Every step tells a story

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Waneek Horn-Miller, a well-known motivational speaker, is the brand ambassador for Manitobah Mukluks, which partners with aboriginal artisans and their communities. (Photo: Chris Mikula)

What do Lindsay Lohan, Beyoncé and Kate Moss have in common? They’ve all been spotted wearing Manitobah Mukluks. The ultra-fashionable footwear, which comes in 40 different styles and colours, can also be spotted this season on the crew of CBC TV’s Arctic Air.

The company has also landed well-known motivational speaker Waneek Horn-Miller as its brand ambassador. The Mohawk, who lives on the Kahnawake reserve with her daughter and husband, works with the Assembly of First Nations to develop their sport, fitness and health strategy. She recently paid a visit to the company’s office in Aylmer, Que., while attending an Idle No More march in Ottawa.

Wrapped tightly in a warm wool sweater and seven months pregnant, Horn-Miller proudly showed off her Métis mukluks lined with sheepskin shearling and made of cowhide suede, rabbit fur and decorated in a vibrant beaded floral design — a symbol of the Métis people.

“I first stumbled across the mukluks while attending a long house ceremony in Winnipeg two years ago,” says Horn-Miller.

“A woman was wearing a pair and I asked where she got them. I looked up the company, which happened to be in Winnipeg, set up an appointment and got a tour of the factory by Sean (the owner).

“This is a success story. I love the product and the people involved. Everyone is personable, down-to-earth and family-oriented, just like the aboriginal culture,” says Horn-Miller, who was co-captain of Canada’s Olympic water polo team in 2000.

Manitobah Mukluks’ story goes far beyond shoes, treads and trends by seamlessly weaving together the past and present and fostering opportunities for aboriginal artisans and their communities.

The company was founded in 1997 by Métis siblings Sean and Heather McCormick of Winnipeg, who had begun trading tanned leather skins and furs for handmade moccasins and mukluks by aboriginal artists several years earlier.

Today, the company sells more than 100,000 products a year and had just under $10 million in revenue last year. The functional works of art are made with a variety of materials, including moose, deer and beaver hides. The flexible rubber soles are made by Italian footwear giant Vibram with its special anti-abrasion compound.

“I’m flabbergasted by our success. If you had told me 10 years ago that I’d be selling this many mukluks, I wouldn’t believe it,” said Sean McCormick. “We have the most passionate customers both from the aboriginal community and general public.”

The company’s sunny showroom and brand office located on the banks of the Ottawa River, is run by Josh and Ray Fine of Ray Fine Enterprises, a son and father respectively. They jumped on board with Manitobah Mukluks about five years ago because they liked the idea of promoting a Canadian company with a strong heritage. The small firm, which counts Canada Goose outerwear as one of its clients, has about a dozen staff and is responsible for all of Manitobah’s sales, marketing and communications.

While many may have a love/hate thing for Uggs, the arrival of the flat, almost stubby-looking winter boots kick-started the movement toward flat footwear.

“Uggs set the stage for us,” says Josh Fine. “Retailers are always looking for the next big thing and our product is comfortable and fashion-forward.”

Ray Fine’s roots to the Ottawa area go back to the arrival of his grandfather, Harry Fine, who came to Canada from Russia in 1920, and was one of the first fruit and vegetable vendors in the ByWard Market. He also was behind Fine’s Flowers. He began a wholesale food company, which he eventually passed along to his sons. For more than 20 years, Ray Fine operated a successful business bringing food to Greenland. When First Air cancelled its route between Iqaluit and Greenland, Fine scrambled to come up with a new venture. Josh, who had a background in brand development and marketing, approached Canada Goose to partner with them.

“They were looking for a distributor for the market in Greenland and Alaska. We liked the authentic, made-in-Canada star appeal of the parkas and feel the same way about Manitobah Mukluks. I would see mukluks in gift shops, but there was no international market or branding behind them. I went searching for someone in the mukluk world.”

That search led Fine to the McCormicks, whom he describes as the real deal. They clicked immediately. “I wanted to create a brand, sell this story and help get them international exposure and distribution. We partnered with Sean and bought into the company and deal with sales, marketing and branding.”

When they launched the product at a trade show in Dusseldorf, Germany in 2008, one of the staff made a grand entrance dressed in native regalia with powwow music in the background. Since then, they continue to attend dozens of trade and fashion shows each year.

“What were people wearing on their feet 1,000 years ago? This is living art,” Fine says.

Manitobah Mukluks partners with several aboriginal artisans, who can be seen on the company’s website, in what’s called the Storyboots Project. The artists make mukluks the traditional way, which can take up to three months to create, and receive 50 per cent of each item sold. While the price tag can be steep — $1,200 or more — the craftsmanship is exquisite.

“I’m taking the designs based on the work by people over thousands of years. I’m in their debt. To honour that debt, I keep the art alive through these artists. It’s part of my mission,” McCormick says.

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