Lesley Hampton is on a mission to disrupt the mainstream world of fashion.
Since graduating from the University of Toronto Mississauga in 2015, the Anishinaabe artist, designer, model and advocate for inclusivity, mental health and authentic representation has launched her successful brand Lesley Hampton. One of her dresses caught the eye at the 2020 Golden Globe Awards, American singer Lizzo wore the designer’s pieces and Vogue magazine named Lesley Hampton “Canada’s number one brand to watch.”
After a recent show at Fashion Arts Toronto, Hampton spoke with the writer Tara Clemens about what it’s like to challenge established norms and become a champion of inclusivity and diversity in the fashion industry.
You described your childhood as nomadic. How do you think that influenced you in your growing up years?
I always say that I live at the crossroads between my third culture upbringing and my indigenous background because I am Anishinaabe, but I didn’t grow up on a reservation. I was born in Newfoundland but moved every two and a half years during my youth until I was 18. Growing up I spent time in Calgary, the Northwest Territories and then internationally in Australia, New Caledonia (a French territory), Indonesia and England. I have the culture and blood memory of an indigenous person and I take on these attributes, but also these international experiences from my formative years have shaped me into a lifelong learner who understands these different communities, environments and different ways of life. It definitely gave me a higher level of understanding when it comes to diversity and inclusiveness.
What sparked your interest in the world of fashion?
I learned to sew when I was only four years old and although I was by no means good at it, I was interested in it from a young age. My mom was a quilter, so we always had a sewing room in the house no matter where we moved. I’ve always had room for creativity and that has had a huge impact on me – just to have that creative outlet. I always gravitated towards art in school. I attended international baccalaureate in high school and art was definitely my favorite subject. I love not only creating art, but also understanding the concept behind it – and that really pushed me forward in a creative direction.
Namely, my interest in fashion started watching Jeanne Beker on Fashion Television. I was living in Newfoundland at the time and that was really the only way I could get into the fashion industry. I loved watching the designers on the runway and the incredible blend of design, art and performance. But being an Indigenous person and feeling different from my friends at school, I never really saw myself as part of that world. I feel like I just gave it a shot and it seems to have worked so far.
How did the art and art history program at U of T Mississauga prepare you for this journey?
The art and art history program actually conceptually trains you to understand why you make the art you make and then take that knowledge and present your work in class. My favorite subject was Art Since 1945 because I really had to understand the contemporary world. I think it was a mixture of the studio and the classroom and that conceptual basis for the art; watching other creatives critique your work and thinking about all the different ways people can approach my art.
When I switched to fashion, it was the fundamental basis of knowing what I wanted to say with my work. Maybe the work wasn’t up to par because I was new to sewing in my early collections, but I always had that basic concept. There have been times for collections where I’ve written pages about all the things I wanted to convey – and honestly, that’s really a sign of my art history.
Did you have a clear vision for the Lesley Hampton brand from the start?
Yes, from the very beginning! I always wanted it to be inclusive. I knew I wanted to bring all different body types, abilities and skin tones to the runway. With my first show, I could play it myself, so that’s exactly what I did. It was very important to me to bring different representations of Canadian society to the runway and I think that is something that has stayed with me to this day.
Since that first show and since further developing what I want to say in fashion, the pillars of our Lesley Hampton brand have become body positivity, mental health awareness and authentic representation. And that third one is because, being an indigenous person in fashion, you get a lot of stereotypes applied to you when you try to go the mainstream route. During the fashion weeks, the media would ask me some questions that were not really appropriate. Through these interactions, I really wanted to bring an authentic portrayal of Indigenous people to the top of my platform so that people could see that we are not what you saw in the textbooks. We are very multifaceted.
Lesley Hampton runway show at Fashion Arts Toronto on November 10, 2022 (photo by Jenn Jevons)
I’ve heard you use the term “gatekeeping” to describe some of the challenges you’ve faced as a young, indigenous designer. Can you talk about gatekeeping as a colonial concept and how it applies to the world of fashion?
This definitely goes back to the questions I received from the non-indigenous press. Like I said, I’m aboriginal, but I grew up overseas and didn’t come back to Canada until I was 18. What I saw about indigenous people on the news was always a negative story and there was always a stereotype. I watched others view indigenous people while I was still trying to find my own indigeneity. In the midst of this time of self-discovery, the non-indigenous press asked me questions like, “Why don’t you use feathers and beads?” These comments made me reevaluate my indigeneity as I realized that I was not following the stereotypical path that others expected of me. It felt like they were telling me to stay in my lane. Those early experiences with the media made me realize that kind of gatekeeping.
Other autochthonous artists also felt this and it became the basis for the creation of the Autochthonous Fashion Art Festival. Because of that community—and the incredible mentors I had like Sage Paul, who founded that organization—I was able to understand that gatekeeping was a colonial concept and not something that was innate to Indigenous culture. It is something that is applied to us from that understanding. Working with Sage has really helped me understand my own indigeneity better and not let gatekeeping affect my work.
Your fashion brand is Indigenous-owned, women-led and plus-size. What is it like to advocate body-positivity in a fashion world that idealizes Eurocentric standards of beauty?
We have a lot of wins because it’s something that is unfortunately always talked about. But I’d rather highlight the good things like the messages or comments we get by email or on Instagram from people who have seen their body shape represented in our fashion and how much it puts a smile on their face and gives them strength to wear a dress or do something. It’s really so exciting for me. I always say my favorite thing in fashion is when I’m with a client and they put on a dress and they like the way it fits – and they like the way it looks. They feel that way because it was made for them, not for, say, a smaller body and then sized wrong because no one learned to design for plus size. It definitely makes me so excited to see those smiles. But to this day, even with how much we’ve put out into the world the fact that we include size in our branding, I still have to fight with certain casting directors to present my work and the way I created it correctly and not try to put it to a smaller body.
You dressed Lainey Lui for the Golden Globes, Lizzo is a big fan of your new athleisure line, and you regularly get compliments from Kim Kardashian. Which celebrity would you like to see wearing your brand next?
This is a difficult question because I am always honored when someone chooses to wear our work, or praises us, or praises our shows. Honestly, there are so many people I would love to see wear that brand and it changes daily. But I would love to see Halsey in my work – she’s my biggest musical inspiration, so that would be a big deal. Ashley Graham would be so amazing too.
You are a champion of inclusivity and compassion and actively work to disrupt the mainstream fashion industry. Why is it so important to you and how do you think its impact is felt by viewers?
I see representation as a form of harm reduction. I know from personal experience, and from talking to friends and people in the industry, that we try so hard to fit into the status quo that the mainstream fashion industry tells us we should fit into. But when we don’t fit in, then it causes a lot of damage and ultimately it comes down to the decisions of the designer, or the creative director, or the media. These decision makers in the fashion industry have been given this platform and ultimately this responsibility to make a change. A few people decided to try to change this mentality and realize how important representation really is. It is very important for our mental health to reduce the harm we do to ourselves, whether physically or mentally. I see that there is such a direct connection between mental health and clothes because we interact with clothes every day, and our mental health and body image are linked to the implications of that experience.
What does authentic representation mean to you?
Authentic representation is making the decision to include someone who is different. It’s not tokenism and it’s not just ticking boxes. This is because you truly believe that their involvement will make a difference and make a difference. It is seeing yourself represented in space and proudly occupying that space. You see an individual who empowers you and allows you to come into your own power and take charge of the day.
What’s next for you?
A constant challenge for me personally is always balancing personal and business life. Before the pandemic, it’s something I honestly wasn’t the best at. I was working so hard, always trying to build my brand, and it took a toll on my mental health. Now I’m kind of re-introducing myself to the world of fashion after COVID. Having that work-life balance is really important to me, and it’s something that’s a constant process. I always say that my business will not progress if I do not progress. I definitely attribute the recent growth the brand has had to the efforts I’ve made to improve my mental health. It allows me to work better and feel more capable of all those hard things in the fashion industry.
On a professional level, I am very excited to join the Indigenous Fashion Arts Trade Program in Milan in February to present our new collection. It will be the first time we’ve brought our work to Europe since attending London Fashion Week 2018. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to travel with my work again, so it will be a really exciting experience working with customers. It will be happening during Fashion Week, so it will be massive for the brand and for the group of indigenous brands that are also going to the event. I just hope to expand the brand abroad as much as possible. I’m really excited to see where I can push inclusive representation in fashion through the work we do.