Indigenous Fashion Week: Bobby Itta Designs

As Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto (IFWTO) goes completely virtual, we wanted to take the opportunity and introduce you to five extraordinary Indigenous designers. Each day we’ll feature someone new and ask the same set of questions, from what gives them joy to how important community is. Our series will showcase their stories, offer a glimpse into their signature pieces and hear their personal visions for the future. Today let's meet Bobby Itta Designs. Join us and be inspired by Indigenous art and culture. IFWTO runs November 26 – 29 at 

Bobby Itta, Designer & Owner, Bobby Itta Designs

Can you tell us the story behind Bobbi Itta Designs? How did the company get started and what is your role?

I am an Inupiaq fashion artist, and furrier. I was born and raised in Utqiagvik, Alaska and am the designer and owner of Bobby Itta Designs and Alaska Fur Cache. Bobby Itta Designs is a brand that promotes and sells handmade Indigenous clothing and accessories. As well as manufactured Indigenous designed clothing.

I was introduced to traditional skin sewing at the age of 13 when I took Inupiaq language class in middle school. There I made my first pair of mittens, yoyo’s, and toy owl. As I got older and had my first child, I started skin sewing again. I learned to make traditional clothing from my aunt Annaqaq Brower, mother Maryjane Lang, and late grandmother Mattie Ahvakana. With the traditional clothing, I got involved in baby clothing contests. Doing this work, I realized that I loved to design and sew clothing. Bobby Itta Designs was established in 2010.

As a clothing and accessories company, what distinguishes you from other brands?

My clothing and accessories are very unique. The style and design come from my culture. Each family inherits special made patterns and designs from their own families. These patterns cannot be purchased in stores and are usually shared only within each family. I use my family patterns, but put more of a contemporary twist on my clothing.

What has inspired you? How do you incorporate this into your designs?

I am inspired by my culture and upbringing every day. I grew up in a subsistence life style of hunting and gathering. My father Gordon Brower Sr. taught his children the importance of hunting growing up. He always had his children get involved in activities all year round, just like he was taught by his father growing up. During the summer, we would travel in land to our family camping ground to hunt caribou, gather berries, and catch fish to fill our freezers for the winter. Every spring and fall, we would be involved in helping with whaling. My father is a whaling captain and helps provide food for everyone in our community.

My favorite design is the sealskin print clothing that you see on my website. My favorite seal is the spotted seal, which inspired this print. It is a very prized fur in my community, but costs a lot of money and is very hard to get. I wanted to create clothing inspired by the spotted seal, and so decided to create a print! This way it wasn’t expensive to purchase, and you could wash it! The design was also inspired by remarks my dad made when I was going to go swimming at the local pool, “swim like a seal.” I always thought the saying was silly, but it actually inspired me to create my clothing line.

Can you point out a few signature pieces and tell us about them?

My sealskin corset is one of my signature pieces. The first one I created was back in February 2016 for an art auction fundraiser for Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. I was recruited by my friend that knew my work from a previous fashion show the year before. They wanted me to create an item to compliment a sealskin chair. At first, they wanted a dress, but then decided that I should make a sealskin top. I went to the fabric store and found a corset pattern, and altered it to fit fur which turned out to be the sealskin corset. Since then, I’ve created five others for special occasions.

My other signature pieces are my parkas. The one displayed in the picture is made of cotton velveteen. Cotton velveteen is commonly used in the north slope region of Alaska. All parkas are lined with either quilted lining or different weights of fur lining. Each parka usually has a fur ruff and trim to help keep people warm during the winter. Parkas or Atigi’s were worn all year round. Traditionally Inupiaq used caribou hides to make the warmest parkas, but since settlers came, we started purchasing other furs and fabrics to design our own. The parka pictured is made of navy-blue velveteen cotton, the trim is hand pieced with bias tape called qupaks. This is a traditional trim that we make, but each family has their own distinct style. The ruff is a sunshine ruff. This is made of wolf fur on the front and back, and has the wolf tips on the edges to make it look like a sunshine. It also has wolverine and sea otter fur on the ruff as well. The bottom has wolf trim to match the ruff and sea otter cuffs. This parka is all cut and sewn by me. The parka has an A-line shape to it that my mom helped me design.

Do you see clothing/accessories as an important form of expression? In what way?

Clothing and accessories are definitely an important form of expression. They can be used as a platform to tell others who you are and where you come from.

How does community play a role in your vision for Bobby Itta Designs?

I created Bobby Itta Designs to inspire others to sew, create, keep on learning traditional knowledge and pass it down to future generations. I wanted to inspire others to love their culture and embrace it. When I was in middle school, it wasn’t cool to be Inupiaq. I remember wanting to be part of a different culture. As I got older, I loved fashion and still love fashion today. I see what my children like to wear, and then think how to indigenize it. I also participate in fashion shows, and as I makes clothing I always think in the back of my mind that I’m representing my community and need to do it with integrity.

What are your goals for the company? Has your vision changed with the pandemic? If so, in what way?

My goal is to open a retail shop in my home town Utqiagvik, Alaska. To hire employees, so that I can provide job opportunities to others in my community. Also, to teach the employees to sew, this way I can have more of my products for sale. My vision is still the same with the pandemic, since the pandemic I has been hosting zoom sewing classes that have been funded by other sources to provide my knowledge to others who want to learn. Another goal of mine is to form a foundation or non-profit supporting artists in Alaska. During the pandemic, I noticed that there are more entities funding artists which is great. I believe that there needs to be more of this.

What gives you joy and satisfaction in your work?

When I think of a new design that I want to make, and I bring it to life. Then when I finish the item, and I see the reaction of my followers. It brings me so much joy and makes me proud to be Inupiaq. It makes me feel like what I’m doing is important. Keeping my culture alive gives me the most joy and satisfaction.

Where can readers see your designs and purchase your products?

Readers can see my designs and purchase products on my website, Facebook and Instagram.

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