Whether their collections are being perfected for a fashion week runway show in New York City or being tailored to the needs of Cree women in James Bay, Canada’s Native design scene is more prolific than ever.
While traditional garb like mukluks, moccasins and hide garments are staples, during the last few decades designers have crossed over into haute couture that is worn by some of the world’s foremost fashion models and sold by Canada’s top retailers.
In an industry that known for eating its young, what does it take to make it, survive and then showcase a nation’s unique cultural pride? To answer this question, three different Indigenous designers tell their stories.
According to Manitobah Mukluks Communications Director Tara Barnes, her company’s development is a unique tale of Canadian pride. Métis founder Sean McCormick started from humble origins to turn the company into a global brand that is worn by celebrities and models around the world.
Barnes said McCormick was operating a family business at a trading post in Brandon in the 1990s. Back then he traded tanned hides for traditionally made women’s mukluks. But he couldn’t keep up with the demand for the boots as they were selling so quickly.
This gave McCormick the incentive to go into business for himself, as clearly there was a market for these products.
“I’ve worn them since I was young; they were part of my culture and upbringing. I was also in the tanning business so I knew a lot about leather and fur. I have a fairly entrepreneurial nature, so I put it all together to start a business. The idea was to have an Aboriginal brand and I started with mukluks and moccasins because that was what I knew best,” said McCormick.
As Barnes explained, there were no Aboriginal manufacturers in Canada at that time.
“One day (in 2006) fashion model Kate Moss was photographed wearing a pair of his mukluks in London, England, and suddenly mukluks boomed. Sean immediately had to pick up his production and move it to a larger city and get more staff to be able to create more volume,” said Barnes.
The company has been growing by 50% each of the last five years, said Barnes, becoming one of the few Aboriginal companies to make the Profit 500 as one of Canada’s fastest-growing companies. As there are no other shoe companies on this list, Barnes said that this makes them the fastest-growing shoe company in Canada and likely the largest Aboriginal shoe company in the world.
Barnes says the appeal comes from the fact their mukluks are made from natural materials such as sheepskin, fur and suede. These natural materials breathe and allow the foot to stay warm in temperatures as cold as -30 Celsius.
McCormick is happy to share these elements of Aboriginal culture with the world.
“That is my favourite part,” said McCormick. “I love that the mainstream wants to engage with my culture. I see it as an entry point that can foster relationships between people and lead to better understanding. Maybe it’s idealistic, but I hope I can play a small part in solving some the bigger issues that face our communities, and this is one way to start.”
Barnes says the company provides good economic opportunities for its employees. Before Manitobah Mukluks came onto the scene, said Barnes, artisans were earning less than minimum wage at the prices their boots were selling.
Wanting to get artists’ prices for the artisans who were making what he saw as a “dying art,” McCormick began the story-boots project to promote the traditional art of mukluk and moccasin manufacturing.
After locating expert crafters from across Canada, the company devoted a webpage to help artisans sell their products and take home 100% of the profits. Manitobah Mukluks does not profit from this project and some of the available items sell for prices between $100 and $1200.
“This project is really meant to further Sean’s vision of contributing to Aboriginal communities and keeping the art of making these items alive. It also really helps to differentiate between the manufactured context of mukluk-making as we are trying to make a functional winter boot versus the art of mukluk-making that is passed down from generation to generation,” said Barnes.
For artists who want to do this fulltime and can produce the necessary volumes, Barnes said this project could become very lucrative. The company is always looking for more Aboriginal artisans.
As the company grows and its product reaches more markets, this producer of Canada’s iconic winter boots hopes to become what the Ugg boot was for Australia.
While the company now offers gear ideal for all-year wear, Barnes said the company’s goal is to represent Aboriginal culture on the world stage. And they want to do this by producing Aboriginal products made by Aboriginal people – all in the hopes of raising the standard of living in Aboriginal communities.
Rachel Kawapit’s journey to fulltime fashion designer began many years ago with a series of life decisions.
Since high school, Kawapit had worked in childcare in Whapmagoostui. But she was forced to leave her community in 2008 to obtain treatment for a daughter with special needs.
“I knew that there had to be something better out there for her – so I decided to take the plunge and move down south,” she said.
In the south seeking services for her child, Kawapit decided to go back to school for the financial support it provided but especially to seek out new career opportunities.
Originally Kawapit entered a general arts program at Algonquin College, but her lifelong passion for sewing led her to the college’s pre-design program. Kawapit first learned the skill while sewing mittens from scrap material while living out with her grandparents in the bush.
“My grandmother used to have one of those old-fashioned sewing machines that you would crank with the handle. This was my first time seeing a sewing machine and I was curious to know how it worked. Of course, my grandmother would tell me not to play with it, but the minute she turned her back I would,” said Kawapit.
With her passion reignited, Kawapit looked around for programs in fashion design and applied to the Richard Robinson School Academy of Fashion Design in Ottawa.
While she was quite smitten with the school, especially after she saw the industrial sewing machines and other professional equipment that would be used for the class, life had other plans in store for her. Though she aced the entrance exam with flying colours and earned a personal invitation to study at the Academy by the school’s founder, a spot in a specialized school for her daughter suddenly became available in Montreal.
In Montreal, Kawapit studied at LaSalle College two years, acquiring a solid academic grounding about the industry and design. However, after two years Kawapit realized she couldn’t bear being away from her other children any longer and returned to Whapmagoostui.
“One by one they left Montreal and returned home since they couldn’t take the city life anymore and it became harder for me to be away from them. They really missed me and wanted me home,” said Kawapit.
At first, Kawapit shelved her fashion pursuits upon returning to Whapmagoostui, but after a year she started to play with patterns and develop her own designs for parkas.
“My inspiration to start designing parkas came from our neighbours in Kuujuarapik. They are very talented at sewing and they make beautiful parkas, and this is where my curiosity stems from,” said Kawapit.
At the same time, Kawapit said she wanted her designs to have more of a Cree influence and be suited to the needs of the women around her. As she played with her cutout patterns for parkas, she began to give these designs her own flare, using fur and feathers for adornments.
“What I heard from other Cree women was how they had a hard time finding things that fit properly. Since everyone has their own unique body and our midsections are not always that small, I wanted to develop something that would fit our body types,” said Kawapit.
Kawapit set out to create a garment that was flattering, durable, culturally appropriate and that would meet the needs of her clientele in a James Bay winter. She succeeded.
Her designs are made from a special quilted material called “commander” that Picard buys in Montreal, which is basically the same fabric that Canada Goose parkas are made from. She said the high-quality fabric is Canadian made and ideal for the climate.
“I use a lot of fox fur or wolverine to trim the coats. I have coloured it. This is what makes my garments stand out and makes them elegant,” said Kawapit.
Her production is about to as she finally left her childcare job to pursue her fashion design business fulltime.
“I want to design something that will make Cree women feel good and, as I mentioned earlier, I see the fur trim as the icing on the cake. The best part of making a parka for me is when I am putting on the fur. When I made my first parka and sewed the fur on, I felt like a million bucks because this is what makes it stands out and what makes it from me,” said Kawapit.
After three years of working nights and weekends to pursue her dreams, Kawapit is now available fulltime to take orders. To contact her, look for her on Facebook where she is currently developing a page for her coats.
Innu fashion designer Kim Picard’s passion for fashion and design was ignited at the age of nine when she discovered an old sewing machine in her mother’s closet. After years of watching her grandmother sew various garments, crafts, quilts, moccasins, she covertly made a set of denim overalls for a teddy bear on the machine and took her very first steps on a journey that would lead her to become one of Quebec’s foremost Aboriginal fashion designers.
“My mother came home that day and asked me where I had I had found those clothes for my bear. I told her that I made them and I haven’t stopped sewing since,” said Picard.
Inspired by her mother’s passion for celebrity red carpets at award shows, Picard’s desire to become a designer was ignited by an opportunity to work on costume creation for the Pessamit Inter-Band Games in 1994, when she worked with experienced professionals, Paul-Émile Dominique and his wife Madeleine. This led to her decision to enrol in the Fashion Design program at LaSalle College in Montreal.
While at LaSalle College, Picard made her first real foray into the world of fashion in the summer of 1996, working with Aboriginal designer D’Arcy Moses at the Natural Furs Company in Montreal. She then worked with Hélène De Grandpré, a designer who specialized in haute-couture wedding dresses and evening gowns. A later job was with Native Innovation Design, a Mohawk company that produced Native-inspired ready-to-wear clothing. During this time Picard also devoted a year to studying marketing at McGill University.
Once out of school, Picard worked for a variety of other fashion industry establishments. But a five-year break to work with youth inspired her to begin working for herself. She set up her own business, Kim Picard Designs, in 2010.
Picard said her cultural background is a well of inspiration for her fashion designs.
“I honour my ancestors when I make Native designs, especially when I create Innu designs. I grew up in the Innu way, I still speak my language and I am proud of it. I defined myself as Innu, this is who I am,” explained Picard.
Picard says ideas often from her dreams and that she develops designs based on the animals and symbols she sees in her sleep.
Embedding the visions from her dreams into garments is something that comes from Innu tradition, explained Picard. In the past, hunters would pass on these visions to the women, who would incorporate them into decorative traditional coats.
“This was believed to bring them luck and success in their hunt. Ochre, ink, fish eggs and other substances were used to colour them. These patterns and designs were meticulously crafted and by studying these patterns, colours and techniques to make these clothes, I learned what would help me realize my own dreams, to revive the clothes of my ancestors by giving them a contemporary form,” said Picard.
Picard also experiments with other materials such as plastic, jute and aluminum. When Picard comes across a fabric that catches her eye, she can instantly see what it can be transformed into like a dress or a jacket.
“Sometimes I can design a garment before seeing the fabric. Inspiration can come from many places, sometimes from people, especially in big urban centres. I watch them walking on the streets and take in their style, personality and the colours they wear. These are things that constantly generate ideas in my mind,” said Picard.
Picard also looks to mainstream designers such as Versace, McQueen and Cavalli. However, her grandmother still gives Picard her personal inspiration.
She also sees a political edge to her work. Picard believes that there is ignorance from non-Aboriginals, particularly when it concerns the meaning of some of the symbols that she uses in her designs.
“Aboriginal people generally know the meanings of these symbols – the properties of animals and their spiritual significance – but not all,” she explained. “There is still some teaching to do at this level because we lost so much of our traditional knowledge through colonization. For example, some symbols can represent clans or communities. Once non-Natives learn the meaning of the symbols on my clothes, they understand the approach and the fact that these garments hold a strong and significant message.”