Breaking into the fashion industry is no easy feat. It’s a highly competitive space, with designers battling for recognition. And for Indigenous creators — who are vastly underrepresented within the industry — it is especially challenging. 

Lesley Hampton is changing that.

Hampton, a member of Temagami First Nation, has made uplifting Indigenous communities through design her life’s work. Drawing inspiration from her Anishinaabe heritage, she blends tradition and trends to create contemporary and timeless, modern pieces. Each piece is developed with the true purpose of empowering Indigenous communities and encouraging positive and inclusive representation within the industry.

Hampton's talent has caught the attention of many, earning her accolades from the Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards, Fashion Group International, Indspire Awards, and more.

As a Champion of Change with Global Citizen, the accomplished creator is now lending her voice to support the organization's mission of ending extreme poverty now. Global Citizen spoke to Hampton about her journey and the importance of decolonizing fashion and beauty standards.

Global Citizen: What was your childhood like?

Lesley Hampton: I identify as the third culture kid. I travelled every two and a half years from birth to 18 — the first half of that was all around Canada, and the second half of that was international. I was born in Newfoundland and before preschool moved to Calgary, and then, for kindergarten, moved to Northwestern Territories. In grade three, I moved back to Newfoundland; in grade seven, my parents moved to New Caledonia, which is an island like Fiji, off the coast of Australia. It's all French-speaking and there was no way I was going to be able to continue my education in French, so I went to boarding school in Australia. While I was there, my parents changed location from New Caledonia to Indonesia — Jakarta. And then at the end of grade 10, we all got up and moved to England and that's where I graduated high school. After high school, we all came back to Canada, and that was the first time coming back to North America since leaving it in grade seven. 

How did you navigate having to jump from one place to another?

The Australia move was very difficult because I was going from Newfoundland, where everyone I knew never left the island, to Australia. I was the only kid from North America in my small town of 10,000 people. That transition was pretty hard just because I was the odd one out and as soon as I opened my mouth, you could tell that I was different. But in England, I went to an international school and we all got along because we were all the odd ones out. Everyone had a similar travel upbringing, and it was exciting to share all those stories [with people who went to] a different location every year — whether they were expats or kids of the military.

How did you become a fashion designer? What's the story behind that?

Like many other Canadian fashion designers, I got my exposure to the fashion industry by watching Jeanne Beker on fashion television. In Newfoundland, on Saturday mornings, I wasn't watching morning cartoons; I was watching the runway and Jeanne Beker, so I always had an interest in that. 

But even at that young age, I didn't see myself in that space — I was bigger than my friends at school and I was Indigenous — so I don't think I took it too seriously as a career path. And then my international experience was very academic heavy, so I ended up applying to 13 universities, all with different programs because I had no idea what I wanted to do. And then I chose the one closest to home, and that happened to be an art history program at the University of Toronto.

From there, always being creative, my artwork ended up being wearable art and always a conversation with what you put on the body and what that conversation is … At that time, I was really dedicated to changing the industry and figuring out my place as a curvier Indigenous person in the fashion industry, but [in a way, that was] also making space for other people like me who typically didn't fit in. 

So much of your platform is about uplifting Indigenous communities and representation is such a crucial part of your work. What challenges have you had to overcome to make a name for yourself within the industry, and more broadly, what are some of the challenges that still exist that need to be addressed? 

I see representation as a form of harm reduction, and I think young people being able to see themselves in spaces like fashion is so crucial for how we see our mental health and our body image. I think fashion is at that forefront, and it can trickle to media and to all other avenues that are public facing, but that affect youth. I started my brand when I was 22, right after university, so I was pretty naive to the industry and the gatekeeping that was going to come up for me. I kind of winged it — I didn't understand actually how difficult it was going to be, and I was just trying my best. 

Where I found difficulty was when I started doing runway shows or putting pieces forward for magazines. I had models stopped at my backstage door because they didn't look like models —  because they were not straight size; I had models who required service animals get asked why they were bringing a dog. It's not only the fashion industry, but all those other avenues that create that gatekeeping we also have to break down. I was very much exposed to that at an early age and even these days, when I'm working with casting directors for shows, I have to put my foot down and say, "No, if my work is participating, we're going to have all sizes walking the runway and not just up to what you deem appropriate." That happened as recently as a few weeks ago.

A big part of what you do is work to decolonize Eurocentric beauty standards that are prevalent across the fashion and beauty industry. How do you go about it?

It goes back to that gatekeeping — gatekeeping is a colonial concept. For myself and the people that I interact with in North America, we have to have that understanding that this is a colonized state and the true stewards of this land didn't have that gatekeeping mentality and framework. 

Indigenizing that way of thinking and bringing [it] into fashion, decolonizing the way we think about ourselves, and how we think about our bodies is so crucial to move forward and to [stop believing] that Eurocentrism is the top example of beauty. That greater level of understanding and education around the land, the people, and the community that is here on this land will help diversify not only ourselves and our body image, but the industry as well.

Do you have any tips for people who, even subconsciously, believe that they're not worthy of being in that space because they don't look the way they're "supposed to" or the way that society tells them that they should look?

On a personal level, the concept of body neutrality is something that resonates with me — remembering that the body that you have is the only one you're going to get and to treat it with respect. Similarly to how Canadian society now lends itself to land acknowledgments and honouring the past to move forward to the future, [we need to] take that framework and apply [it] to ourselves … honouring our bodies' history and what [they have been] through, whether through colonization or whether it's through these negative stereotypes that are being applied to us from society.

What motivates you and what keeps you going? 

What keeps me going is my family, having those recharge moments. My proudest moment changes every week, but [it is] seeing other Indigenous youths take up space in the fashion industry specifically. When I started, I didn't see any Indigenous people in the fashion world. Now, it's amazing that we have platforms like Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week or Indigenous Fashion Arts festival, where we're able to go to a space and see people like us, but [also] create a platform that educates non-Indigenous people of our artwork and our practices … in an authentic way and not in a performative and appropriative way.

If, in five years, the fashion space was where you wanted it to be, what would that look like?

It would be one where Indigenous talents and BIPOC talents are put in the same spotlight as settler talent; for our names to be to have those moments in the spotlight just like the Chanels and the Guccis, those flagship stores so celebrated. I would love for BIPOC talent to have just as amazing spaces and [to be] just as celebrated by the public. That would trickle through to authentic representation and non-performative inclusion, where no one's tokenized and people are included based on their talents and not just because they tick boxes.

What does being a Global Citizen mean to you?

Living at the intersection between my Anishinaabe Indigeneity and my third culture upbringing kind of makes me a Global Citizen, in the way that I have both of those backgrounds and I'm able to use what I learned to bring that forward to a better way of looking at society and, hopefully, approaching these barriers in fashion and media.

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