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Regalia and Runways: How a Chilliwack designer is bridging Indigenous style and couture fashion

Rebecca Baker-Grenier shares her thoughts on runways, regalia, stolen art, and Indigenous resilience

Rebecca Baker-Grenier (centre) will be in Toronto on May 31 as her We Are Warriors collection hits the runway at the Indigenous Fashion Arts Festival. 📷 Submitted

This story first appeared in the May 28th edition of the Fraser Valley Current newsletter. Subscribe for free to get Fraser Valley news in your email every weekday morning.

Hand-strung beads, rows of dentalium, and drapings of ermine aren’t traditional choices for armour. But for Rebecca Baker-Grenier, a Chilliwack designer, it is what makes her feel protected. 

Baker-Grenier, who is from the Kwakiutł, Dzawada'enuxw, and Skwxwú7mesh nations, has been creating regalia for her family since she was 11. She began commissioned work in her late teens and joined the Indigenous dance group Dancers of Damelahamid in 2014. It has been nearly two decades of designing, crafting, and sharing regalia with her community.

But now, at 31, she is creating that armour in a new way—by designing couture clothing using Indigenous teachings. 

Since she ventured into the fashion industry two years ago, Baker-Grenier has produced two complete collections, as well as a variety of ready-to-wear clothing options. Her designs have been worn by Cree-Metis actress Tantoo Cardinal of Dances with Wolves and Killers of the Flower Moon fame, and one piece has even made its way to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

On May 31, the Chilliwack-based designer will see her warrior collection exhibited on the runway in Toronto for its Indigenous Fashion Arts Festival. Seeing her work on the runway is “surreal,” Baker-Grenier said, but also a celebration of the resiliency of Indigenous people and art. 

Regalia, runways, and stolen art

Since Baker-Grenier started learning fashion design in 2021, she has taken the runway by storm. Mentoring under Indigenous designer Himkalas Pam Baker, Baker-Grenier debuted her first collection at New York Fashion Week in 2022.

It was a big start for a designer with only a year in the industry. But by the time her clothes got to New York, Baker-Grenier had been sewing regalia for two decades. And fashion and regalia have plenty in common.

Baker-Grenier: I really see fashion as a representation of not only my identity, but the identity of many other Indigenous people. I think fashion has the ability to tell stories and represent who we are as Indigenous people. And that is what regalia is also.

Regalia is what we wear to dance or in ceremony, and it is that outward representation of our lineages. So when I design like fashion, I do have to make adaptations to be mindful of what can be shared publicly and what I'm comfortable for anybody and all people to wear. But a lot of the designs are very much inspired by my regalia background.

One of Baker-Grenier’s pieces from her first collection began its life as a hand-beaded belt with Chilkat designs, through her Tlingit ancestry. As she designed the belt, it grew to include a dentalium vest and leather apron. The resulting piece, Held By Generations, is now one of Baker-Grenier’s own regalia pieces—although she won’t get to wear it for another year. The outfit is on display in the Northwest Coast Gallery at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The gallery, which focuses on the “material culture” of the Coast Salish, Gitxsan, Haida, Haíłzaqv, Kwakwaka'wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, Nuxalk, Tlingit, and Tsimshian nations, was renovated in 2022 with input from members of those 10 nations. It is still contentious, however. Many of the items in the gallery were taken from Indigenous groups during “expeditions” to the Pacific Northwest in the late 19th century, and although some items were repatriated, others stayed.

Baker-Grenier: When I was designing my first collection, I wanted to make a statement piece and one that was more artwork-based. But I didn't want to make something that was unwearable and unusable—and I didn't want to make it so that it was only worn on the runway because of all the time and effort that went into it.

And I think that aligns very much with Indigenous teachings that we make things to us and to wear as part of our culture. Because art is not separable from our life. You know, our regalia is not meant to be held solely in museums. It's meant to be worn. It's meant to be used and it's okay that it wears down. So this piece, I wanted to make it wearable and usable. And I had the idea to make a piece that was on the runway, but also eventually I would wear as my own regalia.

FVC: How does it feel for you having it be in the Museum of Natural History, given what you just said, that these art pieces aren't meant to just sit in a museum for forever?

Baker-Grenier: I think the feelings around being in that museum aren't necessarily that it's on display, because it's only there for about a year. So I will get it back. And I will wear it.

I think it's important to have our work in those spaces, particularly that museum where the whole Northwest Coast Hall is primarily pieces that were stolen and confiscated during the Potlatch Ban. And they're hundreds of years old. And a lot of people go through that gallery not realizing that, quite literally, Indigenous people are still alive. When we were down there, people were very surprised to see a lot of young artists. And they would ask, ‘Oh, well, how many family members do you have? I didn't realize you were so, you know, prolific and in communities.’

So I think it's hard to be in a space where there are so many complexities around so many emotions, and to be surrounded by pieces that were illegally taken. But at the same time, I think it's very empowering to be amongst those pieces that are made by master artists and carry so much history and strength and power within themselves. I think it's an honor to have my work there for those reasons. Yeah, I'll leave it at that.

FVC: It's definitely something that has a lot of complex stuff going on.

Baker-Grenier: For sure. It's a lot of complex emotions and discussions, but I think it is an honour to have my work displayed on such—there's a word I'm thinking of. But to be in a space, such as that, I think is such an honor. And I will be getting that vest back in about a year and it will go back into my suitcase for dancing.

Couture, culture, and the everyday

The regalia now at the Museum of Natural History spurred the design of other items in Baker-Grenier’s collection that are closet-ready. These dresses, skirts, and shirts are meant for everyone to wear—people can purchase by sending Baker-Grenier a DM on Instagram—but also bring in elements of the couture. We wanted to know: how do you design with both couture and closets in mind?

Baker-Grenier: A lot of our art, it demands to be created at such a high level. If you look at our master artists—I would not consider myself a master, not even close. But if you look at our master artists, they're trained from a young age and they dedicate their life to perfecting our art because there are artistic freedoms and innovations that can be had, but the very foundation of it, there are strict guidelines that are followed. And it is an art form that is passed down from generation to generation through these rigorous training practices.

So I think when I think about fashion, I want to hold myself to those standards to represent who we are as Indigenous people, and my communities and my family, to represent who we are on these international stages to the best of my ability. And that's how I see high fashion.

I think a lot of our traditional techniques are very much in line with couture techniques, which have hand sewing, and beading and embellishments. And using different materials other than fabric, museum metals, and leathers. And those are all materials that we would traditionally use. So I think the high fashion and couture really aligns well with our Indigenous culture and our artistic practices.

But I think the other side to fashion is that I want to create pieces that are wearable, and people can wear on a day to day. I think one of the inspirations that drew me to create a warrior collection was because I see fashion as almost an armor. When you wear something that you feel good about, that represents you, it's almost like you feel protected. And that's how I feel when I wear my regalia. Sometimes I feel my truest self, but also so protected and who I am. And so making pieces that are wearable day-to-day is also very important for me.

On May 31, Baker-Grenier’s We Are Warriors collection will be hitting the runway in the Toronto’s Indigenous Fashion Arts Festival. The collection honours Baker-Grenier’s Kwakwaka’wakw and Tlingit ancestors, with references to traditional armour and important cultural symbols. It also focuses on inclusivity, with a red cape representing two-spirit people who are also missing and murdered. (The cape was worn by Cree-Metis actress Tantoo Cardinal when she was inducted into the Canada Walk of Fame in December of 2023.)

The collection will be showcased alongside five other Indigenous designs in the Fierce + Fearless show, which emphasizes clothes that, in the words of the festival, confront colonialism, demand autonomy, and promote safe spaces.

It won’t be the first Indigenous-led runway Baker-Grenier has sent her collection to. She participated in Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week in 2023, and the Kwakwaka’wakw Fashion Show earlier this year. As she says below, participating in Indigenous runway shows means her art gets different feedback—and even just being on the runway is a surreal experience.

Baker-Grenier: Growing up, I didn't see myself as an artist, even though I was sewing, and beading was a main passion of mine since I was very young. I think growing up in the public schools, I had a different understanding of what art was. And I didn't see myself in that world. Because the art that I was creating, it wasn't the typical photo on a wall, piece in a gallery kind of work. It was something that was worn and used. And it was just part of who I was, and it was just part of my life.

So when I started as more of an adult and transitioned my career as an artist, I think I'm still navigating that title and what that means. And I think claiming it is an act of strength. So to see my work on the runways, I think it is quite amazing. I'm always proud of all of the other Indigenous designers and artists who share the runway. I think it's very much a celebration of the resiliency of Indigenous people. It is a testament to our ability to innovate. And it really demonstrates that Indigenous people are amazing artists.

FVC: When people see your warrior collection up there on the runway, what do you want them to take from those designs?

Baker-Grenier: I think the nice thing about Indigenous Fashion Arts is that it is an Indigenous-produced runway show. So the audience, I think, will either be Indigenous or have an understanding of Indigenous culture and art, or at least an openness to learning. I think that is a difference that I found doing various runway shows is when there's an openness to Indigenous ways of knowing and art, that my work is received differently.

I think that my collection is a testament to the strength of Indigenous art, that artists have the ability to innovate in a way that reflects our contemporary realities, but it's also founded in history that goes hundreds of thousands of years back. I think as a designer when I started fashion, I didn't know that I would be where I am today. It's something that I'm incredibly thankful for. But where I am today, I just hope … it inspires somebody.

This story first appeared in the May 28th edition of the Fraser Valley Current newsletter. Subscribe for free to get Fraser Valley news in your email every weekday morning.


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