Warren Steven Scott on Contemporary Indigenous Design
Toronto, Canada: where
6 mins: read time
There is a big bag of colourful acrylic parts between us, as I sit with Warren Steven Scott to ask about his experience putting together his Sissy Collection for Indigenous Fashion Week. A bin filled with fabric sits beside me and the drafting table is strewn with parts of projects. Since showing his collection things have been a little non-stop for Warren who has been perfecting and putting his runway earrings into production. He lives with two roommates who are also recent graduates from Ryerson's Fashion Design Program. If one of them doesn't have a design on the go, they might be doing production for another local brand or watching the Devil Wears Prada (for the zillionth time). It's a creative household where everyone bustled with excitement as Warren finished up his collection. Now there is bustling over which pair of earrings should be worn with every outfit and exactly how many can legally be stacked at once. I wore two sets as I sat with Warren to chat about his collection.
This is your first women's wear collection, and the first collection you have released since graduating from Ryerson two years ago. How has that time off been valuable to you before the debut into this new place in fashion for you?
I think it gave me more time to figure out my own aesthetic, my own interests in fashion. Like silhouettes and fabrics and details; what kind of collar I like, what kind of sleeve I like. I found those kind of key elements and I know that more now than I did at Ryerson.
Where do you go, or how do you experience life to find inspiration for what you like as a designer?
It is usually the clothing that I see. It could be whats in a store, it can be current fashion. It can be what my friends are wearing, or something hanging in a shop. I look for the same things that I mentioned. I look for a sleeve detail or a cuff detail, really how something is sewn. A cuff can be sewn differently, a placket can be sewn differently. Just a little detail that maybe not everyone else would notice is what makes the garment. I look through a lot of photos.
For your Sissy collection you looked at a series of photos from the Canadian Archive, so what about those photos really appealed to you as an inspiration of Indigenous design and culture?
I knew that this was the first collection that I was going to bridge my culture with fashion, contemporary fashion, luxury fashion. I wanted it to be about a mood and style and aesthetic. I had known about these photos for a couple years, they were always saved on my phone and I often reference them. Really admiring them, not even knowing if they had a use other than just to appreciate these images of people who lived on Reserve and in their communities. The images are primarily from the fifties. So it was really just timing and coincidence that I had discovered these photos from Paul Seesequasis on social media. Then bridging these two worlds of fashion. I don't have any traditional training. None of my family works with beadwork or hides. I wasn't going to just start doing that because I am Indigenous. I knew that I gravitated towards these images of everyday life on the Reserve.
When you grew up you didn't live on a Reserve, but you would often visit your family. Specifically visiting your Grand-Mother who lived on the Reserve, in the summer. Would you see women still dressing with this flair for mixing and clashing patterns. Is that something that has in itself carried through the Indigenous culture in your experience?
I don't know if I have really picked up on that as a child. But what I know is that Indigenous fashion on the Rez is not stereotypical Indigenous fashion, That is also what I wanted to show in my experience. I wanted to show what my Grand-Mother and Aunties were wearing. The photos that I referenced are very similar to our family photos, the one's in photo albums. That is what I held on to. The notion that all of these photos are also my family.
What about the name Sissy?
What is the story behind that?
This year I was reminded how female elders like my Grand-Mother, always refers to her cousins who aren't her sisters as Sissy. If we are going through a photo album and there are photos of her cousin who lives in a different community, she would refer to her as Sissy. I know that this is true for many Indigenous women who refer to their cousins and sisters as Sissy; there is a sisterhood. Then for me growing up as an effeminate boy, that was very much used as a negative term against me. Now it is bridging that would between the clothes being inspired by family and sisterhood. It also comes full circle because it connects me with my family, with my own personal experience.
Your Grand-Mother played a roll in parts of the collection. What was that and why was it important to you to have her help?
I knew I wanted to involve more people than just myself, I didn't want this collection to just be a show piece for me. So she crocheted some trim detailing. She usually does doilies but I asked her to make edging instead. That was used in small ways in the collection. Like neckties, and shoulder details and other little places to add a different element. It meant having generations involved and not just myself.
You never envisioned yourself as a jewellery designer, but you have found some excitement over your collection of earrings. I had someone scream at me while I was biking by... "I love your earrings!". That's never happened to me before!
This collection started off being about the clothing. I am from Nlaka'pamux Nation on the West Coast of British Colombia. So I grew up around Coast Salish art which has very specific motifs and design elements. Namely the ovoid, the trigon, the crescent and the circle. These shapes are repeated and morphed in carvings, totem poles, contemporary art and paintings. I didn't want to use the motifs literally in my collection but I knew there was something I could do with them. So I isolated the shapes and created laser cut jewellery - mostly earrings- that became ambiguous shapes. Still they are very identifiable. I think this kind of mergence of my culture and contemporary fashion brought the shapes to a more modern material and the isolated presentation made it more accessible. The jewellery made the Coast Salish shapes very contemporary. That was just an idea that happened. It was received very well because I was able to merge everything that I wanted - my own culture with contemporary fashion, which is ultimately the field I want to be in.
Interview and photography by Alexis Venerus
Follow Warren's @warnscott
Shop earrings on warrenstevenscott.com
and in person at Comrags