit people with his new association and the clothing is non-gender, non-binary,” said Gull-Masty. “I wanted to be part of that discussion and show my support.”
Other notable models included Swampy Cree activist Michelle Chubb, youth advocate Kairyn Potts and model/actress Braydee Cardinal, who shared on TikTok how the experience inspired her: “Wow, Indigenous people are quite literally the most resilient, powerful and strong-spirited people.”
For many models, like two-spirit substitute teacher Jazz Moise from tiny La Loche in northern Saskatchewan, it was their first experience on a runway. Moise said it was a surreal thrill that’s inspired new dreams of becoming a stylist or artist in the fashion world.
With a giant billboard promoting the show at Times Square, preparation for the runway was reportedly chaotic but grounded by plenty of laughter backstage.
Wabano’s advice to his models?
“Just be real bad ass,” related Haley Robinson. “Have a good time but also look fierce. You’re meant to be there – we’re here to take up space. I’m like, frig yeah, 100% I can do that. Just walking with Scott and other mixed Indigenous beings was like, we’re here, we f—ing matter.”
As a two-spirit Filipino-Indigenous model and influencer who is passionate about positive representation, Robinson was touched by the pride expressed by Native folks in the crowd who said they could now imagine themselves on stage. It was also revelatory for her burgeoning modelling career to receive advice from those more experienced in the industry.
“They taught me how to feel more comfortable in my walk, look real freaking deadly,” Robinson told the Nation. “We’re living in an age where you’re to celebrate who you are and that’s so powerful. I want to be able to do fashion that doesn’t just put me in a pretty dress.”
After NYFW, Wabano was invited to appear at London Fashion Week in September along with other shows around North America. As he takes a break before preparing his next collection, his mission to prove “as a rez kid you can do anything” is just beginning.
“I always tell people to go for it, whatever you may dream,” said Wabano. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help from communities, family and friends. Indigenous youth are some of the most powerful youth I know – it’s important to tap into that power and create big change.”