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.”
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.”
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
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.”