Founder and Executive Director, Fashion Speaks International
To call Kim Coltman driven is an extreme understatement. This woman of Metis heritage was born in the ’60s and grew up in Vancouver’s infamous Main and Hastings neighbourhood. She lived in foster care most of her childhood and learned from an early age it was safer to hide her First Nations culture. Her story will make you believe in the strength of the human spirit and the power of fashion to speak, heal, and ultimately to change the world.
One of Canada’s First Indigenous Models
When she was but 12 years old, Kim’s forward-thinking social worker asked what she wanted to do with her life. Kim dreamt of following in her beloved Auntie’s footsteps and becoming a model. Her social worker got her enrolled in model training. Not only did Kim’s self-confidence increase but she acquired a slew of new life skills. As a result, Kim became one of Canada’s first Indigenous fashion models. Not only did modelling allow her to travel the world, more importantly, it also offered her an alternate future.
With seven degrees and diplomas to her name including a degree in social services, Kim Coltman makes the rest of us look like slackers. “Education is the highest form of personal power you can get,” she explained. With that mindset, she set out to help others find their own personal power.
Besides living the glamorous life of a fashion model, she also worked with Indian Affairs. As a young adult, this ambitious woman started a program for street kids in Edmonton, AB. She made it a mission to teach life skills to youth living with mental illness. Kim offered self-improvement, self-esteem, and life skills classes. She taught public speaking, interview skills, and how to be comfortable in front of the camera. The change she saw was astonishing. “You could see the difference in them. They could DO something!. They began to function without fear,” she told me excitedly. Obviously, she was onto something good.
Fashion Speaks the Language of First Nations People
Kim moved to Kamloops, BC in 1997 to be closer to her ailing father. Combining her love of modelling and passion for helping people, she launched Fashion Speaks Couture in 2015 (now Fashion Speaks International). Fashion Speaks International is a modelling and talent agency and school like no other. It is a diverse agency with models of all shapes, sizes and races with a roster that includes 2-spirited and transgendered models. “We live in the real world, therefore, we need real-world models,” she pointed out. But what makes this agency stand out is not their eclectic roster, perfect pivot or pony walk. What makes Fashion Speaks International extraordinary is that their curriculum includes empowerment, dignity and inviolability.
The inspiration came when Kim observed young men and women coming off the reservations looking for jobs in the city. They were obviously unprepared for urban life. Most experienced some degree of culture shock. Many turned to substance abuse, crime or even suicide. Once more, she saw a way she could use her education and background to make a difference. She began teaching critical social skills. Her students got versed in the importance of eye contact, standing tall and exuding confidence. These seemingly small shifts made a huge difference during job interviews or even walking down the street. Learning social nuances helped foster a feeling of belonging. Kim’s students reported greater self-assurance, improved self-esteem and increased levels of employment success. Her ultimate goal? To put a stop to decades of indigenous people being targets of violence and discrimination.
A Profound Fashion Statement
In 2015 Fashion Speaks Couture held its inaugural fashion show/fundraiser featuring Canadian indigenous fashion designers and models. The show was not only about showcasing the latest style trends though. The deeper intent was to increase awareness of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada. They wanted to shine the spotlight on what was once a “hidden crisis”.
By using simple yet powerful symbolism, it was obvious this event was not just another fashion show. Firstly, models wore masks over their eyes signifying how the victims were anonymous or faceless to most of us. Secondly, black electrical tape covered their mouths representing the victims’ inability to speak out and be heard. How WE must now be their voices. Special guests, including Miss Universe Ashley Callingbull, and speakers underlined how every single one of these missing and murdered women or girls was someone’s daughter, sister, or mother and they were loved.
More Than a Fashion Show
It was supposed to be a one-off show. However, it became evident Kim had underestimated the impact the show would have. The catwalk in Kamloops had become more than a place to celebrate clothes, it also became a place to grieve and heal. She knew one show wasn’t going to be enough. Consequently, she set up a Board of Directors and together began planning to hold a fashion show every other year.
Their second show in 2017 show featured Indigenous fashion designers from all over the world and models wearing handpainted masks created by a local Indigenous artist.
Looking forward, the theme for the 2019 show is Resurrection. “It’s about change, transition and finding our way,” Kim explained. In 2021 the theme is Resolution. “It will raise awareness about what we’re up to and where we want to go.”
The Future of Fashion Speaks International
What’s next for Kim and her team? First of all, Fashion Speaks International is heading to Paris for Paris Indigenous Fashion Week in March. In addition, they are publishing a book featuring Canadian indigenous models and designers. 25% of the proceeds are going to support Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada. Another 25% is going to emerging Canadian indigenous models and designers.
The long term goal is to establish a school for modelling, artists, and photographers all under one roof.
Fashion Speaks the Language of ALL People
Why does Kim believe fashion is the ideal medium for this message of reconciliation? “Because fashion affects everyone. Everybody wears clothes. From day one when someone slaps a diaper on you, you are affected by fashion.”
“Our society is like a wheel. All parts need to be working in order for us to move forward. Right now, the wheel is broken. We need to fix the wheel. It’s crucial we fix the wheel. Because this is an issue that touches all people, it is vital we reach out to all nations, not just First Nations. People in fashion are the link to fix the broken wheel. We could change the world and make the world a safer place for everyone…and more beautiful. How about that?”
A safer and more beautiful world? Indeed. How about that?