Haudenosaunee artist has designs at The Bay

There are so many layers to the story of Haudenosaunee artist Britt Ellis and how her designs ended up at The Bay it’s hard to know where to begin.

From being the first Haudenosaunee artist to have a collection at the retail giant, to how it came to fruition, her story is certainly as inspiring as it is serendipitous.

It was fall 2020. The world was in the thick of the pandemic and most business was being conducted online.

Indigenous Fashion Week still went ahead that year – also online. Ellis attended the sessions, and so did The Bay.

Shortly afterward, she was approached by The Bay who told her to submit a proposal.

Her work was chosen. She has since designed an entire line of home decor being sold exclusively at The Bay, all of it inspired by her Indigenous identity in one way or another.

Ellis, who lives in Toronto and is a member of Six Nations, worked for 18 months on her designs before this spring’s release of the home decor line.

“I’ve always been arts in some way or another,” said the 35-year-old Onondaga artist.

She started bead work in college and it has since become her favourite medium.

“Beads was like the thing I felt an immediate connection,” she said. “It’s something deep and intrinsic – the lessons that beadwork teaches. It feels like it was always supposed to be part of my life. It’s always felt like a form of communication. It’s so specific to the nations, to the individual who’s creating the pieces.”

Ellis, who is also a tattoo artist, said her pieces have been selling really well at The Bay.

She designed bedding, pillows and towels, among other items.

The bedding has been very popular, she said.

“It’s been selling really well.”

Ellis has 100 per cent artistic ownership of the designs.

“I was concerned, top of my mind, that the The Bay didn’t have ownership. I really wanted Haudenosaunee people to see ourselves in the items.”

The items are available in about 20 locations across the country, including smaller locations in more rural areas so they would be more accessible to Indigenous customers who might not live close to major cities.

There are four duvet sets, four sheet sets, eight variations of tea towels, two variations of table runners, place mats, and napkins, as well as beach towels, a rug, outdoor pillows, baskets, a throw blanket and indoor throw pillows.

“I really wanted to use this opportunity to bring visibility to our community. The important thing to me was folks seeing our stories amplified and celebrated.”

She incorporated traditional imagery in the designs (among them, birds and butterflies) and the colours are earth tones.

“The colour pallettes that I chose were all earth and medicine colours.”

The throw pillows have been the best sellers so far.

One of the designs is a moon phase medallion.

“They’re all printed on velvet as a nod to our pieces.”

Another pillow features a gold finch, and a lumbar pillow features tobacco.

The line launched in April, which was delayed due to COVID.

“With COVID, the rollout wasn’t as big as I thought it would be. It’s been received so well. Some of the stores have huge beadwork pieces printed on the decals on the walls. It’s been incredible to see beadwork so visible in a space like The Bay.”

And the packaging has a story, as well. Her pieces are wrapped in luxurious, high end packaging, but it’s all packaged in a way Ellis was determined would be environmentally-friendly. The packaging uses re-purposed scraps of leather and the bags are reusable.

“All of that was really important to me, in terms of sustainability.”

She hoped to create as little waste as possible.

“I reuse the bags the lines came in for all kinds of things.”

It’s all still a little hard to believe for Ellis.

“There’s something really humbling and incredible waking up in my room and seeing my work around me. I’ve never seen us represented this way.”

The irony of her work being sold at The Bay is not lost on her.

The Bay is one of Canada’s oldest companies, with a history rooted in exploitation and colonialism.

“This was a good opportunity to show some nuance and try to hold them accountable – put their money where their mouth is,” she said.

“They’re aware of their past. The fact of the matter is they did found their business through the work of Indigenous people.”

Which makes her line all the more significant – not only is it ensuring Haudenosaunee representation on a national scale, but it’s also reconciliation, in a unique sense, with one of the biggest corporations in the country.

The materials are all produced in Canada and the items are assembled at a company in India that has a proven track record of good working conditions – something else Ellis said was important to her.

“Everyone is being paid a fair wage,” she said.

She was asked to design pieces that incorporated beads but because she knew the items would have to be made by machines at some point, she declined, saying she only believes beadwork should be done by hand.

Perhaps the most poignant part of her success, and story, is that it’s also a living tribute to her dad, who passed away in 2020 right before the pandemic.

Her work and success has been a healing journey for her.

“I miss my dad a lot,” she said. “He would’ve been really proud of this. It was a very important way of keeping him with me. It’s all for my dad. I hope I was able to do a good job.

“It’s communication for Indigenous people. It’s communication for my story.”

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