Perhaps in First Nation culture more than most, historical influences in modern design are about identity, preservation and celebration.

Ancaster-based fashion designer Angela DeMontigny ( works with traditional motifs and traditional materials such as suede, beads and leather hides, all of which pay homage to her Chippewa-Cree-Métis background and serve as a reminder to the world that the First Nations is more than old westerns. “It’s a living, breathing culture,” she says.

Signature DeMontigny pieces include fitted leather blazers, tiered goat-suede skirts and now handbags. Distributed in boutiques and galleries throughout North America and Europe, her work has received attention from media such as Flare, Chatelaine, Women’s Wear Daily and CTV.

Celebrities such as singer/songwriter Susan Aglukark, actor Adam Beach and actor/singer Tamara Podemski have worn DeMontigny’s garments for events including the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards.

Manitobah Mukluks ( is a Winnipeg-based company that produces high-end beaded and fur-trimmed leather and suede footwear. These are inspired by the mukluks and moccasins Métis owner Sean McCormick and his family wore when he was a child. “They’re as close to being authentic as possible without being handmade,” he says.

Rubber soled for urban life, Manitobah Mukluks pieces are available at select North American boutiques (including New York City’s Intermix) and in Europe. The line is also hitting the celebrity sidewalks on feet belonging to Beyoncé, Marisa Tomei, Kate Moss and Kate Hudson, and has appeared in magazines such as Vogue, InStyle and Elle.

Manitobah’s biggest sellers are classic mukluks ($279 - $299). Designed to shape themselves around each foot (there is no left or right, as per tradition) they also leave a distinct footprint: the Vibram rubber sole features an intricate landscape design by Winnipeg aboriginal artist Heather Steppler.

First Nation art has also found its way to eyewear launching this summer. Reading glasses and sunglasses ($35 - $60) from AYA Accessories’ Pacific Northwest Collection feature contemporary and playful designs by Corrine Hunt, a BC-based artist with a Kwakiutl and Tlingit heritage. Motifs include the Sun, which represents nourishment, truth and clarity; the Hummingbird, spirit bearer of good news; and the Wolf, the family protector.

“My appreciation for First Nations and indigenous art comes from growing up in Australia and Vancouver,” says the collection’s creator, Carla D’Angelo Taylor, who spotted Hunt’s work at a gift show five years ago.

She and Hunt, who is primarily a jewelry and custom-furnishings designer, are delighted by early reactions to AYA’s traditional-contemporary fashion fusion. “First Nations response has been amazing,” says Hunt, adding that the idea was also to get the attention of people who wouldn’t ordinarily seek out at First Nations art. An added charity component directs $2 from each sale to ONEXONE, which supports local initiatives including the First Nations Breakfast Program.

Vans with an Aboriginal twist

Newest to the First Nation fashion scene is Seattle-based Canadian expat Louie Gong (

Better known as a racial-identity activist, Gong, who is Nooksack, Chinese, French and Scottish, stumbled onto a budding career as an artist when he bought his first pair of Vans. “They were things other people had when I was growing up,” he said.

An impulsive decision to personalize a plain grey pair with a Sharpie led to more orders for his on-shoe designs than he can handle, as well as favourable attention from Steve Van Doren, son of Vans founder Paul Van Doren, and Sam McCracken, Nike’s Native American business manager. (A larger market than Gong’s growing fan-base hasn’t yet been identified, so there aren’t any plans for mass production so far.)

“Merging traditional [Aboriginal] artwork with the pop-culture of Vans has really connected with a broad range of people,” says Gong, who quickly switched from markers to more durable fabric dye and charges $200 per pair, including the shoe cost and shipping. “More than something aesthetically pleasing, they’re an exploration of identity relevant for young people’s lives.”