What is fashion? Is it simply nice clothes, this season’s trends and “it” designers? At iHuman Youth Society, fashion acts as a common language that connects young people and teaches them about self-esteem while forging a creative outlet.
“It doesn’t really matter what colour your skin is or if you’re rich or you’re poor, or if you’re young or you’re old—fashion is fashion,” says Natasha Lazarovic, co-ordinator of the fashion program at iHuman, located just off of Jasper Avenue and 102 Street in a building that used to house a peep show, though all remnants of the venue’s seedy past have been transformed by some creative graffiti and renovations to turn it into a positive and creative space for the program’s youth. “Fashion is the common denominator, and each kid wants to be fashionable, each kid wants to be cool, each kid wants to pretty, each kid wants to be stylin’, boss. It goes with the subcultures around here—the gang kids, they still have a sense of style. Straight-up they’ve got style; it’s their style associated with their thing. So yeah, of course fashion is important. It’s like putting a roof over your head: we all need to put something on in the morning, so you might as well make them feel good about what they put on.”
iHuman works with an eclectic group of youth exhibiting high-risk lifestyles, teaching them how to reintegrate into the community through social support and outreach programs. The fashion program is one of three creative courses offered at iHuman, along with art and music—the entire basement of the facility has been transformed to house recording studios and a performance space. Upstairs, Lazarovic works with girls ranging from age 14 to 21 in a colourful studio filled with ongoing and completed projects along with shots from photo shoots where the youth acted as models.
“The core of this program is around self-esteem and it’s around dignity and it’s around working with youth, mostly women, and capturing them in a different light so they can see themselves with a different worth,” says Lazarovic, who is a designer herself and has a high-end couture costume line called Temna Fialka and has worked in the industry for more than 20 years. “It’s all around making better choices. If they can look at themselves and see that holy cow, they’re beautiful, that’s a gorgeous image of them—like the ones you see on the wall—as comparative to their daily lives where they’re put down or they’re abused or they’re feeling horrible and they have no self-worth, it just gives them that extra punch to make a better choice next time.”
“When I was younger, it kept me from going out drinking when I had photo shoots the next day,” says Roxanne Tompkins, 17, who has been in the program for four years and hopes to become a social worker someday.
“When you see the pictures and the outcome of it, it makes you feel a whole lot better about yourself,” adds Shyannah Sinclair, 16, who has been in the program for almost three years and has always had a keen interest in fashion.
The program operates on a very loose schedule—in fact, there really isn’t one other than Lazarovic being in the studio from 11 am until 6 pm every day, though she hopes to start a curriculum of self-esteem workshops and introduce guest instructors once iHuman moves into a new, larger space. She says that, for now, she has to take advantage of the time the youth happen to drop by the studio. There, Lazarovic works with them on accessories, head pieces, masks, styling, sewing, makeup application and photography. The program also collaborates with the art component of iHuman, creating intricate pieces such as the Pride dress, a garment made up of an ornate assortment of hand-painted butterflies.
There are also opportunities for the youth to market their wares, particularly when it comes to accessories, though Lazarovic is in the midst of building this aspect of the program.
“The goal behind that is to put them into local retailers and then when it sells, the money goes back to the kids. iHuman keeps 10 percent of it to pay for the materials and obviously time, but everything goes back to the youth. The point behind that was to teach the kids that they can make money doing honest things and teaching them skills in which they could survive off of,” she explains. “Unfortunately we haven’t found the right retailers yet who would successfully sell the stuff, because a lot of it would be dream catcher earrings. The youth are making it so it’s not perfect, and people need to be able to value the imperfection of that, so I’m still on the hunt for the appropriate retail spaces that would be successful in marketing and selling that.”
Another key component of the program is regalia, as the majority of the youth are First Nations. Lazarovic is currently working on making mukluks from scratch with her students, incorporating everything from drafting the pattern to choosing the appropriate type of hide to work with to teaching the students how to hand-bead their creations. However, Lazarovic notes it is important to incorporate other cultural elements into her students’ fashion education as well.
“We work in a demographic with 95-percent First Nations youth, and there’s a lot of political stigma and there’s a lot of political stuff that goes on,” Lazarovic says, noting she became familiar with the culture as a child through her father’s work with Indian Affairs. “I really find it important to teach them about other cultures in the work and other cultures’ struggle and their pain. I mean, genocide happens in every other culture, not just their own, so they can maybe start to see the work from a different view and appreciate other cultures and incorporate them into their own sense of being. I’m not trying to dismiss the value of First Nations culture; it’s an absolutely beautiful culture and it does need to be rectified, but what I’m saying is, knowledge is power. So if you can see the world through many different eyes you just become a wiser person in general.”