mobilize edmonton
Photography courtesy of Instagram/@m.o.b.i.l.i.z.e.

How Streetwear Brand Mobilize is Encouraging an Indigenous Movement Through Design

"When you get people to be uncomfortable, they’ll grow."

“Waskawêwin is the Cree word for movement,” says Dusty LeGrande, founder of the Edmonton-based streetwear brand Mobilize. Fitting, then, that it’s a name given to a collection of pieces created under the label. But, as he notes, the brand’s name and philosophy “encompass more things than clothes.”

LeGrande’s presence in community activism has taken on many forms from mentor to liaison, and he notes that amidst the groundswell of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent weeks, his city has the potential to “set precedent within Canada” when it comes to addressing systemic racism and rebuilding infrastructures to radically improve the lives of marginalized groups. “We have a community that’s ready for this change on a conscious level,” he says. “So [we] can function more freely, and there can be true justice. And so people of colour don’t have to face systemic racism in different ways.”

Activism has also been expressed on the runway during Mobilize’s shows. LeGrande says that it’s imperative that the models–all friends and family–are “representing themselves on the runway”, not simply conforming to what fashion audiences have become accustomed to. He notes that the brand’s pieces are inclusive and gender-free, and that they stand up to any appropriated look. “It’s a way of breaking down stereotypes,” he says of the designs. This authenticity is what makes Mobilize so exciting to watch as a brand. Here, LeGrande share the story of how the line was started, how design can bring people together, and how he disrupts the fashion industry one runway show at a time.

Tell me about the story of your brand.

Besides the appropriation that existed with Diesel and all these other [fashion] companies, I hadn’t seen imagery in street style before that represented Indigenous people. And it was at a small market in Hawaii, where I saw [them] transforming symbols–for example the [Air] Jordan symbol–into Indigenous warriors. They were adding elements to those designs. And that sparked something in my brain like, oh yeah, there isn’t Indigenous imagery in clothing. I had always loved clothing–it comes from my family. My mother is probably the most stylish person I’ve ever met in my life. And from a young age I was always playing dress up, and was in costume. I didn’t grow up with a tv and I had a really incredible imagination. So clothing was always a way of representing myself.

As I got older, I started learning about the ways that Cree people used clothing–how it represented the different animals that were around, or the different types of artwork, and they would intertwine that into their clothing and that became their story. When they would go into meeting places, for instance a Pow Wow when nations would come together, people could know who they are just by simply seeing what they’re wearing.

So, it was sort of those two aspects coming together with the youth world. Since I was twelve, I was coaching young Indigenous athletes in basketball. I ended up playing college basketball, and through my teen and early adult years, I was a mentor through sport for Indigenous youth. Then I joined the social sector and started working with youth that are in foster and group homes. I saw these young kids who grew up in the foster care system, and most of them are Indigenous youth. And that’s because of the residential school presence and a lot of other systemic things. A lot of them don’t have a connection to their culture. They started to see my clothing; I’ve always customized my own stuff, like denim jackets.

The intention was always to create a product that would connect Indigenous youth with their identity, to empower them, and to educate them about their own history. And to do that through clothing–to find a means that they’re already passionate about, which was streetwear. And further to that, educating non-Indigenous people about Indigenous people through clothing as well.

What’s the significance of the name Mobilize?

I never like to take full credit for anything I do. In our way, there’s the ancestral presence and the community around us that inspires us and influences us. And it was much of my mentors and the people I looked up to that built this way of thinking into me, about impacting the next generation and creating healthier spaces. And doing it first within [my] community and watching that circle grow from there. A lot of what I do with Mobilize is here within the community; people don’t really know about it because to me that’s sacred work within those spaces. That’s connecting with youth and telling them stories; sharing any knowledge that I have and connecting them with some really cool people so they can learn more stories so they know what’s possible. That’s one thing I’ve noticed–that the youth weren’t dreaming. When I was a mentor, if I could get to that place with them and create this relationship that would inspire them to dream, that was the most special thing.

I was designing Mobilize years before it began. I had the name We The Cree. But as it went, the concept of impacting not just my community but then impacting Canada–Turtle Island–the world, grew; to take it to those stages is a big goal that I have. I would love to show in New York, in Tokyo. And some of those places have come knocking. So it’s been cool to talk about these things and to manifest them, and to show young people that you can go after these things, no matter who you are and what your background is. If your heart is in it, you can do it. I wanted to take these stories to bigger spaces, and We The Cree became too exclusive, so I scrapped that name.

I have three daughters–my third daughter was born in 2018. She was born in January. About a month later, one of my closest Kookums, which is one of my grandmothers, passed away. And it was like a new life coming into this world and then one of my rocks, a strong woman in my family, moved on to the spirit world. I was like, if you really want to do you this you might as well roll the dice and go for it. So that energy came into play, and at that point I decided that Mobilize wasn’t just going to be clothing, it was going to be a movement.

I started writing down all the things I was trying to do in an art book, and ‘mobilize’ was one of those words. It was about six months of getting all the drawings and collections together, and thinking about what I wanted to do first. Just dreaming, basically. I had an uncle who has passed away years ago, and in my family, he and I were the only two people that studied business; he was one of those people who just went for their ideas. It was like finally that energy had created substance in what I was going to do, and things started to be laid out. The pieces started falling together. So it was on my uncle’s birthday that I started an Instagram–at that point, I had chosen the name Mobilize. I wanted to flip the military concept of that word, and bring it into a softer, more community-driven way of thinking.

As Cree people, our first great law is love–that we move with love, and love the other people around us. So mobilize was a word to get people’s attention but then to teach them about what it means to us, and what it means to create community and spaces where there could be representation of all kinds of people.

Mobilize has never been about selling clothes; it’s about telling those stories, and utilizing clothes as a platform to reach spaces where it has a bigger audience. I flip back to that book constantly and think, that name was always there.

Even where we are now, today, with what’s going on, people are coming together. And that’s what I mean when I say I don’t like to take full credit, because I’m not sure I fully chose that name. Maybe it was appropriate for the work that was ahead of me.

You’ve shown during fashion week and operated within the “traditional” fashion world in that way. How do you think the industry needs to change to better allow for people like you to have a spotlight? Like, if there was one thing you could change tomorrow, what would it be?

I have a few of my cousins that were modelling for many years, and even myself, I was curious about it at a young age and explored it a little bit. I got to see the fashion world from that side, from the body shaming to the idea of, you need to be ‘this’.

One thing that I’ve always done is I never ask permission. I do the shows however I want to do the shows. I bring dancers, I bring performers; my sister is a performance artist–she’s brought a Polaroid camera on the [runway] and taken pictures of herself.

We go into these spaces and we give them no choice. We open it up. I’ve been doing this from the very first fashion show I did, which was at Western Canada Fashion Week. I brought people of all sizes, my father walked in the show–I just try to show real people. As a designer I have that privilege to go into these spaces, [but] usually they push back first. They don’t want us to do the show like that; they prefer if the models all look the same or [we] use their models. I never use the models from the event, I always bring my own models. They’re my people, and I know the energy is what’s needed. It’s always interesting because after the show, those in attendance feel that energy and they respond to it in a much different way.

In my experience, I’ve been brought back for shows because people love it, and they’ve never seen something like it. They’ve never had people push it that hard. So when I talk about going to these spaces in London and Tokyo, it’s like in infiltration mode. I want to get in, just so I can give them a whole different experience and open their eyes. When you get people to be uncomfortable, they’ll grow. [People] may be conservative but they’re business-oriented; as soon as they see the crowd, then they’re on board. They say, oh, the people like it so I like it. We can probably make money off it.

In all the shows I’ve done, I’ve brought the whole art community together–not just the design community. I’ve done shows with live musical performances, and I’ve had b-boys perform. My friend walked down the entire runway on his hands. Sometimes it’s not about the outfit, it’s about the energy and the person. It’s reflective of our community, and that’s the teaching I’m trying to bring. We’re all different people and we’re all beautiful in our way.

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