Boot designers fuse native tradition with modern chic

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An area designer’s unique brand of handcrafted Aboriginal footwear is creating a fast-growing buzz in the fashion industry.

Matt Gardner

Daily Herald

Creenisgaa clothing is the brainchild of Linda Lavallee, a member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation, and her husband Patrick Reid Stewart, a Nisga’a architect. The Chilliwack, B.C.-based company is garnering acclaim for its line of wearable art leather boots, which made their debut on the catwalk last month as part of National Aboriginal Fashion Week in Regina.

“It was amazing,” Lavallee said of her first real fashion show experience. “I got so much publicity that it was quite overwhelming.”

The boots borrow techniques traditionally used to make native footwear but add embroidered artwork more often found on gowns, jackets and suits. Typical designs include animals that symbolize a customer’s aboriginal name, although the company has many non-First Nations customers as well.

Lavallee never planned on becoming a professional fashion designer in her youth. Her talent with a needle and thread began as a reaction to economic hardship.

“Being really poor, I wanted the boots, or actually west coast clothing, that other people wore,” she remembers. “They were so expensive I couldn’t afford it, so I just started learning how to sew. I was determined to learn so that I could wear this stuff that I couldn’t afford.”

While she was pregnant at the age of 18, her father advised her to learn some practical skills.

“My dad … said, ‘You have to learn something to survive, and this is what you’re going to learn.’ And I was taught how to work with leather.”

Originally Lavallee only made boots for her own use, but the constant stream of positive comments she received while wearing them in public suggested that it might be worthwhile to turn her hobby into a full-time profession.

Before taking the plunge into business, Lavallee first consulted her elders to ask if it was permissible.

“They said yes, go ahead — on the condition that you give tobacco for the animal and then pray for each pair of boots that leaves our hands, and that it goes towards a person that will walk a good walk in them,” she said.

“Each boot is individually made and prayed over every day that I go down there. I work on a pair of boots that are always prayed over, just so I have good thoughts when I’m working with it and that when it finally goes to the next person … when they wear them they’re protected, they’re safe. I’m not saying they’ll never get hurt, but I did the best I could with each pair.”

My dad … said, ‘You have to learn something to survive, and this is what you’re going to learn.’ And I was taught how to work with leather. Linda Lavallee

Lavallee took advantage of the artistic talent in her family and recruited her husband, as well as her son Cory and niece Carly, to help design artwork for the custom-made boots.

“If somebody orders a pair of boots, we take a tracing of the person’s foot, and we do measurements and construct the boot that way,” Stewart said. “Of course, as we have more boots available, people try on a boot and say, ‘Hey, this fits perfect,’ and then we sort of already know, because people’s calves are different sizes and all that, people’s ankles are different. It’s a learning process for us in that we’re starting to recognize what a person’s foot needs.”

The division of labour falls along tribal lines. Stewart handles Nisga’a and west coast artwork, while Lavallee and Cory handle Cree art.

Once designs are in place, Lavallee either uses a sewing machine or sews the boots by hand. The labour-intensive process means that it takes at least an entire day to create one pair. Adults boots cost between $300 and $600, while a children’s pair cost around $150.

With her growing success, Lavallee hopes to give something back to her community, which is suffering from a lack of work in a poor economy. She is actively training the next generation in the skills necessary to create clothing and footwear.

To promote the boots, creenisgaa clothing has scheduled a professional photo shoot on the shores of Montreal Lake starting at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Almost 100 members of the local community, ranging from toddlers to elders and headlined by National Miss Canada Globe finalist Brittany Bitternose, will model the boots. Tickets for a pair of customized boots will also be sold at $1 apiece in order to raise money for a youth group in northern Saskatchewan.

“They had asked me a couple months ago to see if I could donate anything because the bands were no longer helping the children to go to this camp for seven days,” Lavallee recalled. “I said, ‘I’ll try and sell tickets for a pair of boots, see where that goes.’ So we’re hoping to make some money for these.”

Organizations: First Nations, National Miss Canada Globe

Geographic location: Montreal Lake, Chilliwack, Regina Northern Saskatchewan

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Recent comments

  • Maggie Huish
    February 26, 2014 - 15:37

    I first saw this on TV and the boots are beautiful. Would you be able to provide the contact information that I can place an order? Thanks.

  • Annette Kennedy
    February 25, 2014 - 22:53

    Can I buy tickets too although I shall not be able to attend the shoot as we live in Kelowna? Your boots are so beautiful and I just love them being smudged.................May you be very successful! Blessings, Annette

  • pat hamilton
    February 25, 2014 - 22:04

    i would love a pair of boots as well

  • Connie morin
    November 03, 2013 - 11:39

    Please tell me how I can order.. These are beautiful !! I have to have a pair please

  • Dr.Carolyn Reyes
    April 13, 2013 - 23:37

    Please forward my name and email to the wonderful boot maker, Linda. I need two pairs of boots to be made by her and I will most appreciate her making them.Please contact me via email, Linda. I am most serious. These are the most beautiful boots I have ever seen. We are Eastern Woodlands Indians, and we WANT your boots badly! We walk in the good way and respect the animal and the artist and the family and the elders. The Creator's best to you in your endeavors.Will email & visit facebook site. Be Most Blessed.

  • Valerie Cote
    September 01, 2012 - 23:53

    Hi I would like to get the contact information for Linda Lavallee in order to purchase a pair of boots. Please forward to my email which I have proivded. She is a very creative artist. Thank you,.

  • Davina
    August 03, 2012 - 19:07

    OMG You must design a few more of these... some in black with read design; some in black with white design; and these white ones with black design. OMG If you make them in killerwhale; wolf; eagle; and raven, you can mass produce and take orders, you can make a mint! I posted this picture on facebook and "People want them". They are the most beautiful pair of boots I've seen! Can I order a pair for myself? If so, please contact me through here and I can send you my email address or phone number. These are incredibly beautiful.

    • carmen macnab
      August 03, 2012 - 19:53

      I am very interested in these boots, I am of the Raven Clan, can you make them? they are verybeautiful, my favorite colors are black, whit & red, which are also my Tribal Colors. Will provide phone no. on request, Thank you for your time Carmen

    • Linda Lavallee
      August 04, 2012 - 00:46

      Davina We do have boots that are on black, with red and white. But we are waiting for the photo shoot to post those ones.

    • Cree Nisga'a Clothing
      August 07, 2012 - 17:10

      creenisgaa@gmail.com is where you can order a pair, or if you have any other questions. Most of the questions can be answered on our facebook page. I'd advise you to go there, before placing an order of what you'd like. All types of designs, along with the colors of boots. :]

  • Anita Lewis
    August 03, 2012 - 14:25

    Hi! your work is very beautiful. How does one order your boots? do you have a catalogue online? I am from Kitkatla, British Columbia, residing in Prince Rupert. I am Tshimian, come from the Raven Tribe. I think the boots are very nice and would like to see more of your work.

    • Linda Lavallee
      August 03, 2012 - 15:59

      Thank you for liking our boots. You can emai me at creenisgaa@gmail.com

  • Cree Nisga'a Clothing
    August 03, 2012 - 12:49

    For more information on Cree Nisga'a Clothing Boots, visit their facebook page, at 'Cree Nisga'a Clothing'.

  • Flo
    August 03, 2012 - 10:46

    Beauitful boots ....Amazing design..May be interested in a pr for my grandaughter...