When Sean McCormick started selling leather and fur to aboriginal artisans as a high school student, he never expected his company would someday be one of the fastest growing footwear brands in Canada — and a model of aboriginal business success.
"The brand resonates with people," McCormick said from his office in inner-city Winnipeg.
"This is a company that really is from the community. I really am a Métis man growing up wearing mukluks; that's not an invented story The product is unbelievable. These are the best winter boots in the world. There isn't a more Canadian piece of footwear than the mukluk."
Manitobah Mukluks manufactures and sells traditionally-beaded leather and fur slippers, shoes and boots, with and without rubber soles.
They can be found in high-end retailers such as Holt Renfrew and Nordstrom, and they're sold in more than 50 countries through the company's online shop.
"It is a product we are proud to carry," Holt Renfrew's Alexandra Weston, director of brand strategy, said in a statement. She oversees the H Project, a unique in-store shop that promotes culture, craft and artisans from around the world.
"To have an incredibly well-made, high-quality product, where you know exactly who touched it, how many hands, is the height of luxury."
Indeed, the company's moccasins and mukluks have been seen on the feet of celebrities like Kate Moss, Jessica Biel and Cindy Crawford.
"The celebrity culture helps to drive the product awareness and that's what I'm trying to do. I want more people to know about Manitobah and its products and that really helps," McCormick said.
Something is obviously working.
Manitobah Mukluks is on last year's Profit 500 list of the fastest-growing companies in Canada, posting nearly 300 per cent growth between 2008 and 2013 — something that McCormick didn't expect when he started out in 1987.
"I imagined doing a million dollars in sales and we'll do a million dollars in a week now — in a good week — so the scale has just changed dramatically," he said.
But the company isn't just a business success, it's giving back to the community.
It provides an annual education bursary through The Centre for Aboriginal Human Resource Development that supports a select student studying finance or business at college or university.
Through its non-profit Storyboot Project, it creates partnerships with elders and artisans who create a limited collection of traditional mukluks and moccasins. The artist receives 100 per cent of the profits for every Storyboot footwear sold.
Reviving a dying art
The company also launched a new initiative last year called The Storyboot School, which gives young people the opportunity to learn how to make mukluks from aboriginal artisans.
"The Storyboot School is to revive an art that's dying," instructor Marilyn Tanner-Spence said at a recent session.
"So many people are losing this. The elders are passing on, the skills are being lost, so … we need to keep the art and culture alive."
On this day, Cheyenne Call and her brother Garrett are finishing their first pair of leather moccasins.
"I was a little nervous because I'm not much of a crafty person, but I guess you don' t know until you try," Cheyenne said as she held up her pair of black leather and fur slippers.
Sitting beside her, Garrett said he'll be proud to wear his moccasins.
"The design is a logo from a skateboarding brand. It's my first time making it so I wanted it simple," he said.
"I think it's a skill I could carry on if I really wanted to, a skill to be carried on in the generations."
As she helps them tighten their stitches, Tanner-Spence beams.
"I can't even tell you how happy I am to see this because when people learn to make something, they have a sense of pride," she said.
That's part of McCormick's motivation.
"We need positive examples in our [indigenous] community," he explained.
"We've got lots of unemployment, a ton of social issues, and education is part of getting out of that and so is economics. So Manitobah encapsulates that stuff. We're a private business but we're almost a social enterprise. We're giving kids and aboriginal kids, would-be entrepreneurs, an example of what's possible."
The commercial success has meant McCormick had to outsource some of the production to factories in China and Vietnam.
The company says it has an aboriginal hiring policy and 35 to 40 per cent of its staff are aboriginal, including 90 per cent of its administration.
McCormick hires as many First Nations workers as he can but said that's not always possible.
"Where we have non-aboriginal staff, it's also a very inclusive place to work, a very respectful place to work," he said.
"Whoever is working with Manitobah, we're all pulling for what the mission is and it doesn't really matter where you are from."