HERITAGE MEETS HEART IN THEIR ABORIGINAL DESIGNS
Story by Laura Chang
Photos and videos provided by Lotus Leaf
Manitobah Mukluks co-founder and CEO Sean McCormick is quick to set the record straight. “We don’t see ourselves as a fashion company,” he explains. “We’re a social enterprise. The essence of our brand is crafting footwear, melding with thousands of years of history.”
We’re chatting at the Manitobah STORYBOOT Pow Wow event at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, hosted by former Olympian Waneek Horn-Miller. The night is a striking affair of colour, fine-crafted moccasins and mukluks, Aboriginal memorabilia, and upbeat rhythms, with a befitting assortment of hors d’oeuvres (venison dumplings, bison skewers, and salmon cakes on the menu). The Pow Wow provided an up-close introduction with the brand (so to speak); the Aboriginal-owned company has been manufacturing high-quality mukluks and moccasins for 14 years, expanding from giftware retailers to shoe stores around the world.
Fashion company or not, one cannot deny the resonating beauty of unique Aboriginal designs on a canvas of natural leathers and furs. The hand-beaded patterns and distinct stitching are riveting in their creativity and soul.
“It’s about the authenticity. We are inspired by all tribes, different nations,” McCormick says of the traditional value of each pair. “Our designs are borrowed from the Aboriginal people, thus creating a connection to history.” Each pair is culturally symbolic for a different First Nations group – such as the Métis Moccasin (shown above), woven with the traditional floral art pattern that defined the Métis People as “Flower Beadwork People” by the Dakota Sioux and Cree.
To issue a test of authenticity and quality, one can’t help but wonder – does McCormick himself wear Manitobah Mukluks footwear? Yes, he does. “I wear them in the snow, hunting, fishing…”.
The magic is in the details. In 1990, Métis siblings Sean and Heather McCormick worked in tanned leather skins and furs before utilizing them to craft traditional footwear. A Manitobah Mukluks moccasin or mukluk is created with natural materials such as sheepskin, rabbit fur, or cowhide suede. Working alongside designers and Aboriginal artists, patterns are researched and adopted from different First Nations communities. “We try to integrate the communities with our process,” says McCormick on preserving Manitobah Mukluks’ roots, “It helps us maintain our historical connections, references, and direction.”
While tradition is the backbone of Manitobah Mukluks, techniques are utilized to modernize the footwear. High-abrasion soles provider, VIBRAM soles, equip the shoes for everyday weather (such as the dreaded shoe-destroyer known as Canadian slush). Upholding their attention to details, the sole is also designed to reflect Aboriginal roots and history. McCormick notes that they have made nods to fashion, such as the addition of furry pompoms, and that “some of the designs are tweaked for current trends to funk it up… but we will never pretend to be fashion-driven.”
By touching on many different First Nations’ designs, Manitobah Mukluks celebrates this heritage and connects the past to the present. They step forward with the hope of “helping Aboriginals across Canada to benefit from the knowledge of their forefathers and continue to educate the world on native traditions.” Non-Aboriginals alike can benefit from this historical knowledge and their unique offerings.
Manitobah Mukluks gives another bow to Aboriginal designers and artisans with its STORYBOOT Project. As an initiative to help Aboriginal communities achieve self-sufficiency and revive the traditional art of handcrafting footwear, Aboriginal craftspeople are commissioned to create original pieces that embroider a story within the design. These moccasins and mukluks are created using time-honoured approaches; they are hand-cut, sewn by hand, and are not adjusted with the Vibram sole. A limited collection of replicas are produced, with all proceeds shared 50/50 – creating a partnership with the artists. “These are the original masterpieces,” McCormick says of their work.
A component of Manitobah Mukluks’ increase in sales (notably within shoe stores) is perhaps because of the ongoing “First Nations chic” fashion trend. Opinions on this style are mixed – varying from pride in the exposure of Aboriginal designs to outrage and offense due to “Native appropriation” in fashion. Does McCormick feel that commercialism strips the value of their distinct designs? “We do this with strong ties to the community and feel good about what we do. It’s different when Aboriginal communities are heavily involved in Aboriginal arts. Business is one of the avenues to benefit a community,” he says of his spirituality and belief in the company’s products. “Everyone has their own spirituality.”
At the end of the day, Manitobah Mukluks does not forget its roots. “Historically, Canada’s Aboriginal peoples have been disadvantaged,” and Aboriginal communities still suffer greatly from those challenges. Manitobah Mukluks aims to support the communities with its profits put to good use, hiring Aboriginal employees and creating bursaries to help Aboriginal students attain postsecondary education. The success that Aboriginal designs have provided the company makes McCormick certain that he “owe[s] a debt that way to the community.”
Perhaps it’s this stance that motivated McCormick to emphasize that Manitobah Mukluks as “not a fashion company,” in hopes of giving everyone a gentle nudge towards the deeper issues they are working to resolve. By doing so, they create exposure on their values and what Aboriginal culture stands for.
But fashion – real, cultural, time-enduring fashion – is not only about the exterior or passing fads. Fashion also envelopes art and its deeper significances. We can appreciate the beautiful aesthetics being offered to us that have outlasted history and time, and we can also honour the Aboriginal heritage and its traditions.