The First All-Indigenous Modeling Agency

Joleen Mitton knows from first-hand experience how exploitative the fashion industry can be. The 40-year-old leader, activist, and fashion entrepreneur, who is claimed by the Plains Cree and Dane-zaa from the Sawridge Nation in Alberta, began her career in the industry as a model at the age of 15, when she began working around the world for brands like Ralph Lauren, Vivienne Westwood, and Clinique. She discovered early on that the seemingly glamorous world of high fashion and luxury had an ugly side, facing constant reminders that it certainly wasn’t built with her or other Indigenous people in mind.

“It’s not an industry that’s built for confidence, love, or kindness,” she told TIME during a September trip to New York City from her hometown of Vancouver. She was in town for fashion week, where she was looking after a crew of four models about to walk in their first show of the season. “Our people deserve to be protected. That’s why we’re trying to create a safe space for Indigenous people to explore the industry that is very predatory.”

Mitton, who describes her relationship to fashion as “love-hate,” cites racist incidents and moments that made her question her personal safety as part of why she decided to co-found Supernaturals Modelling, the world’s first and only all-Indigenous modeling agency, along with her friend and colleague Patrick Shannon. The pair came to the decision after hearing too many stories about young Indigenous models being taken advantage of; for Mitton, the stories hit too close to home. And for Shannon, a 34-year-old photographer and filmmaker who is claimed by the Haida Gwaii, the creation of the agency was a way to protect the people he loved and a way to invest in their community.

“It’s about the collective and it’s about the family,” he told TIME. “It’s bringing those Indigenous values to the forefront—to be a Supernatural [model] is to understand that there’s a responsibility not only to your community, but also to yourself, to hold yourself with dignity, with respect, and to make sure that you understand that what you do does not just represent you, it represents your community, your family, your heritage.”

While the agency is still relatively new, it’s growing rapidly, with 25 models on its roster, a far cry from the eight it started with, located in both Vancouver, where the agency is based, and Toronto. Mitton and Shannon hope to expand the agency internationally, but stress that their top priority is supporting their current roster of models and ensuring that their bookings and collaborations are aligned with their values. Shannon, who handles the business side of the agency, says that they’ve turned down clients and brands whose values would compromise what Supernaturals stands for.

“We’ve had to grow slower because we weren’t willing to accept every single contract that went our way,” he says, noting that they’ve turned down jobs because the companies had business practices that were environmentally harmful to their homelands or because the bookings were tokenizing or reliant on harmful stereotypes. “Financially that can be more challenging, but we’re not compromising our morals or our values, which allows us to hold our heads high and move forward with confidence.”

Mitton likens the agency to a family—one that supports and provides opportunities to its members. While she was subjected to grueling work schedules, little support and few protections when she was traveling, and no preparation for the business side of the industry, she and Shannon make sure that the models are receiving support on multiple levels, from logistics to emotional and mental health care.

“Keeping that family dynamic is really important for us,” she says. “We’re not going to drop you because you gained a couple of pounds. Nothing can change the love we have for each other because we don’t throw people away in our culture.”

Talaysay Campo, a 25-year-old model who belongs to the Seashell and Squamish Nation on the West Coast of Canada, has known Joleen since she was 14 years old. That foundation of trust made the decision to work with Supernaturals a no-brainer.

“I don’t think I’d be here without Joleen today,” she said. “Supernaturals has been the strongest community. I honestly wouldn’t see it as a modeling agency—we are so grounded.” 

For her colleague Alicia Hanton, a 25-year-old who belongs to the Athabascan Chipewyan First Nation in Fort Chippewa, Alberta, meeting Joleen and joining the Supernaturals was transformative, helping her to find pride in her Indigenous heritage.

“The Supernatural family has saved my life,” she told TIME. “Growing up, I didn’t have a community. I didn’t know what that meant…so to be part of such a strong community now and know that families in my situation have a community to go to and reach out to is very promising for future generations.”

Mitton already knows what can happen when you reimagine a new future in the fashion space; in 2017, she founded Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week with the intention of highlighting Indigenous fashion designers, showcasing authentic representation of Indigenous fashion and culture, and promoting sustainable and ethical fashion practices. Now in its sixth year, the event features over 30 Indigenous fashion designers and gives Mitton hope for what can be accomplished on a global scale with the Supernaturals.

The First All-Indigenous Modeling Agency

“You know, I think Supernaturals is high fashion and we’re just waiting for the world to wake up,” she says. “We’ve been here the whole time—we’re waiting on you guys.” 

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