Lesley Hampton is on a mission to disrupt the mainstream of the fashion world.
Since graduating from the University of Toronto Mississauga in 2015, artist, designer, model and advocate for inclusivity, wellness and authentic representation of Anishinaabe launched her successful brand Lesley Hampton. One of her gowns turned heads at the 2020 Golden Globes, American singer Lizzo flaunted the designer pieces and Fashion magazine called Lesley Hampton “Canada’s number one brand to watch out for”.
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 feel it has influenced you in your forms?
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 ended up moving 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 being an Indigenous person and I have taken on these attributes, but also these international experiences from my formative years have made me a lifelong learner who understands these different communities, environments and ways of life. It definitely allowed me to have a greater level of understanding when it comes to diversity and inclusiveness.
What sparked your interest in the fashion world?
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 an early age. My mom was a quilter so we always had a sewing room at home no matter where we moved. I’ve always had room for creativity and that’s influenced me a lot—just having that creative outlet. I always gravitated towards art in school. In high school, I took the International Baccalaureate program and art was by far my favorite class. I love not only the art of creating, but also understanding the concept behind it – and that really pushed me forward in a creative direction.
Specifically, my interest in fashion began with watching Jeanne Beker on Fashion Television. I was living in Newfoundland at the time and that was really the only way to get into the fashion industry. I loved watching the designers on the runway and the amazing mix of design, art and performance. But being an Aboriginal person and feeling different from my friends at school, I never really saw myself being a part of that world. I feel like I just tried it and it seems to have worked out so far.
How did the art and art history program at U of T Mississauga prepare you for this journey?
An art and art history program really trains you conceptually to understand why you make the art you do, and then you take that knowledge and present your work during class assessments. My favorite class was Art from 1945 because I really understood the contemporary world. I think it was a mix between the studio and the classroom and having this conceptual basis for the art; seeing other creatives critique your work and thinking about all the different ways people might approach my art.
When I moved into fashion, it was the basic foundation of knowing what I wanted to say with my work. Maybe the work wasn’t up to par because I was newer to sewing in my early collections, but I always had this basic concept. With the collections, there were times when I wrote pages about everything I wanted to convey—and honestly, it’s really a nod to my background in art history.
Did you have a clear vision for the Lesley Hampton brand from the start?
Yes, right from the start! I always wanted it to be inclusive. I knew I wanted to bring all different body types, abilities and skin colors to the runway. With my first show, I was able to cast it myself, so that’s exactly what I did. It was so important to me to bring different representations of Canadian society to the runway, and I think that’s really something that has stayed with me to this day.
Since that first show and continuing to develop 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 the third is because as an Indigenous person in fashion, there are a lot of stereotypes applied to you when you try to go the mainstream route. During fashion weeks, the media asked me certain questions that were not really appropriate. It was through these interactions that I really wanted to bring an authentic representation 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 much more multifaceted.
Lesley Hampton’s Fashion Arts Toronto show on November 10, 2022 (photo by Jenn Jevons)
I’ve heard you use the term “gatekeeping” to describe some of the challenges you 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 have received from the non-Indigenous press. Like I said, I’m an aboriginal person, but I grew up internationally and didn’t come back to Canada until I was 18. What I saw about indigenous people in the news was always a negative story and there was always a stereotype. I saw how others viewed Aboriginal people while I was still trying to find my own Aboriginality for myself. 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 question my own indigeneity as I realized that I wasn’t following the stereotypical path that others expected me to follow. It felt like they were telling me to stay in my lane. It was these media experiences that allowed me to understand this kind of gateway.
Other Aboriginal artists also felt this and it became the basis for the creation of the Aboriginal Fashion Arts Festival. Through this community—and the incredible mentors I had like Sage Paul, who founded this organization—I was able to understand that gatekeeping is a colonial concept and not something innate to indigenous culture. It is something that is applied to us from this understanding. Working with Sage really helped me understand my own origins and not let that gatekeeping affect my work.
Your fashion brand is indigenously owned, female-led and plus-size. What is it like to promote body positivity in a fashion world that idealizes Eurocentric standards of beauty?
We have a lot of wins because it’s something that’s always talked about, unfortunately. 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 the strength to wear a dress or do the thing That’s really exciting for me. I always say that my favorite thing about fashion is when I’m with a client and they put on the dress and they like the fit – and they love the way they look. It feels that way because it was made for them, and not for, say, a smaller body, and then it was sized wrong because no one taught how to design for plus size. That’s definitely what makes it so exciting for me to see those smiles. But to this day, even as much as we put out into the world that we are size inclusive with our brand, I still have to argue with some casting directors to represent my work and the way I created it correctly and not try to put it on smaller body.
You dressed Lainey Lui for the Golden Globes, Lizzo is a big fan of your new athleisure line, and you regularly get shout-outs from Kim Kardashian. Which celebrity would you like to see wearing your brand next?
That’s a tough question because I’m always so honored when someone chooses to wear our work, or gives us a shout out, or compliments our runway show. Honestly, there are so many people I would love to see wearing this brand and it changes every day. But I would love to see Halsey in my work – she’s been my biggest musical inspiration so that would be a huge thing. Ashley Graham would be incredible too.
You are an advocate for inclusivity and compassion and actively work to disrupt the mainstream fashion industry. Why is it so important to you and how do you feel about its impact on the audience?
I see representation as a form of harm reduction. I know from personal experience and conversations with 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 if we don’t fit, then it causes a lot of damage and ultimately it depends on the decision of the designer, creative director or medium. These decision makers in the fashion industry are given this platform and ultimately the responsibility for change. A few people have decided to try to change this mentality and understand how important representation is. It is so essential for our mental health to reduce the harm we do to ourselves, whether physically or psychologically. I see that there is such a direct relationship between mental health and clothes because we interact with clothes every day and our mental health and body image are linked to the consequences of that experience.
What does authentic representation mean to you?
Authentic representation means making the decision to include someone with a difference. It’s not tokenism and it’s not just ticking a box. It’s because you truly believe that including them will make a difference and make a difference. It is seeing yourself represented in a space and proudly occupying that space. You see an individual who empowers you and who allows you to step into your own power and seize the day.
what’s next for you?
For me personally, it is always a constant challenge to balance my personal life with my business life. Before the pandemic, that’s something I honestly wasn’t the best at. I was working so hard, always trying to build my brand and it was taking its toll on my mental health. Now I’m kind of re-introducing myself to the world of fashion after COVID. Having a work-life balance is so important to me, and it’s something that’s a constant process. I always say that my business will not prosper until I prosper. I definitely owe the brand’s recent growth to the efforts I’ve made to improve my mental health. It allows me to work better and feel more able to take on all these difficult things in the fashion industry.
On a professional level, I am so excited to join the Indigenous Fashion Arts Trade Program in Milan in February to present our new collection. This will be the first time we have brought our work to Europe since we attended London Fashion Week in 2018. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to travel with my work again, so it’s going to be a really exciting experience. work with buyers. It will be held during fashion week, so it will be massive for the brand and for the group of indigenous brands that are also gearing up for the event. I just hope to expand the brand abroad as much as possible. I’m very excited to see where I can push inclusive representation in fashion through the work we do.