Yup’ik fashion artist follows family tradition through tech
Women’s leggings are a hot versatile commodity in today’s fashion world. Worn under dresses or long blouses, they’ve come close to nudging out the t-shirt as a visual statement.
When Yup’ik artist Mary Charles felt the creative urge more recently, she yearned to do something traditional like her fur-sewing grandmother’s parkas or dance fans but knew that wasn’t going to be realistic.
Nick and Elena Charles, her grandparents, were famed throughout the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta as artists preserving the Yup’ik heritage. They were named Masters of Traditional Arts and awarded the Heritage Award in 1993 by the National Endowment for the Arts. Artist aunts, author uncles and mask-making brother Ben Charles all carved their own names in Alaska and beyond.
Now it was her turn. But Charles was raised between Anchorage and Bethel, and her ideas bridge an encompassing Alaska culture. Her mother’s family came from Hooper Bay and her father’s came from Kasigluk and Nelson Island.
“I wanted to make real fur skin leggings like they wore in the old days, but I don’t know how to skin sew and I don’t have time to learn. Plus they are hot to wear,” said Charles, mother to an 11-month old baby and a two-year old son. She works full-time at Northern Lights Spa in Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport as a massage therapist helping travel-stressed tourists relax.
“I also like technology and computers, learning how to do difficult things,” she said.
When friend Yaari Walker brought her the idea to make seal-skin leggings out of polyester and spandex, Charles thought it was just the kind of challenge she felt like taking on.
“She didn’t know how to do it and I didn’t either,” Charles recalled.
Charles found photos of seal skin leggings worn by hunters in the Smithsonian and other collections. She looked through magazines and even at harbor seals themselves, whose silver-gray dotted fur is often seen on clothing across the Arctic.
Using apps on her iPhone, she slowly set about teaching herself how to make a pattern and apply it to leggings manufactured by companies in China and Canada. Eventually she settled on Art of Where, a Canadian company, which manufactures a high quality legging based on original designs.
The factory sent Charles samples, and she had her friends and relatives model them.
At $35 per pair, the leggings were a hit, the first creation of charlesdesignsak.com. Posted at her newly-created website, she racked up more than 40,000 hits within a short period on the seal-skin leggings alone.
“I guess a lot of people liked the idea,” she said. “Maybe more than only Yup’ik people.”
Encouraged, Charles went back to her iPhone design apps, which are professional programs she downloaded and would rather not name in order to keep her copyright proprietary.
“I do all of the work on my iPhone, sometimes during downtime between giving massages,” Charles said. “When my boys go to sleep, I take it out.”
“It took a while, and I really wanted to make sure my creations were my own design.”
Beautiful patterns abound on the internet, and print artists are often copied intentionally or unintentionally as if everything online is fair game.
“I didn’t want anyone to think I had taken something off line,” she said. “I started seeing patterns in my son’s drawings (2-year-old Tristan). I saw my niece’s drawings and thought ‘wow, that would make a good pair of leggings.’”
Charles said she can take any drawing, and by manipulating it to bring out certain colors or add a background, using her iPhone as a canvas and her finger as a paintbrush, she makes a design that when replicated the length of a legging will provide a unique pattern she can then copyright.
Charles collaborated with her 13-year-old niece, Emily, her sister Elena’s daughter, for some of the patterns. Emily drew wolf paw prints — another popular image — and gave her aunt already-penciled or painted scenes from her trove of drawings.
Alaska designs such as Forget-me-nots, the northern lights, seal oil lamps, the Big Dipper and a map of Alaska also formed designs for leggings.
“Some of my reason for doing it this way is that I wanted to represent my family and Alaskans, not just my Yup’ik culture but Alaskans in general,” she said. “I try to think of ideas that represent the culture of Alaska like the salmonberries and Forget-me-nots and northern lights.”
Because she’s designing with customers in mind, she said she “wanted those who wear them to feel like they are representing either their culture or support of others people’s cultures.”
What messages get depicted on leggings — like the statement-making t-shirts — boils down to a point of pride at being Alaskan or even a citizen of the north, she said.
Now, with a glimmer of success noticed, Charles would like to expand her inventory but will need more capital. She is seeking partners to invest. Stocking inventory at home and working from her iPhone on everything from design to orders has proven a good business idea that has a chance to grow.
“Now that I know people like these, I would like to see how it works on a broader market,” she said.
Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].