Jaymie Campbell, Anishnaabe hailing from the Curve Lake First Nation, left her full-time job last year to focus her energy into growing White Otter Design Co., her aboriginal fashion and art business. White Otter Design Co. incorporates authentic indigenous materials—like hand-tanned hides, porcupine quills, horse hair and beadwork—in contemporary fashion.
“I try to source the majority of my materials through the local community as a way to give back and contribute to a local, traditional economy,” Campbell, a resident of Grande Cache, which neighbors the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, told Native Business Magazine. “All of my hides and as many furs as possible are bought locally from Indigenous suppliers and local trappers.”
Campbell is also a strong advocate of future generations carrying on these traditional crafts, like tanning hides. “I’m really passionate about getting young people to learn those skills,” Campbell said.
Over the past year, White Otter Design Co. has quickly gained notoriety. Campbell’s aboriginal designs will even grace the red carpet at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, February 10. Corinne Oestreich (Lakota and Mohawk), a journalist for Powwows.com who will accompany Grammy Award nominees The Young Spirit Singers at the music industry’s flagship awards show, will wear White Otter Design Co. moccasins and jewelry featuring Campbell’s Anishnaabe floral beadwork.
“Ojibwe floral designs have always caught my eye, and I knew her gorgeous beadwork was sure to make a statement,” Oestreich wrote in an email to Native Business Magazine.
But the leap from crafting accessories in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta to red carpet placement didn’t happen overnight. Campbell shared her entrepreneurial journey with Native Business Magazine.
Campbell’s Career Transition
Campbell (Mississauga-Ojibwe) graduated from Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada, in 2010 with two bachelor’s degrees—one in Natural Sciences and Biology, and another in Outdoor Recreation, Parks and Tourism. After a season with Parks Canada in Jasper National Park on the vegetation crew, followed by serving as a backcountry medic during the winter, Campbell was hired as an environmental technician at the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation’s environmental division. Campbell later took on the Consultation Manager position for the small Cree community. “I handled industry and government relations, primarily protection and preservation of traditional sites, relationship-building and negotiations,” she explained.
Afterward, Campbell took on the Associate Director role at the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation, where she assisted leadership with constitution building, economic development, governance and policy development. She worked for the Nation from October 2012 to February 2018, when she transitioned to focus on White Otter Design Co. full-time.
But it was her time spent living in Grande Cache neighboring the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation that would influence her future entrepreneurial endeavor. There, she embraced time with the Cree elders of the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation, as well as the Dene people in the North. Deepening her knowledge of traditional trades, including working with hides and furs, while practicing her beading, stimulated her creativity and helped to connect her with her indigenous culture, ancestors and identity. (Campbell has actually been creating art since she was a small child, initially learning from her mother who was taught by her grandmothers.)
In 2015, she launched White Otter Design Co., though she was “mentored by the elders for a couple of years prior to that,” she noted. “It just kind of took off from there—and last February I quit my full-time job.”
Campbell has not received any outside funding thus far. Her full-time job at the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation helped her to fund White Otter Design Co., gradually growing it into a self-sustaining, successful business. “I’m making a profit off of it, but that took about four years to do,” she said.
Increasing Brand Awareness
Like most budding businesses, Campbell started by creating social media profiles for White Otter Design Co. “I used hashtags a lot to develop my brand on Instagram (@whiteotterdesignco),” she shared.
Campbell also donated some of her work to local fundraisers to include in their raffle winner give-aways to generate awareness about her brand. Local Christmas and Spring markets became vital to her sales and marketing. “People started messaging me and asking where they could find my work, so I started an Etsy store. That’s how it very slowly began,” Campbell shared.
Campbell generated further brand awareness via fashion shows and events, including vending at the Toronto Indigenous Fashion Show. In 2018, she debuted a runway collection at Otahpiaaki, an indigenous fashion show in Calgary. “It kind of spiraled from there,” Campbell said.
It was at Otahpiaaki when White Otter Design Co. caught the attention of Oestreich, who later contacted Campbell via Instagram. Oestreich sought out indigenous designers, “because here was a chance to represent our Native designers and presence in a space that is seen as ‘non-indigenous,’” Oestreich said of the Grammy Awards.
At the Grammys, Oestreich will wear a dress designed by Red Berry Woman, Norma Baker Flying Horse. “The appliqué is Mandan Hidatsa and shows a woman riding a horse and following two other horses in a run,” she shared. White Otter Design Co.’s moccasins and jewelry will complete the look.
Making Wise Business Decisions and Partnerships
As White Otter’s brand awareness increases on an international stage, Campbell is learning to skirt the fine line between creating in abundance and burning out. She’s also focused on staying true to White Otter, and not producing standard fashion and accessories in mass. “Demand is definitely growing,” she told Native Business. “I’m turning down customer requests three of four times a day lately. I have to be careful, because a lot of people want wholesale or consignment, and I think that the world of consignment and wholesale [retains] a very high percentage [of sales revenue]. Most places want 50 percent [of the sales price]. I’ve found that I’ve had to turn things down like that, because it doesn’t allow me to support the community, or actually put the time in to make things that are quality and original. It doesn’t allow me that creative process, and I find that really stressful,” she acknowledged.
Rather, Campbell prefers working with trusted outlets and entrepreneurs, such as Bethany Yellowtail (byellowtail.com). Campbell is proudly a part of the BYellowtail Collective; her designs can be found at: byellowtail.com/collections/jaymie-campbell. Bethany Yellowtail’s e-commerce website has offered White Otter “incredible exposure,” Campbell said. Campbell also does business with Manitoba Mukluks, the Storyboot Project.
Campbell similarly chooses her gallery partnerships wisely, selecting those with a respect for and interest in showcasing indigenous art.
“It’s a slightly different process, because we have to buy moose hides, tan fur, and harvest porcupine quills. It’s not so much that we are just buying materials and making something; we actually make a majority of the materials as well,” Campbell explained.
Expanding White Otter Design Co.
This year, Campbell intends to expand with a clothing line, and then grow her e-commerce reach by launching her own website. She’s also in the process of building a studio to promote the continued development of traditional knowledge and create a space to focus on her craft.
As White Otter grows, Campbell envisions expanding into the designer shoe arena over the next five years. That will involve more work and photoshoots with young indigenous women who don’t reside in urban areas, she noted.
“This year, we did a photo shoot for White Otter with three young women in the community that I live in. They’d never modeled before, and they were outstanding. It was wonderful, and I think that it will open a lot of opportunities for our young girls in these really remote communities,” Campbell said.
Naturally, Campbell might need a little help with all this business growth.
“I’m hoping to hire somebody to help me—probably a younger indigenous person,” Campbell said. “I would like for them to help me with website development, shipping and photography. I really want to find someone who is very interested in learning, because then I can pass down the skills, while they are assisting me with social media and applying for grants. I would like a post-secondary student or someone who has just completed post-secondary education, who wants to work part-time for a couple of hours a week.”
If Campbell could offer advice to up-and-coming indigenous professionals, it is that they appreciate and harness their diverse talents. She did not bucket herself to one focus, such as government relations. She allowed herself to transition careers, and to build a business in the arts.
“I hope to pass on a legacy that my people can be proud of. I want young people to know you can be athletic and artsy, scientific and spiritual, a warrior and an artist,” Campbell said. “It is important to me that our youth take pride in who they are, and they value the art our people have created for generations.”