August 25, 2010

First Nations Fashion: Denise Williams

First Nations Fashion
Denise Williams specializes in designs for her people -- and they're buying
By Sarah Petrescu, Times Colonist

As Denise Williams flips through her photo album of elated brides, smiling graduates and proud women wearing her designs, I tell her she could as easily be looking at her creations in a glossy, high-fashion magazine.

"Well-made clothing our people can feel pride in has always been my goal," she tells me at her Esquimalt home and studio. Williams's House of Winchee contemporary clothing line incorporates West Coast aboriginal designs. "I don't believe it has to be huge to be a success."

Regardless, the 38-year-old's popularity has surpassed her resources, and she finds herself at a crossroads.

"I've become so busy I can't keep up. I have to get into manufacturing," says Williams, whose 18-year-old business has flourished by word of mouth. "I have faithful clients and even, you could say, a little following."

Williams knew she wanted to be a fashion designer from the time she took a sewing class in the eighth grade in Campbell River. She comes from the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation in the Tofino area.

"I remember looking through a magazine and seeing a stereotypical representation of native American culture -- braids and feathers," she says. "Then in a Canadian magazine I saw a picture of [designer] Dorothy Grant's work. Her stuff was more museum quality but it showed that an interpretation could be classy and not exploitive."

Williams held that thought when she entered fashion design school at Kwantlen College at the age of 18, making aboriginal-themed fashion part of her graduating line.

The name House of Winchee pays homage to fashion design and to family heritage.

Winchee is her father's village on Kennedy Lake, traditionally used for fishing.

"It's also easy to pronounce," she grins.

Williams worked in fashion retail for many years while building her business, travelling to aboriginal trade shows and events. After struggling through a few slow years, she has found herself barely able to keep up with increasing orders.

"It's hard for one person," says the lone seamstress and designer. "But so is finding help."

Williams's reputation led to an invitation as a featured local designer at the Global Fashion Show and Fundraiser for the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Society this Sunday.

"They wanted a First Nations designer and my name came up," says Williams, happy to be part of the multicultural-themed fashion show. "But I had to ask about the models. My clothes are not just for skinny girls."

The House of Winchee segment is sure to be a highlight. Williams's designs are classic, slightly conservative, flattering and meticulously tailored. They are also fairly priced.

Her incorporation of appliqu├ęd aboriginal elements is subtle and striking: A hummingbird along the torso curve of a little black dress, a cascade of black butterflies along a bold red gown, a pencil-skirt edged to resemble a traditional button blanket or red eagles against a black fitted jacket.

"We're so excited to have her," organizer Robin Adams tells me, adding the show will also feature fashions from Mexico, Romania, Africa and India, and a 91-year-old model wearing traditional garb from Norway.

While Williams acknowledges the esthetic value of her designs she emphasizes their importance as a symbol of culture.

"I tell people, 'It's not regalia,' " she says. "But these designs are really meaningful to our people. To me, they're meant to last and be passed down as heirlooms. This is not disposable fashion."

Williams tells me about a friend who promised her daughter one of her dresses if she graduated high school. The girl succeeded and was voted best-dressed at Stelly's Secondary School among fellow students with much pricier wares.

"Her dress was white with a black raven representing her mom's family and a black eagle representing her dad's family. She was so happy," Williams says.

She also takes great pleasure in the accomplished women and men who are her fans.

"My main customers are professional indigenous women," she says. "I believe in presenting our women at their best and they are often the kind of people I love to be around -- talking politics, child welfare, land issues, culture."

Williams is also encouraged by non-aboriginal people donning her wares.

"I sell mostly to First Nations clients, but others who have bought my clothes tend to have a respect and admiration for the culture. So that's a good thing," she says.

House of Winchee has great potential to become a sensation if it expands into manufacturing Williams's designs.

There are very few authentic aboriginal designers in Canada. Vancouver-based Dorothy Grant is famous for her Haida-patterned gowns and jackets. One of the edgiest indigenous designers is Ontario's Angela DeMontigny, who incorporates her Cree-Chippewa-Metis culture with sexy leatherwork, beading and hand-painting. Some companies have commissioned aboriginal artists for special lines, such as Chloe Angus, who hired Haida artist Clarence Mills to design a wrap, and Claudia Alan, who hired artist Corinne Hunt to design sunglasses and spectacle frames.

Several of these designers gained recognition during the recent Winter Olympics in Vancouver. As did Vancouver Island's Cowichan sweater -- which caused controversy when authentic sweaters were overlooked for mass-produced versions in the official clothing line.

Speaking of sweaters, Cowichan artist Robert Sam is another local designer who takes a contemporary spin on tradition with bold-coloured wool and animal imagery on his made-to-order knitted vests and sweaters.

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