From wampum belts to sky domes, this fashion designer uses her Mohawk culture for inspiration

Outside of her job as a travel agent, Stacey Mitchell keeps busy designing contemporary men and women's clothing inspired by her Mohawk culture.

'I like creating what I can't find in stores,' says Akwesasne designer Stacey Mitchell

Stacey Mitchell's wampum dress. It is a part of the Akwesasne designer's first collection of formal wear. (Babes Thompson)

Outside of her day job as a travel agent, Stacey Mitchell keeps busy designing clothes with a touch of Mohawk flair.

Mitchell, 39, is from Akwesasne, a Mohawk community that straddles the Quebec, Ontario, and New York State borders. She grew up learning beadwork, quilting, and sewing regalia from her mother, and in the last few years has been bringing more contemporary styles to runways across the United States.

"I have to have some type of creative outlet. I think life is boring without creativity," said Mitchell.

"I've been doing this for three or four years and it's still not boring yet. There's so much inspiration out there and there's so many challenges that I want to try."

Her collections this year include a buckskin blazer, a cape, and a number of leather and wool coats for men and women using fabrics that have a cultural connection. In the case of one of her wool peacoats, appliques of sky domes — a symbol of the Haudenosaunee creation story.

Stacey Mitchell likes to use fabrics that have a cultural connection to her community, or appliques of important Haudenosaunee symbols. (Laurie Gardner)

Finding those fabrics is not always an easy task, she said. It's why when she saw Florida-based designer Karen Dyson's custom wampum fabric she knew she had to make something with it.

Wampum belts, made of beads from quahog clam shells strung together, are used to symbolize Haudenosaunee laws, traditions and moments in history. The fabric was inspired by the Kaswentha or Two Row Wampum belt, a 17th century treaty signifying the Haudenosaunee Confederacy's relationship with European colonizers and their descendants. 

Mitchell envisioned a gown, and it ended up being a part of her first collection of formal wear. It was unveiled on a runaway at Akwesasne's annual fashion show in November by Kendell Horn. Horn, who is from Kahnawake, Que., said she was proud to be asked her to model the wampum dress at the annual fashion show.

Kendall Horn modeling the wampum dress, a part of Stacey Michell's first collection of formal wear. (Babes Thompson)

"I think every model that wears Haudenosaunee pieces and designs feel a sense of pride," said Horn.

"It's always comforting knowing there are designers who are trying to keep our culture alive through their pieces and embracing the beauty of it."

For Mitchell, it's exactly that. Incorporating Haudenosaunee and Mohawk symbols into her designs instills an important cultural connection.

"I like creating what I can't find in stores, and what I wish I could find in stores," she said.

"I have customers who are Haudenosaunee but live on the other side of the country and it makes them feel like they still have that connection even though they're not at home anymore."

One of the men's coats in Stacey Mitchell's 2019 coat collection. (Laurie Gardner)

Mitchell said while some people are proud to wear ribbon skirts or shirts outside of the community, there is a stigma for others. 

"Sometimes, people feel self-conscious wearing traditional clothing outside of ceremonies or socials, and so I'm trying to find a way to still showcase our culture and showcase our pride every day," she said. 


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawake, Que. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.