Seated behind a colourful display in downtown Vancouver’s upscale Holt Renfrew department store, Tyler-Alan Jacobs painstakingly threads minuscule beads onto a tiny pair of pink moccasins. A number of customers approach the booth, marveling at the detail of his work.
Though the setting may now be high fashion, Jacobs learned to bead from his mother on a Squamish reserve in North Vancouver.
At 29, Jacobs is an up-and-coming Coast Salish fashion designer. He recently partnered with Manitobah Mukluks, an aboriginal-owned company that brought his designs to mainstream retailers like Gravity Pope, Nordstroms, and Holt Renfrew.
Jacobs hopes to eventually open two stores of his own, one in Davie Village, the community that took him in, and the other in trendy Gastown.
His designs pair modern looks with the patterns of traditional native regalia. Red eagle wings emblazon the back of a sharply cut black blazer. A flowing white coat features brightly coloured animal patterns around the sleeves.
‘100 per cent authentic’
At the heart of Jacob’s work is authenticity – a quality that make his designs highly appealing to retailers wanting to showcase First Nations art without running into issues of cultural appropriation that others have faced.
In 2012, Victoria’s Secret was forced to issue an apology after its annual fashion show featured a model wearing an imitation native headdress.
The next year, Adidas found itself in hot water after commissioning a collection that featured cartoon-style native designs, including an “eagle hoodie” intended to make the wearer resemble a totem pole.
Jacobs says these imitations are highly problematic, and reflect a general tendency to misunderstand and cartoonize native customs.
“A feather headdress is something you have to earn, that not anyone can wear, and they just put it on a model in their fashion show. Most people don’t understand that, in native culture, art is more than just art – it’s a way of life.”
In the public eye
The young entrepreneur is no stranger to bringing his culture to the mainstream.
His 2009 audition for the reality show So You Think You Can Dance Canada, in which he performed a traditional champion dance, has been viewed over 17,000 times on YouTube.
He performed in the Vancouver 2010 Olympic opening ceremonies and designed costumes for Cirque du Soleil’s “Totem.” He consulted for Canadian recording artist Nelly Furtado on the choreography for her music video “Big Hoops,” which features traditional native hoop dancing.
His latest designs will be featured in Vancouver Fashion Week 2015.
“I am so honoured to see my native designs on a Canadian runway, 100 per cent authentic. It matters.”
Two spirits, one vision
Seated comfortably in a coffee shop on Davie Street, Jacobs openly refers to himself as “two spirited” – a native term for a person who identifies as gay, lesbian, transgendered or other gendered.
Dressed to the nines in his own designs, he looks every part a young metropolitan professional at ease with his identity. This acceptance did not come overnight.
After coming out as gay in his native community, Jacobs was the victim of a severe beating, which required him to undergo thousands of dollars of reconstructive surgery. What hurt most, he says, was not his disfigured face, but that his attackers were people that he had grown up with.
Many native communities traditionally accepted gay members in their societies. “Two spirited” individuals who embodied dual gender roles were seen as visionaries and healers. But the religious dogma of residential schools led to homophobia in many communities.
After the attack, Jacobs moved from his home on the reserve to the more accepting community of Davie Village.
He initially feared that his newly out status would prevent him from pursuing what he loved and excelled in above all else: dance.
“Once I came out, I never thought I would be chosen as a champion dancer. There’s so much honour associated with it and I was scared the community just wouldn’t accept it.”
Jacobs instead threw himself into his other talent – beading, which he learned by watching his mother, who was known for her intricate earrings.
As his designs flourished, Jacobs received three artistic grants from the Squamish Nation, allowing him to open his own business, TAJ House of Talents, in 2007.
Back on his Squamish reserve, Jacobs’ family is proud of the name he has built for himself and the visibility that he has brought to the community.
Jacobs now hopes that his openness and his bridging of cultures, will encourage other young native entrepreneurs who may be struggling with their identity.
“I want people to see it’s okay to be two-spirited, it’s okay to be gay and native, it’s okay to showcase your culture, and it’s possible to build something,” he said.