Trend-setting Anishinaabe fashion designer Leslie Hampton talks her new line, the biz, and the importance of centring community
By Nickita Longman
Lesley Hampton describes her love of the runway and fashion starting as a young girl who chose to watch Jeanne Beker on FashionTelevision instead of cartoons. An Anishinaabe member of the Temagami First Nation in Northern Ontario, Hampton was born in Newfoundland – a place where she has drawn inspiration from for her latest collection, Buoyant.
Buoyant pulls imagery from the pebbles of Middle Cove Beach and their softness, despite decades of erosion from the waves. The collection, much like Hampton’s journey as an emerging designer, is described as a “celebration of self and to honour those connections found anew.”
Hampton spent her adolescent years moving abroad to places like Australia, England, New Caledonia, and Indonesia. “Growing up in international spaces meant I had to find community no matter where I was,” Hampton shares. “That transitioned into my approach to fashion [in Canada], and how I wanted to create a community here in what is typically
a competitive space.”
With a keen interest in self-representation and how one presents themselves, Hampton became extremely interested in wearable art. After graduating from the art program at the University of Toronto with a specialization in photography and sculpture, Hampton decided to refocus her efforts and enrolled into the Fashion Techniques and Design program at
George Brown College.
“Because I was eager to make fashion more inclusive from the beginning, my brand began at the same time I started at George Brown,” she says. “My college experience allowed me to make, create, and grow that manifestation of what I wanted to do in fashion.”
With Buoyant, Hampton once again showcases her commitment to inclusivity in fashion, which has been a through-line in her career. “I have always casted inclusive models,” she says. “I have also extended inclusivity to the photographers and other folks behind the scenes. I try to make these spaces as inclusive as possible.”
Taking Up Space
As an artist, fashion designer, model, influencer and public speaker, there are many realms she occupies on a daily basis. In some cases, Hampton had to carve out her own space within the fashion community.
Taking up space didn’t come easy at first, Hampton says. “In my earlier years, I had to stick to doing things that were true to my beliefs.
They would become stories or headlines because it was so out of the norm and outside of what the fashion industry was doing at the time.” At times, Hampton described feeling as though she was being categorized into a box because of her Indigeneity. “It was an early hurdle for me to feel responsible for educating the media when it came to the wide variety of Indigenous fashion.”
“Indigenous people and size-diverse people struggled to be accepted into the fashion industry,” she explains. “As a curvier Indigenous person, taking up space is a political movement, as well as being able to invite collaborators, up-and-coming Indigenous talent, and diverse individuals into the shows we do.”
Her commitment to changing the scene for the better was evident during one of the moments Hampton describes as her first big break into the industry, and the moment she felt supported and held in her work by community. During Toronto Fashion Week in 2019, Hampton was ecstatic to feature an all-Indigenous model cast from a wide range of nations. Additionally, she featured accessories made entirely by up-and-coming Indigenous artists and creators. “I truly believe that show made a shift in the industry and allowed fashion followers to see that there is a thriving Indigenous fashion scene here that they need to be paying attention to,” she says.
Other moments of success include dressing CTV’s Lainey Lui for the Golden Globes with the dress going viral in 2020; dressing Devery Jacobs for the 2021 Emmy Awards; seeing Lizzo showcase Hampton’s active wear in an Instagram video; and appearing on Canada’s Drag Race.
Hampton feels hopeful in the current trajectory of the fashion world. “I do think society is beginning to understand where the
gaps in knowledge are, and are eager to turn to tangible ways – like social media or the fashion industry – to learn and acknowledge these gaps.” She leans into this in the Buoyant collection, which encourages wearers of all sizes while rejecting the societal stereotypes that have been prevalent in the industry in the past.
Outside Looking In
Consciously building up and sharing her platform is crucial to her growth as a fashion designer. It has allowed her to create invaluable connections with both creators and the Indigenous community as a whole. One of her latest ventures invited her to be the wardrobe stylist for Outside Looking In – an Indigenous youth dance group based in Toronto. “Being able to empower 250 youth through clothing was a really exciting opportunity,” she says.
In late May, Hampton was honoured to attend the premiere of TV series Little Bird as a guest and stylist to both director Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and lead actress Darla Contois.
Once again, Hampton shared the moment with Indigenous accessory designers Inuk360, Christine Gautreau, and one of the largest Indigenous-owned department stores currently carrying 35 Indigenous brands, Aaniin Retail Inc. The Toronto event was also one of the first red carpet moments in her home territory to showcase some pieces from the Buoyant collection.
“Being able to partner with new artists and retailers like Aaniin Retail Inc., and being able to share the knowledge that I’ve
gained in this industry, has been really exciting,” she says.
Aaniin Retail Inc. also partnered with Hampton for the soft launch of Buoyant. Described as “reconnecting with self,” the collection gives a nod to the community that Hampton has built over the years, and owes another aspect of its influence to “the clarity and strength to rise above and have optimism, to have the support systems in place to take on any challenge.”
“We were lucky enough to bring the collection to Milan Fashion Week,” Hampton says. “We were able to present it to buyers and media, and it was really exciting to be a part of a collective of six other Indigenous artists.”
Buoyant is a collection of evening wear, occasion wear, and knitwear. “It is inspired by that feeling of floating,” Hampton says. “The colours are inspired by water, specifically from a beach from my childhood in Newfoundland.
“It’s a core memory for me.”
Conceptually, Hampton hopes the new line will empower wearers to feel light, airy, and as if they were floating on water. Buoyant will officially launch this month and is available online and in retail stores. As for other future plans, Hampton says there are big things in store later this year.
Follow Lesley Hampton on her journey on Instagram at @lesley_hampton.
This article appears in the Summer 2023 Issue.