By Chevi Rabbit, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – The Indigenous fashion industry has been hit hard by the worldwide pandemic. Cree fashion designer Heather Bouchier offers a glimpse into how the pandemic has impacted Alberta’s Indigenous fashion community.
Bouchier also bravely shares her story of growing up in poverty and reconnecting with her Cree heritage through fashion. She has spent the last decade cultivating her skillset as a rising Cree fashion designer.
“Each industry has had to make adjustments during the pandemic,” said Heather Bouchier, an Edmonton-based Indigenous fashion designer, jewelry designer, and seamstress of Heather Bouchier designs.
One drawback of the pandemic has been the lack of in-person fashion events.
“Alberta’s Indigenous fashion communities rely on in-person events for networking,” said Bouchier. “The in-person events provide opportunities to work with other artists, organizers, models, hairstylists, makeup artists, photographers, and like-minded individuals.”
Bouchier says that many Indigenous artists were already moving to online platforms to sell their merchandise and fashion items, even before the pandemic. She feels that Covid-19 just accelerated the use of online platforms by Indigenous artists.
“When the pandemic first began, I saw a need for face masks,” said Bouchier. “I sold masks at cost to people who were interested and donated some to front-line workers.”
The pandemic has also impacted her in-home consultations and alterations business.
Bouchier’s focus has turned to beadwork and jewelry making. “As a result of the pandemic so much of my recent sales have come from masks and earrings,” she noted. Her next sales online event will be held on November 26. Visit her Facebook page for details.
She is also exploring the idea of eco-Indigenous fashion pieces that are made with a low carbon footprint. The fashion pieces would be made with 100 percent recycled materials. She is currently developing this idea and plans to make an announcement on her eco-friendly fashion line at a later date.
Bouchier’s interest in fashion design and in expanding her creativity started at a very young age. She grew up very poor and this has impacted her current outlook on fashion. She says her mother was on welfare and could not afford brand new back-to-school clothing.
“I was very poor as a teen and that’s how I learned how to thrift shop. I had to learn how to make do with what I had; that was something that was a part of my life,” said Bouchier.
“There were times in my life when I had to wash my clothes in the sink because we couldn’t afford to do laundry in the apartment laundry room.”
“My mother boosted (slang for shoplifting) clothes just so I could have something nice to wear to school,” said Bouchier.
She describes a childhood memory of when her mother stole a pair of jeans from the local Levi’s department store. She says that she learned how to style that one pair of jeans with multiple looks for school.
Bouchier’s lived experiences, growing up in poverty, have been the driving push for her interest in creating a program that teaches teens about having style on a budget.
“Indigenous teens want to look good but they can’t always afford it,” she said. The program would also teach Indigenous youth how to sew.
Bouchier’s experiences have helped develop her sense of fashion and they have played a role as she navigates her rising career in Alberta’s fashion industry.
“I applied for design school in 2001 and started my design training when my son was two months old,” noted Bouchier. “I was nineteen years old, pregnant and single. I knew I needed to go to post-secondary and make a life for my unborn child.”
She spent years working in different jobs and cultivating skills. All of her jobs were with textiles, fashion, and clothing.
“My first job after design school was working at a dry cleaner. I worked at tailor shops and I worked at fabricland. I spent years working and building up my skill level. My goal at the moment is to become a master seamstress. I feel that I’m close to achieving this goal,” said Bouchier.
She said her previous jobs in customer service helped her become better at selling her clothing and accessories. Each job that she’s had has contributed to her becoming the highly skilled entrepreneur she is today.
“I was a seamstress at luxury department store Simons for about a year and a half. I learned most of my knowledge with fashion, sewing, and fabric from an 80-year-old master tailor at Simons named Madame Martell from Quebec,” said Bouchier.
She says one of her first experiences with Madame Martell was when she bought a brand new Versace dress and didn’t like it. Bouchier explains that Madame Martell just cut the top off the brand new Versace dress and made it into a pencil skirt for herself.
“She was just teaching us how to do all this crazy fashion stuff and think outside of the box. She was a boss.”
While working at Simons, Bouchier started working on her very first collection. “I ended up showcasing at Western Canada Fashion Week,” she said.
“Fashion for me is an expression and an extension of who we are as people.”
“I used to believe I couldn’t wear certain things based on my body type and size. But It’s the other way around. Clothing is supposed to fit the person and I love how the same piece can be worn by different people and they interpret it in their way with accessories, hair, and shoes,” said Bouchier.
From her perspective, contemporary Indigenous fashion is a blend of traditional styles and modern styles.
“Indigenous fashion can be wearing a modern outfit with a pair of big beaded earrings or a kokum scarf or a leather skirt using traditional beadwork paired with a simple blouse,” said Bouchier.
She has a message for Indigenous youth, “I’d tell creative youth that if you love something so much, learn what you can and work at it, even if it is just a little each day.
“For example, If you want to play music, you have to practice to be good at it,” said Bouchier.
“Also, each person out there has their unique style. It’s important to me that people respect each other’s individuality because we all have gifts and knowledge to share.”