For moccasin maker Jamie Gentry, her medium is the message. “I really try to emphasize and remind people that I am a human,” she says of showcasing the time, effort and traditional knowledge that goes into the custom-made wares she crafts by hand.
Gentry’s designs take hours to complete – and that’s not even accounting for the pieces that feature embellishments such as embossing and flora-themed beadwork. “I have created a brand, but I’m not a factory,” notes Gentry, who is from Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, highlighting that sharing her process has been a key element in forging a connection to her customers.
The Globe and Mail spoke to the Sooke, B.C.-based artisan – who has also produced designs for Manitobah Mukluks’ Storyboot Program – about challenging the status quo of mass consumption, and imbuing positivity into each piece she creates.
I’m very curious about your relationship to moccasins. What drew you to that particular accessory?
I have always had a fascination with footwear. Whenever I met people, I’d always look at their feet first to see what they were wearing. I’d often try to imagine in my head what the pattern would look like, and how someone would be able to put them together. Moccasins are Indigenous footwear, so for me, that just felt like something that I wanted to learn. And creating my own footwear hopefully brings some joy to people’s lives.
What influences your designs?
The motivation is to put more thoughtfulness into buying. We’ve become such a consumerist, disposable world and people really have to be patient to wait for my pieces to be cut, to be punched and to be stitched by hand. A lot of inspiration behind my designs comes from plants, because my other passion is natural health. So, putting healing medicine plants “on” the feet to carry you through the day – I felt like that was really meaningful.
How has your rapport with your customers changed over time?
Initially, a lot of time was spent picking people’s brains: Is there something that they want out of their moccasins, a feeling when they put them on, and an image that’s going to reflect that, or a memory that’s going to bring that for them.
In the beginning, there were more opportunities for me to have the time to have these back-and-forth conversations. I’ve been able to have a broader reach thanks to an online presence, and I have people all over the world who order moccasins. But the downside of that means that I spend the majority of my time creating, and I don’t have as much time to do the connecting. I had to develop my website in a way that made it easier for people to make those choices for themselves.
It also requires so much energy to connect with people. I think I put too much of myself out there to start, and then I kind of had to really retract and refuel. These days, I want to find a way where I can still interact with people, mostly through social media, sharing about my process, and sharing about my life.
I do find that people are so incredibly patient. I very rarely have people ask me, “where’s my order?” I know that it requires a lot of trust because people pay in full upfront for their order. I just try to put some really good energy into them as I’m making them, because I don’t get to give the customer that energy personally. Every now and then, I think of all the pairs that I’ve made and how lucky I am to have that connection to so many people because that’s a part of me out there in the world. It’s incredible that there are so many people who support my work.
It’s really motivating to see creatives like yourself achieving that level of community, while also demonstrating that a slow, thoughtful approach to design can be successful.
I’m always looking for that balance of how do I grow, but also stay rooted? As an Indigenous designer, there are a lot of values that I’m rooted in that wouldn’t make me feel comfortable to follow the more mainstream ways of operating. I want to be able to reach people but I want to maintain that these pieces are made by hand. Maybe one day my kids will want to learn from me, or maybe they won’t. So, I take it day by day.
It is really inspiring to see that so many Indigenous designers are stepping out of that box and creating new paths, because there isn’t always one way of doing something. Just as we are all unique individuals, we all have our ways of doing things. Sometimes they’ll overlap, and sometimes they go way off the path and that’s totally okay. That’s just a part of being human.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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