Elizabeth Arey was born to sew.
The Inuvialuk artist from Tuktoyaktuk remembers watching her mother teach her sister the craft. Arey eagerly awaited the moment she, too, would be able to pick up the needle and learn.
“I just learned from whoever was willing to teach me – my mom first, and a lot of other talented seamstresses,” she says.
After mastering the craft as a young girl, Arey has made everything from parkas to hats for herself and her family, all using local materials from the land.
She eventually learned to sew moccasins after inheriting her grandmother’s sealskin pattern, as well as picking up the art of beading in fairly short order.
Now, Arey runs her own business – Arctic Oceans Mocs – where she sells beaded moccasins to customers across the territory.
She says sewing and beading are a way to honour her heritage and ancestors.
“It’s to pass on my culture and traditions,” she says. “My Taatak (grandfather), when he was a young boy, he remembered when the flu epidemic came in. He was a small child bringing water to all the tents where people were sick. He saw a lot of death.
“It’s important for me to carry on our culture and traditions through sewing, and also to pass on those skills to whoever wants to learn – the same way the older seamstresses taught me.”
Arey is one of 12 women across the North in EntrepreNorth’s 2020 business program cohort.
Launched in 2018, EntrepreNorth helps Indigenous companies and entrepreneurs develop into thriving businesses. Each year, the program picks a different theme – for example, last year’s focus was on tourism.
This year’s theme? Circumpolar fashion.
For nine months, the women – all of whom design and create clothes, jewellery, and other accessories inspired by their Indigenous cultures – are receiving mentorship from established Indigenous professionals and designers.
Blending tradition with trends
When Arey found out she was accepted into this year’s program, it brought her to tears.
“I’m almost getting emotional, because it was just so exciting,” she says, choking up as she recalls the moment. “It’s still surreal.”
Arey’s cousin, Erica Lugt – also Inuvialuk from Tuktoyaktuk – joins her in EntrepreNorth’s 2020 cohort.
Lugt has been creating and selling beaded jewellery under the brand She Was A Free Spirit since 2017. Her work has been displayed at both Indigenous Fashion Week in Toronto and Paris Fashion Week.
“My time is now, and it took me this long to get where I am to understand…this is my calling,” Lugt says of the opportunity with EntrepreNorth. “I am honoured.”
Lugt describes finding inspiration in the landscapes around her – particularly their colours.
“It excites me,” she says. “I can look at the fall skies in the Arctic and literally scream, because seeing those vibrant colours makes me so happy.
“There’s an excitement that I just can’t explain, and so I try to put that excitement into each piece that I create.”
She is similarly fascinated by the mixture of modernism and tradition, blending current trends with the practicality and culture of her Inuvialuit heritage.
“We live in a modern society but, at the same time, you want to honour your ancestors’ fashion,” she says.
Gwich’in quilt-maker Dorathy Wright, in Norman Wells, can relate to that.
Wright rounds out the NWT contingent in EntrepreNorth’s latest cohort. She learned to sew and quilt from her family, then picked up new techniques from community classes and YouTube videos.
Sharing her creations to Facebook, she has garnered a local following of customers and admirers.
Naming her new venture Willow Crescent Quilting, Wright seeks to infuse her cultural heritage into her Gwich’in Delta-style quilts and Beaufort Delta parkas. She uses materials like fox fur and polar fleece.
A single mother of five, Wright describes sewing as her “quiet time.”
“When my house is going crazy, and I’m at my sewing machine, it just… calms me,” she says.
‘The most satisfying feeling’
The Circumpolar fashion cohort will meet three times in person over the course of the program, alongside online coursework. The Nunavut and NWT members met in Yellowknife last week – there’s a travel bubble between the territories during the pandemic – to receive business training and take part in product photoshoots (cohort members from the Yukon, which is not in the same bubble, could not attend).
All three women say the experience was incredible.
“It was very informative. I learned a lot of things,” Wright says. “It was very exhausting, just all of the information that they were giving us, and we were there all day, [but] it was so worth it. I’m absolutely over the moon.”
For Lugt, the best part was getting to meet fellow designers and Indigenous fashion enthusiasts.
“It’s the most satisfying feeling, being surrounded by like-minded individuals who all love our cultures and are honouring our cultures through our fashion,” she says.
“At times, I feel like I’m crazy because I’m obsessed with Indigenous fashion. To be surrounded by other people just like me, it’s like, ‘Yes!’”
When asked what makes northern Indigenous fashion unique, Arey, Lugt, and Wright use one word: practical.
Wright says northern clothes are “practical and eyecatching.”
“Like the Delta-style parkas – they’re very, very warm, but the embellishments on them are really unique to the Delta and the North,” she says.
Arey remembers talking with her father about fringes during a trip.
“He started telling me they’re for water to drip off,” she says, “and I never thought of that before. I thought it was for fashion.
“He asked me, ‘Why? Why would they do that extra sewing long ago if it didn’t have a practical use?’
“I think all of our fashion had a practical use long ago, but it still looks good today, too.”
‘Part of a movement’
The global Indigenous fashion scene has “exploded in the past two years” according to Lugt. More Indigenous designers are setting trends, offering innovations, and bringing new meaning and purpose to the fashion world.
Lugt calls it a movement.
“We’re a part of that. We’re bringing it to the forefront. We have the clothes we created to stay warm in the North and now, we have some ladies in this cohort taking what we need to survive in our part of the world and making it glamorous and making it funky.
“It’s amazing to see.”
While the program isn’t over until next May, the NWT artists already have plans. All three will be featured in the upcoming Dene Nahjo online Indigenous craft market.
Lugt is aiming to launch a website to sell her creations. Wright aspires to become a dressmaker and start a store in Norman Wells.
Arey is applying to art and fashion shows, something she was too shy to do before joining EntrepreNorth.
She eventually hopes to a start an online store featuring her own work alongside pieces from other Inuvialuk seamstresses, “to help them reach further” and perhaps gain the courage she has.
“That’s just who we are as Inuvialuit people – we help one another,” she says.
“I just want to see all of our people succeed.”