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The Globe and Mail

Our home and native designers are making waves internationally

Just another hottie on a magazine cover: short skirt, dark glasses and - what's this? - mukluks, not Manolos, on her pedicured feet?

Yes, the traditional First Nations footwear are hot again - at least among the glitterati. Kate Moss and Beyoncé are just a few of the international trendsetters seen sporting the boots of late, reflecting the appeal of aboriginal fashion and handicrafts outside their traditional milieus and giving a boost to the First Nations design firms that produce them.

High fashion, to paraphrase the old line, has gone native - and native Canadian designers are starting to reap the benefits of increased exposure, bigger sales numbers and, perhaps most important, greater cachet.

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Winnipeg's Manitobah Mukluks, for instance, gained widespread exposure when supermodel Moss was photographed wearing a pair in London. "It's a real heritage brand that's just now getting the nod of approval from the fashion masses," says Josh Fine, a partner in the native-owned, made-in-Canada footwear brand. "Mukluks are cool right now precisely because they aren't fashion. They're a piece of Canadiana getting broad attention simply for being aboriginal, which consumers today equate with authentic."

Indeed, what appears to distinguish this moment in fashion history is the desire by retailers and trendsters to embrace actual native Canadian designs, not just appropriated elements and motifs reinterpreted by non-native designers in Europe or New York, although there was also plenty of that on display at the recent fall/winter shows in Paris.

Among recent homegrown successes, Manitobah Mukluks, which range in price from $89 to $1,200 a pair, now grace the shelves of about 100 retailers in 10 countries, including such über-trendy style shops as Isetan in Tokyo and Colette in Paris.

Dorothy Grant, the acclaimed Haida fashion designer whose high-end clothing is acquired by collectors and museums alike, capitalized on her popularity by launching a more casual line, Red Raven, during last year's Winter Olympics. The collection, which is priced from $95 to $325, encompasses hoodies, vests and jackets featuring stylishly rendered raven, killer-whale and other Haida motifs.

And Carla D'Angelo, whose Vancouver-based Claudia Alan accessories company commissioned aboriginal artist Corinne Hunt in 2010 to create eyewear adorned with imagery borrowed from Hunt's Kwakiutl and Tlingit heritage, recently unveiled five more designs by the artist. The line, called AYA, is available through

"Aboriginal art and culture has been suppressed for so many years," D'Angelo says. "To me, seeing aboriginal design on runways and in stores represents healing, appreciation and worldwide respect for the culture."

What also has resonance for many buyers, especially fashion-forward types, is the bold look of native design. "The geometric forms and stylized iconography that characterizes much of native imagery reflects a contemporary aesthetic that consumers everywhere find attractive right now," says Toronto-based fashion designer Jeremy Laing, whose fall/winter women's wear collection featured a Haida totem pole emblazoned on the front of an ankle-skimming silk gown. It was the first time that the non-native Canadian adopted aboriginal symbols for his designs. So popular was his line that it sold out twice at Holt Renfrew locations across the country.

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"The Haida-inspired prints were among the line's best sellers and sold well in all markets," says Laing, whose "starting point ... was a desire to create a very Canadian collection. The pursuit of a Canadian aesthetic intrigues me, and it's impossible to even consider the idea without thinking about our rich First Nations heritage."

Pop icon Buffy Sainte-Marie, who was born on the Piapot Cree reserve in Saskatchewan's Qu'Appelle Valley, agrees. "Real aboriginal design doesn't come out of Europe or art school, so it shines its own uniqueness, contrasting with what we see in fashion magazines, which tends to be more trendy, more homogeneous," says the singer, who did a star turn on the catwalk last Saturday night at the Heart Truth Fashion Show in Toronto. "Real aboriginal design comes from combining practicality with the beauty of nature, which is hard to beat."

It is also, as a growing fan base is discovering, hard to replicate. At the Fall 2010 Paris shows, the fur boots featured by Lanvin and Chanel were certainly hot, but the latter included mukluks with three-and-a-half-inch translucent icicle heels, making them striking but hardly authentic. What is attracting many consumers worldwide is the deeper appeal of "supporting a thousand-year-old tradition and keeping native arts alive," as Fine of Manitobah Mukluks puts it.

"Stitch by stitch, bead by bead, we tell the story of our people," says Sean McCormick, the Métis trapper and entrepreneur who founded the brand in his native Manitoba 13 years ago.

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