Angela DeMontigny, whose designs have pushed the boundaries of Aboriginal fashion since 1995, doesn’t simply enter the Gladstone Hotel–she arrives. It’s an event. Having driven in from out of town, she lugs in a wheeled clothing rack and along with bag after bag of her hefty designs. I offer to help. They are not light.
“I’m a leather chick so everything’s heavy,” she says. “When I travel, people are like, ‘Oh my God! Do you have bodies in there?’”
Early in her career DeMontigny modeled, easy to believe given her height and confident composure. She speaks quietly, but when she laughs her head snaps back as she lets out a loud cascade of musical notes.
DeMontigny, who hails from British Columbia, initially thought she wanted to be an interior designer. However, when she interviewed for a college program the admissions officials told her it was all about knocking down walls.
“And I was like, ‘That’s not what I want to do!’”
So modeled and produced fashion shows, including a roadshow for hairstylists. When it occurred to her to try designing she enrolled in a community college program for fashion design, although she learned more by just throwing herself into the business.
“They don’t show you how the industry works,” she explains. “You know, all the short cuts you have to take. All the insane amount of things you have to do if you have your own line. They don’t prepare kids for that.” DeMontigny started her company at age 24 selling hand-painted clothes. “That was all the rage back then in Vancouver.”
She also worked as an assistant manager at a high-end designer clothing shop.
“It actually was the best training ground I ever had.” In the trenches of working on commission she learned how to style disparate customers, build long term trust, and keep them coming back, skills that carried over into her own line. Her business relied more and more on custom orders, either for longtime clients who buys things from her every year or musicians and actors who like her Aboriginal culture meets rock star aesthetic.
“I’m not a really good line designer in the sense that just selling ready-to-wear stuff for stores bores the hell out of me.”
DeMontigny always liked leather but initially she was scared to work with it out of fear she’d make a mistake.
“Then I realized, I detest working with fabric. I hate it!” What she had first thought was leather’s shortcoming, you only get one shot with it, she came to see as an advantage. Each piece would be one of a kind, which is what she wanted to do anyway. Only after did she remember that, with Cree, Chippewa, and Metis heritage, leather was a part of her cultural background. “It’s in my DNA. I come from a line of trappers and furriers.”
Soon enough, leather became her signature. She’s even designed a leather wedding dress.
“It was a very contemporary fitted halter dress with white deer skin [and] tiger lilies beaded all over it, which just about killed me. Going through that thick leather, trying not to bleed on it…”
With many of DeMontigny’s garments, you can almost forget they are leather and suede because she treats them light like fabric. While she shows me many short skirt, ‘party girl’ dresses, she also specializes in tailored jackets and well-made purses that stand the test of time. When I ask her define her style, she casts herself as her label’s distillation.
“I design for real people but in a glamorous way,” she says. “It’s just how I live. I’m a working mom. I own my own business. I have to do a multitude of things in one day. And this is how I look. I’m not walking around in Lululemon. You can look glamorous and still be casual and not be over dressed. That’s my niche. Catering to people who appreciate quality and originality. That’s why my stuff is so expensive because I’m not making hundreds of the same thing. And I cater to real women, not a model who’s 14 and hasn’t developed yet.”
DeMontigny loves designing for musicians, like the Aboriginal singer who she’s styling for the upcoming Aboriginal People’s Choice music awards. She designs big clothes for big personalities.
“People who are fearless, which is rare in Canada,” she laughs.
I tell her my theory about the smallish size of the Canadian fashion industry–there isn’t a large enough population of wealthy people to support homegrown designers the way the United Kingdom, France, and the United States can. She shakes her head in disagreement.
“I think there is, I just think they’re cheap. And it’s that Canadian mentality where we don’t promote ourselves and don’t promote our own.” She knows Canadians with money with original, idiosyncratic tastes (they’re her clients), but “Canadians for the most part are the Louis Vuitton bag carriers and the people that shop at Holt’s. And Holt’s is all there is now. It’s kind of sad.”Photo: Shlepp Ent ltd
DeMontigny bemoans our country’s addiction to off-the-rack fashion.
“I mean, you walk downtown Toronto and…you could see ten women on the street and they’d all be wearing a similar version of the same thing. Canada has become a Wal-Mart nation. Nobody really appreciates, a huge generalization because obviously some people do, but they don’t understand quality, or great materials. They don’t even know the difference anymore.”
She makes the case that buying fewer, higher quality items is better for the environment. It’s where her love of quality design dovetails with her Aboriginal heritage.
“I want it to be wearable for anybody,” she adds. “I think a lot of Native designers forget that part. They’re designing for their own community, and that’s great. But, especially now with political correctness, nobody wants to wear something that screams ‘Native’ because they’re going to be attacked.”
I ask DeMontigny how she feels about the controversies of Aboriginal cultural appropriation, like Urban Outfitters with their ‘Navajo’ prints or H&M who recently had to pull feathered headdresses from stores.
“I used to be very offended by it. There’s such a lack of respect. We’re talking big, big companies mass-producing stuff because they’ve run out of ideas so they’re just taking someone’s culture… I wouldn’t put sacred Chinese symbols all over my things because I thought it was cool. You have to understand there’s people attached to that. There’s a culture that’s thousands of years old. Where is the respect?”
“Learn something about the people. It’s not a costume. I do what I do to educate, so people can see the influence and beauty of our culture. It’s not stereotypical. We are lawyers and doctors and musicians, but we still have our traditional values and culture. But this is who we are now.”
DeMontigny wants to reflect her Native heritage while positioning her brand as multicultural, which is why the singer and TV personality Ayi Jihu is a perfect spokesperson.
“She’s an R&B singer and she’s Chinese!” she declares. “Why the hell not?” The pair met through their philanthropic work about two years ago. DeMontigny has styled Ayi for her concerts, music videos, and upcoming NBC reality TV show. The pair have collaborated on DeMontigny’s newest label, Young Native. “It’s taken awhile for the Chinese community to embrace and understand what she’s doing, but it’s happening. It’s given me the ability to be a bridge for Native people and get our culture out into the world. Native people are very insulated, for lots of reasons. I want to get our culture out more.”
With Ayi’s help, DeMontigny has made inroads with the growing Chinese market.
“The burgeoning middle class there is interesting,” she explains. “They don’t want anything made in China. And they’re getting tired of the same old, same old. They want stuff that’s different and authentic. What out there is really authentic? It’s all made up. I’m the real deal. And it’s all made in Canada, which is also really rare.”
Although she sells to boutiques in Canada, the United States, and Europe, DeMontigny has her sights set on opening up her own retail space, and it might well be in Asia. “Canada’s not always been my big market. And the rest of the world is fascinated by what I do.”
Max Mosher writes about style for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @max_mosher_.