A good pair of boots wouldn’t normally take you from British Columbia all the way to New York City, but the success of Creenisgaa footwear has been whisking First Nations designers Linda Lavallee and Patrick Stewart across the continent for half a decade.
Since 2010, Lavallee of BC’s Nisga’a First Nation and her husband Stewart, from Montreal Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, have been designing and hand-making unique boots from their home in Chilliwack, BC. Last year, models were showing off Creenisgaa product on fashion runways in Manhattan. Although Lavallee’s business shows no sign of slowing down, she and Stewart have no problem talking about the company’s humble beginnings.
“Linda had been sewing for herself for years and people started to take notice of her clothes and asking if she could make this or that for them,” said Stewart. “Eventually she started to experiment with boot designs and came up with the style we have now. Then I started putting some of the artwork we have on clothes onto the boots. People took notice and it’s just grown from there.”
Those eye-catching designs are inspired by the couple’s Cree and Nisga’a heritage. However, just as noteworthy is the traditional process that Lavallee puts into the making of every pair of boots.
It begins with picking the leather and furs, which are often trapped by Lavallee herself or by people from her community.
“Once I have the leather, I figure out who’s ordering the boots,” said Lavallee. “Then I do a prayer on the leather and smudge it. Once Patrick or Cory do the artwork, it comes back to me and I do another smudge. I want to make sure that when the boot goes out, it goes with goodwill and it comes from the heart.”
The sewing process is done entirely by hand, with Stewart and the couple’s son Cory contributing the artistic designs featured on every pair. The family business has had offers from large wholesalers to help produce their boots, but Creenisgaa plans to remain a small-scale business, focused on creating a holistic, high-quality product.
When Creenisgaa was selected as one of three First Nation fashion companies to appear in a fashion show in the Big Apple last year, Stewart and Lavallee immediately noticed the differences in design mentality in the corporate world.
“We had about a dozen models assigned to us and we gave each of them a blade of sweetgrass,” said Stewart. “A couple of the models said that was the first time a designer had given them anything after a show. To us it was just a way of honouring their participation.”
More frequently, Creenisgaa holds fashion shows at powwows or in Native communities. Anyone, young or old, is invited to model.
“It’s quite amazing when you see the transformation that happens with young people who have never had the chance to wear makeup or have their hair done or wear nice clothing,” said Stewart. “It’s very empowering for them and it’s great for self-esteem.”
Creenisgaa’s next show will be at Fashion Speaks in Kamloops on September 16. Mrs. Universe 2015 winner Ashley Callingbull will be on hand to model the boots. The event will aim to raise money and awareness for missing and murdered Aboriginal Women.
“We’ll be showcasing a commemorative pair of boots that we designed at the request of the family of a missing and murdered Aboriginal woman,” said Lavallee. “It’s an honour to make these boots, but it’s also very painful to know that this is happening to families.”
Creenisgaa boots are available online for order at www.creenisgaa.com. The boots can be made in any size and there are no extra charges for extra large sizes. Custom designs can also be submitted.