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Bato'o showcases eclectic mix of Thunder Bay fashion houses

A weekend fashion show put a dizzying mix of multicultural clothing on display at the Goods & Co. Market.

THUNDER BAY — A weekend fashion show put a dizzying mix of local clothing designers on display, celebrating the cultural diversity within Thunder Bay’s fashion scene.

Billed as a multicultural soirée of spices and fashion “from here and elsewhere,” the event brought an enthusiastic crowd of close to 200 to the Goods & Co. Market on Saturday night.

The eight local fashion houses included in the show were Lewk Clothing, A Perfect Fit, The Loop, Finn Origins, the Loud Women Collective, BSCC, Sister Bear Designs, and The African Boutique.

The night also featured a number of music and dance performances from the likes of Dame Más Dance, Djembe Folklore, and a multicultural ballet that mixed dance traditions from across the world.

For several designers, Bato’o marked the first time putting their designs up on a runway.

Kathleen Sawdo, CEO and artist of Sister Bear Designs — an Indigenous clothing shop based out of Goods & Co. — called that both “a little scary” and “exciting.”

“I had anxiety, and then I feel so proud, so proud of the models — one was my nephew, one was my auntie.”

The company is a family affair, with three generations all contributing to items sold in the storefront. Sawdo calls it an opportunity to honour and share traditions she and her siblings learned as children.

“Basically we started as kids, beading,” she said. “I have my older sister and younger sister … It kind of helps us reclaim our identity as Anishinaabe and embracing it.

"Especially growing up in Thunder Bay, it wasn’t always okay. At our age, it’s okay now, and we want our children and their children to be okay with it, and really highlight the beauty of our culture.”

The event was also a first for Sari Johnston, co-owner of Finn Origins, a sauna lifestyle brand.

“[It’s a] very new experience – we’ve never been in a fashion show, I never imagined us in a fashion show,” she said. “But it happened, and we had a really, really good time.”

Johnston, who originally hails from Finland, also operates her shop out of Goods & Co., carrying on a legacy that began with her father, who used to own Finntastic Sauna and Gifts on Bay Street.

The shared market space offered by Goods & Co. has allowed her to grow the business.

“I think the space has opened up a lot of possibilities,” she said. “There’s so much that goes on at Goods & Co, so many positive things.”

One of those is the connections fostered between business owners. Johnston was asked to participate in Bato’o by organizer Liliane Breiland of The African Boutique, who she called the “power and the brains” behind the event.

“She invited me, and I couldn’t say no,” she said. “I knew her fashion shows are exciting and unbelievable. I’ve been to several of them. It was just so nice to be able to be part of it."

Breiland started her own fashion journey in 2018 with just a suitcase in her living room, she said.

After setting up at festivals and other events, she established a permanent shop at Goods & Co. in 2021.

She works with family in her home country of Cameroon, where she sources materials and sends designs for fabrication.

“We agreed with my siblings that if I design, they can sew, and that’s going to be the best way for me to be helping back home,” she said. “That was then, and today I have not only my sister and my niece, [but] more than 35 seamstresses in Cameroon.”

Saturday’s event was Breiland’s first show at Goods & Co., and she said it could become an annual fixture after its warm reception.

“I’m bringing some of my culture here and I want to share, and I’m willing to learn other people’s culture, and we are at the end of the day one,” she said.

“You can tell it’s something that people needed, that multiculturalism. People just jumped in and they’re happy… I’m thankful, and I know they will ask for more and I will be there.”

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