They are both initially from the Great Canadian North, and proud of their roots, the clothing and fashion accessories they create are inspired by Innu traditions while being undeniably modern. Learn more about May Ningeongan, based in Nunavut, and Erica Lugt, living in Northwest Territories, about their inspirations, their artistic approaches and their unique creative processes.
1. What made you want to become fashion designers?
“I felt I had to bring back our culture.”says May Ningeongan, who runs Ujaraatsiaq’s Garments. “The Inuit women tattoo designs were used to represent so many things. “, May continues, ” My mother and high school English teacher once told me that I will be the change, and that’s exactly what I’m trying to be. To be a good change, to bring back what we almost lost.”
Erica Lugt, the designer of the label She Was a Free Spirit, says fashion has always been a passion of hers. “I grew up loving red carpet fashion from my remote community of Tuktoyaktuk,” she said. “I spent my time drawing dresses and watching fashion file. I used to spend my allowance buying magazines just to cut out my favourite dresses and models and make collages for my walls.”
2. Could you describe your work?
“She Was a Free Spirit jewelry is daring, eclectic and dashing,” says Erica Lugt. They are colourful, thoughtful and high quality one-of-a-kind pieces.
For her part, May Ningeongan likes to say she sews her parkas with good intentions. My Mother Elizabeth Ningeongan taught me step by step on how to sew parkas,” says May.
“She told me to have patience, love and understanding when I am sewing. If we make mistakes, we have to start over. We sell parkas that are perfectly sewn that is made with patience, love and understanding.”
3. What do you like best about sewing seal fur and leather?
“At first,” agrees May Ningeongan, “it is difficult but, once you know how to work with sealskin, you get the hang of it. My mother and I hand sew the sealskin/leather in order for it to be perfectly sewn. . Sealskin brings the traditional look/warmth to our garments. That is the main thing we love working on because it’s so beautiful, warm and elegant. The sealskin makes me feel like I’m closer to our ancestors.” May adds.
Erica Lugt also loves the material. The tactile nature of fur and seal leather makes it exciting, almost sexy to sew,” she says. “Working with these materials to create my jewellery, I feel I’m honouring my ancestors while adding a tiny pinch of my personality in the process.”
4. Where do you get your inspiration, and how do you create your collections?
“Most of my beadwork inspiration comes from the Arctic Skies at the same time our Inuvialuit Dance parka trims. Living in the Arctic, you see the most beautiful skies and the most vibrant colours, which is inspirational and exciting. I try to interpret what my eyes see in my beadwork,” says jeweller Erica Lugt of She Was a Free Spirit.
As for May Ningeongan, she reveals that Ujaraatsiaq’s Garments‘ items of clothing are directly inspired by her customers. “When I sew garments, I don’t think much of how beautiful my mother and I create but, once we put our work out there, customers want our products. Sometimes the demand is overwhelming, in a good way.”
5. How do you manage to combine ancestral know-how with modernity?
Ujaraatsiaq’s Garments is the work of a family duo. “In the company,” accounts May Ningeongan, “My mother brings the tradition into our business. I bring the modern and it gives us a very good balance!”
Proud of her Inuvialuit culture, Erica Lugt likes to honour it in different ways. “I use sealskin, a natural and sustainable material,” she explains. “In my jewelry, I incorporate black and white details here and there, like those found on dance parkas. I do it my way, and by honouring my origins, I help to perpetuate traditions in a contemporary way”.
6. Do you think indigenous art has changed over the years? And if so, in what ways?
“There’s no question about it,” says Erica Lugt, designer of the She Was a Free Spirit label. “Just in the last few years, a host of new artists have emerged. They are breaking the mould and creating hyper-luxurious fashion items, whether it’s clothing or accessories. It’s an exhilarating time for indigenous culture and art, and I love it,” says Erica.
“In my opinion, every year is different,” says May Ningeongan of Ujaraatsiaq’s Garments. “Designers, artist and seamstresses are bringing back what was ours (traditional designs, nature, environment). I love that about our people.” says May.
7. What would you dream for the future of your respective fashion brands?
May Ningeongan dreams of a Ujaraatsiaq’s Garments workshop-boutique, which would allow her to produce her garments while receiving customers. ”
Right now, we sew in my mother’s little sewing room. ,” she says. “In the coming years, I want my mother to have all the space she needs and make her dream come true. I care about her and want to take care of her. She’s more than a business partner; she’s my best friend, my mentor and my life coach! “.
Erica Lugt is, for her part, an unconditional fan of Jennifer Lopez. “I’ll be able to say I made it when I see her wearing a pair of She Was a Free Spirit earrings,” she laughs. “The same goes for my aunt Maureen Gruben, who is an incredible artist. Since I was a little girl, she has encouraged me to create and think big.”
Indigenous designers are artists at heart, driven by a genuine quest for meaning. The fashion they create is a testament to their origins, their lives and the dreams they cherish for their own. “When you’ve been through traumatic episodes, art turns your darkness into light,” says Erica Lugt. “It reintroduces hope and beauty into our lives, promoting forgiveness. To create is to build a better world.”
Proudly Indigenous Crafts & Designs showcases many of Canada’s Aboriginal artists, whose talent is matched by their infinite love for nature and their people. Discover them without further delay: you will fall in love with them.