In a cozy sewing room in her basement, Linda Lavallee gently passes squares of leather through sage smoke, praying for the customer who will eventually wear her custom-made boots.
"I do the smudging for the person who ordered them, so that any time she wears them she feels safe and protected," says Lavallee. She performs this blessing for every single boot she makes, almost two hundred pairs last year alone.
Welcome to CreeNisga'a Clothing, a family business whose product is one-of-a-kind.
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Upstairs in their Chilliwack, B.C. home, the kitchen is filled with the smell of caribou stew. In the living room, Lavalle's husband Patrick Stewart and her daughter Elysia are surrounded by dozens of elegantly hand-painted boots. They pack them into boxes, destined for customers across Canada.
"Its not like getting a pair of boots made in China and there's a 100,000 other pair just like it, " says Stewart. "What we make is wearable art."
Lavallee and Stewart launched their business two years ago, after she began receiving compliments on her knee-high moccasins adorned with his Nisga'a designs. Both work full-time - Lavallee for a native housing co-op, Stewart is an architect - but they leapt enthusiastically into the fashion industry.
"It's about love. Love for your culture, love for what you're doing," says Lavallee, a member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation in northern Saskatchewan. "We want to show the youth that if you have art, do something with it, and do it well."
The couple are proud of their accomplishments, given the adversity both faced growing up. Stewart was apprehended by child welfare officials when he was only three months old and grew up in foster homes. Lavallee became pregnant at age 18, which is when her father advised her to learn some practical skills.
'It's about love … for your culture, love for what you're doing. We want to show the youth that if you have art, do something with it, and do it well.'- Linda Lavallee
That's how I learned to sew," laughs Lavallee. "I wasn't happy at the beginning, but I have to thank my dad now."
Honouring her Cree roots is now an integral part of the CreeNisga'a business. Lavallee returns regularly to her family trapline in Saskatchewan, where she traps and barters for fur.
Her son Corey credits both traditional Cree artwork and contemporary tattoo art as inspiration for his spray painted designs.
"I've always liked drawing," says the soft-spoken 28 year-old. "It's nice people want something I painted."
CreeNisga'a Clothing, sold exclusively online, is now generating buzz in the fashion world. After actor Saginaw Grant wore an outfit designed by CreeNisga'a to the Hollywood premiere of The Lone Ranger, the couple was invited to debut their clothing line on the catwalk of the glitzy Couture Fashion Week in New York City.
"The models told us that it was the first time during a fashion week they didn't have to wear heels," says Stewart. "When you see a show, and all your stuff on models walking out there, it's a proud moment."
The CreeNisga'a team also took some models by surprise, by smudging them before the show and sharing sweetgrass with them as a gesture of thanks.
'It's not about making money...it's about representing culture. It's about giving a pair of boots to somebody special. And every boot is special to us,'- Patrick Stewart
Despite recent success, the couple say it's important not to forget their roots. They support hunters and trappers by bartering boots for furs and wild foods. They also regularly donate fashion wear to fundraisers for homelessness and youth programs.
They hope to hire more aboriginal artisans as their company grows, but not at the expense of their own spiritual connection to the clothing.
"Its not about making money," says Stewart. "It's about representing culture. It's about giving a pair of boots to somebody special. And every boot is special to us."