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Ribbon skirt gown a show stopper at Williams Lake grad

Kaden Napoleon and Tanis Armstrong teamed up to make the custom dress

For Williams Lake teenager Kaden Napoleon, her search for the perfect grad dress wasn’t just about finding the right style, it was also about making a statement about her cultural identity.

Of Saulteau and Secwepemc descent, Kaden and her Auntie, Courtney McKone, set out months in advance to find a seamstress, eventually partnering with local designer Tanis Artmstrong. The outcome was show stopping.

“It felt special,” Kaden said of the feeling of wearing the dress for the grad parade Saturday (June 8) and Dry Grad festivities.

“But mostly I felt grateful for all of the work that went into it.”

The dress

Inspired by the tuxedo gown Billy Porter wore at the Academy Awards in 2019, Kaden took her detailed sketches and the idea of pairing a traditional ribbon skirt with a ball gown style to Tanis, who’s original work she saw in Art Walk last year.

“I didn’t think it was even possible but she really brought it to life,” Kaden said of Tanis’ work.

“And she was so respectful.”

Kaden describes her childhood as growing up with a lot of family connections, living at different times with her parents, her grandparents, and currently her Auntie, Courtney McKone.

Her grandfather is a residential school survivor and Kaden said she has experienced the effects of intergenerational trauma and dysfunction due to that past.

In recent years, for a time, Kaden said she felt as though she was losing connection to her culture.

Taking Secwepemc language classes at school with Virginia Robbins helped her reconnect, as has designing her grad ribbon skirt ball gown, which incorporates the colours of Saulteau First Nation, and the medicine wheel. She chose red satin as the main colour “for my Kookum to see me,” she said, explaining “when we wear red our ancestors can see us.”

Her traditional necklace was a gift from her mother, who purchased it from an elder in Kelowna.

When thinking about what her grad dress could be, Kaden said she knew she wanted it to reflect her Indigenous culture.

“I’m trying to prove that we’re still here. We are not squashed.”

The seamstress

Tanis learned sewing while sitting her mother’s lap as a small child and went on to start making Halloween costumes and original pieces by the time she was in Grade 7.

Now a mother of a 15- and six-year-old, she describes herself as a ‘Jill-of-all-trades.’ In recent years she has been growing her own business, Redress by Tanis, admitting it is taking over their home.

“I have fabric in my living room, in my bedroom, in my basement. People drop bags of fabric off on my doorstep,” she said. “Eventually my dream is to open an upscaled fabric store.”

Last year, Tanis entered her own custom Edwardian outfit for display in Williams Lake’s Art Walk, which is what connected Tanis to Kaden and Courtney.

Tanis admits at first she was reluctant to take on the project as a non-Indigenous person.

However, after speaking more with Kaden and Courtney and their vision, they moved forward with the project which combines inspiration from the Romantic period with uses hoops (1830-1868), vintage patterns, the Billy Porter tuxedo dress, the ribbon skirt and Indigenous colour, all “with a modern twist,” Tanis explains.

Tanis initially wasn’t going to sew the ribbon skirt portion, hoping instead to partner with an Indigenous seamstress, however, time constraints led to her doing that portion as well.

“I researched ribbon skirts. Each ribbon is a prayer, and so I made sure I sewed with good intentions and positive thoughts for Kaden’s future while I was making the dress.”

Tanis bought the ribbons and fabric to make the sash for the dress from 4 Generations Creations in Kamloops, a business which “aims to create designs that educate others about Indigenous issues and resiliency.”

“It was such a joy and an honour to be asked to do this,” said Tanis. “And that they trusted me.”

Kaden said she plans to take a gap year after graduation, and then attend the Centre for Arts and Technologies in Kelowna where she plans to study 2D animation.

In the meantime, she has also agreed to lend her dress to Tanis to display in the Williams Lake Art Walk, and even fashion it for the grand opening.


Angie Mindus

About the Author: Angie Mindus

I began my journalism career in daily and weekly newspapers in Alberta.
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