While proud of their Mi’kmaq heritage, twin brothers Christopher and Gregory Mitchell felt that Indigenous clothing and music didn’t encapsulate their tastes or experiences growing up. After studying design in Brooklyn, they set out to make streetwear that combined imagery from their Indigenous background with their day-to-day experiences. Born in the North, their clothing line, was launched when they moved to Toronto in 2016.
Following the template of streetwear heavy hitters such as Supreme, the brand drops apparel in limited quantities, turning its shirts, tuques and totes into coveted items among fans, with editions selling out almost as quickly as they’re put online. Recently, The Globe spoke with the Mitchells about expanding ideas of Indigenous art and the importance of defining Indigeneity for themselves.
What was behind the decision to start Born in the North?
Christopher: We make stuff we would wear. A lot of time when people think of native art, they think that it’s an old thing – that everything is rooted in the past. Our whole thing is showing contemporary Indigenous culture: the urban setting, the art and music we’re into. … We want to show people that we’re still here.
Gregory: We want to empower Indigenous youth to take up space in their own lives. A lot of people seem to want one thing from us. And not everything Indigenous artists do has to be historical. Born in the North is reimagining what is currently popular through an Indigenous lens. We can compete with anyone out there. Our culture belongs in those conversations about art and fashion.
Recently you put out an orange long-sleeve shirt that referenced the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools across the country. Can you share the thoughts behind that design?
Gregory: We were restocking a sold-out shirt and wanted to use this opportunity to raise awareness with a bold statement on a shirt regarding the discovery of the bodies at the residential schools. All of the profits from the “Never Forget” shirt went to the Orange Shirt Society and Indian Residential School Survivors Society. We wanted to do something immediately instead of waiting until Orange Shirt Day in September.
Do you feel any pressure to address issues or make statements with your work?
Christopher: There was never anyone saying we had to make a statement or release an orange shirt after what happened. That was something we were passionate about and we wanted to do, so we did it. Any time we’re addressing anything it’s because that’s what is important in our lives or what we’ve been thinking about.
Gregory: We do this to get our ideas out there. That’s the thing that’s most important. You make the choice to put yourself out there with your work, but this isn’t an elected position. It’s something we choose to do. I’m not responsible for anyone, but my goal is to inspire others and maybe by speaking about my experience that will lead to people taking action.
Clothing and art like yours does seem like an “in” for people to engage with Indigenous art.
Greg: With each sold out shirt, each drop and each media piece it just kind of builds and builds. We blew our own expectations out of the water for how our shirts would sell. It’s crazy to me. But it’s an acknowledgment that people will respond to Indigenous art. They’ll put money towards it.
Christopher: When we started, people were asking if it was okay to wear our stuff. And we were like, of course it is. More and more, there is growing awareness of Indigenous people. You see that online and you see that with people coming out to marches. People want to support, sometimes they just need the opportunity. Supporting Indigenous art is one way to do that.
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