Canadian First Nations Designer Lesley Hampton Talks Inspiration and Bringing Diversity to the Runway

Lesley Hampton is a Canadian First Nations designer, as well as the founder and creative designer of LESLEY HAMPTON – The Label. Her collections have been seen at Fashion Art Toronto and Vancouver Fashion Week, as well as on the red carpet at TIFF. Lesley came into the eye of the fashion industry over the last year, and is the first Canadian Toronto-based fashion designer to be recognized by Vogue UK two seasons in a row. Her brand celebrates and embraces diversity on the runway, and pays homage to her First Nations heritage.

How did you end up creating your own clothing line?

I had just finished at the University of Toronto, and I was doing art, and I was creating a lot of wearable sculpture work. I just realized art isn’t for me and that I was more interested in fashion. I like how I can manipulate how people feel based on what they’re wearing. I like that a piece of clothing can make them feel confident. I started at George Brown College around the time that my brand started taking off, and it took off almost by happenstance. I was approached by Vancouver Fashion Week—I had an 8 piece collection and I was kind of just thrown into the industry.

How do you want people to feel when they’re wearing your designs?

A lot of the time I say I want my customers to feel like warriors. I like when you put on a dress and you just feel like you can take over the world, and I designed my clothing line with that feeling in mind. So if someone needs a boost of confidence, for instance, when they’re going out—like maybe they’re not comfortable with certain parts of their body, or something like that— they can put on one of my designs and feel confident enough to not care about what anyone thinks.

What do you draw inspiration from when you’re creating designs?

I find that a lot of my collections are either Native inspired, because I have First Nations heritage, or they’re inspired by something medical or in the field of biology. Last season’s collection, The Golden Hour, was inspired by a medical term actually. The phrase ‘golden hour’ means a time of day (right before sunset, when the sun is near the horizon and very warm and golden in colour), but it also refers to the hour immediately following a tragedy, which is basically a crucial time that can determine whether or not the person or people involved in the tragedy live or die, depending on the scenario. I included that last season, and I also brought on Adrianne Haslet, who is a survivor of the Boston Marathon attack. We thought about that crucial hour after the bombing, which determined whether a lot of people survived or didn’t. My Mermaids of Yesterday collection was more inspired by textiles and fabrics and the transition from day to night, or land to sea—hard to soft, human to earth. That was the inspiration for that. It started with a more floral fabric, and then it moved to more mermaid-like silhouettes.

How do you include your First Nations heritage in your designs?

I like to include my native background wherever I can in my designs, and learn about the culture and try to be involved in it. In my past few collections I’ve had A Tribe Called Red—a Canadian electronic music group that uses vocal chanting and drumming—be my audio mix for the runways. I like to kind of reintroduce the sound to the general public—or, I guess, keep people aware of that type of music. My Fall 2016 City Warriors collection was inspired by Native jingle bells. It was my own interpretation of the garment. Kind of a modern-day version of the jingle dress.

Where does your personal style come from? Who are your favourite designers?

A lot of the time it comes from comfort. If I’m going out I dress nice, but a lot of times it’s just jeans and a t-shirt for me. I love Lululemon. Iris Van Herpen is one of my favourite designers. She’s an artist who creates wearable art, and her pieces are almost more like sculptures than clothing, similar to what I was doing before I started my clothing line. I also really like Balmain, but then again, who doesn’t?
My advice to people who struggle to find their own sense of style is wear what makes you feel comfortable—and I don’t mean to say you always have to wear like, a yoga pant or something. More like, if you want to wear the sparkly dress, go for it.

You made headlines when you debuted corset braids on your models at Vancouver Fashion Week 2016. It even started a whole new trend. How did you create the look?

I was just looking at inspiration online and I came across the corset braid, and I really like its relation to Native American braids. I thought it would work really well for the Mermaids of Yesterday collection, and it just exploded from there. I wasn’t expecting it to reach as many as it did. I love doing creative hair, I’ve done it for the past two seasons, but that was really exciting because it was the first time anything of mine had become international. In Marie Claire they likened it to something the Kardashians would wear and I was just freaking out!

You’re known as a Canadian designer who encourages diversity on the runway. How do you accomplish this?

I began to notice that a lot of runway models are size 2 or size 4, which is great, but the world is not a one-size-fits-all kind of place. I wanted to show people the non-realized figure, and how it can still be beautiful and how it can still rock the same clothing as the smaller sizes. This upcoming season, I’m going to (hopefully) be showing size 2-22 on the runway, and models of diverse backgrounds as well.

Do you think the idea of the ‘typical model’ is changing?

It’s definitely changing, just look at models like Winnie Harlow, who models with vitiligo. It’s changing, but this change needs to be continually pushed for, especially in a small market like Canada. Hilary MacMillan is another designer bringing plus sizes to the runway, which is amazing, but I think it needs to become a normalized thing. We need to send the message that if you’re thinking negatively about your own body it’s not because your body is a bad; it’s because what you see in magazines and photo shoots (the size 2 models, for instance) is perceived as the norm, when, in reality, it might be the minority.

What are your goals and ambitions for your clothing line?

I’m moving into production soon, so that’s a major goal, to expand into that market. A dream of mine is New York Fashion Week, but probably in a few years because I do want to grow to the top of the Canadian market. I definitely want to move up in the fashion industry and spread the diversity message and kind of just push my own limits and see where I can go.

Do you have any advice for aspiring designers?

Instagram is a big thing. Branding yourself on Instagram and reaching out to potential clients or finding contacts are all important things that you have to do when you start out. You kind of just send random messages and hope you get replies! I mean, I did it, so we all have to start somewhere. Definitely go to any fashion events that you can—networking is a huge tool. And I’d say keep up to date with trends but don’t necessarily follow them.

Can you tell us about what we can expect to see in your next collection?

The collection, called Sticks and Stones, is inspired by a bruise. The colours are inspired by the healing of a bruise. My thoughts with this collection went to the idea of the recovery process, maybe after some kind of abuse, maybe after hearing something in the media that you don’t like, maybe after being negative towards yourself—there are different kinds of recoveries.

See Lesley Hampton’s designs at Inland Toronto Sept 29/30, and at Toronto Women’s Fashion Week on October 3.

All Photos: Courtesy of Lesley Hampton