How to collaborate, not culturally appropriate: Take a page out of Valentino’s latest collection

Valentino Resort 2016 Christi Belcourt

Cultural appropriation has been prevalent in fashion for decades (Think Jean Paul Gaultier’s unorthodox Hasidic Jew-inspired collection, Chanel’s stylized war bonnets, and Junya Watanabe’s recent use of dreadlock wigs on white models), but voices are accruing against the harmful practice. Just this week, both Osheaga and the Edmonton Folk Festival took a stance against cultural appropriation by banning the wearing of Indigenous headdress at either music festival.

Given recent headlines, it’s rare to hear of a respectful cultural collaboration, but that’s exactly what happened when Valentino‘s designers got in touch with Métis artist Christi Belcourt about using her painting Water Song as a pattern in their Resort 2016 collection. Water Song is an 80” x 153” canvas painting depicting colourful flora and fauna rendered in intricate dots currently hanging in the National Gallery of Canada. Now it’s also a prominent pattern featured on a number of dresses, shorts, and coats in Valentino’s Resort 2016 collection.

Métis people have been called the “flower beadwork people,” and have a long tradition of translating their experiences living from the land into painstaking floral beadwork adorning everyday objects like leather gloves and pouches. As a painter, Belcourt takes those symbolic motifs and renders them onto massive canvasses using thousands of tiny dots.

From inception to collection, the entire process of working the painting onto garments took only a few months. Valentino’s fabric designer, Francesco Bova, actually flew from Milan to meet Belcourt in Toronto so he could show her the samples of the garments. “I’m really pleased with the craftsmanship,” she says. “I know my [paintings] inside and out, so when I look at it I can tell that they didn’t just piecemeal things together. There was a lot of thought put into that.”

As for why they chose Water Song in particular, it remains to be seen. “I’d like to think it was a beautiful coincidence,” says Belcourt. “That painting comes with a strong message and it’s meant to.” Many Indigenous nations hold the understanding that human beings are spiritually and inherently connected to water. Yet water is increasingly becoming a hot button environmental issue, with mining, fracking, and nuclear waste disposal all posing threats of contamination. “All of those things combined were what I was thinking of [while painting Water Song,]” she says. The painting is at once a testament and a caution sign.

Belcourt is quick to laud Valentino’s environmental conscience as a company. They have committed to remove 100% of toxins from their production line by the year 2020, and ranked #1 in a list of fifteen fashion brands for their environmental efforts. “That was a deciding factor in why I wanted to work with them,” she says.

Now that she’s conquered fashion, Belcourt dreams of her work adorning a fine bone china set of dishes. “The kind that costs and arm and a leg, and people bring it out once a year only for special occasions,” she laughs.

But for real, such a respectful collaboration between an Indigenous artist and a major fashion brand should have us all taking notes. Here’s hoping these clothes end up in a museum someday—Belcourt suggests the Gabriel Dumont Institute—or at the very least, Christi Belcourt gets her very own Heritage Minute.