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D'arcy Moses' Big Bet

D'arcy Moses' Big Bet

Nearly 20 years ago he disappeared into the bush to find his Northern roots. Now he’s ready to step back into the Canadian fashion scene—and bring the North along with him.
By Laura Busch
Oct 01
2015
From the October 2015 Issue

White and yellow flowers hug the bases of a pair of unused gas pumps as nature does her slow work to take back the pavement. The section of the monolith sign out front that once read “gas” has been taken down, but though the paint has started to peel, the words “café” and “gift shop” still point the way to a low, brown building with a broad front porch. This is Winnie’s: the heart of Enterprise, a tiny NWT community that was once a popular stopover point for motorists driving to or from the Alberta border, 83 clicks away. But nowadays, three years after a bridge across the Mackenzie River replaced the weather-prone ferry, travellers have fewer reasons to stop here. 

It is in this unassuming spot that designer D’Arcy Moses is setting the stage for a major comeback. Or so he hopes. “I have it all riding on this,” says Moses, knees jittering, as they do when he’s excited, sitting at one of the five industrial sewing machines set up in his studio. 

Last November, he quit his day job as the senior administrative officer for the hamlet of Wrigley, NWT, even after the band offered him six figures to stay. He had some savings, but those are pretty much gone now—invested into machines and fabric. “My family down south, they’re all university educated and they’re all like, ‘Are you insane? You’re quitting a job to go back to being a starving artist?’” 

This isn’t the first time Moses has promised a comeback since leaving the big city fashion scene nearly two decades ago. But he’s adamant that this time is for real. “If I don’t do it now, it’s not gonna happen … And when you get that hum, you’ve just gotta do it, right?” 

Moses was adopted as an infant and grew up as D’Arcy Nyback on a farm in Camrose, Alberta. “Really good people; hard working,” he says of his adoptive parents. “They had four kids of their own, and when those kids were in university, they adopted five more and they educated us.” When he was 18, his mother showed him his adoption papers that said he was a Slavey Indian born in an Edmonton hospital with the last name Moses. A few years later, while living in Vancouver, he decided to revert to his original surname, but for a long time, that was all he knew of his roots.

His first introduction to First Nations culture was on the streets of Edmonton after he left home at age 16 to pursue his art. It was a rough scene there, so it wasn’t until Gitxsan Hereditary Chief Alice Jeffrey welcomed him to her Pacific Northwest Coast community that he started to feel in touch with his heritage. The button blankets and bold designs of the region feature prominently in Moses’ early work, which quickly started turning heads in the insular Canadian fashion world. A few lucky breaks out west opened up the opportunity to be a part of the Toronto Fashion Incubator. He landed a spot in a runway show highlighting 10 emerging Canadian fashion designers at the Toronto Festival of Fashion in 1991. Moses didn’t have a phone at the time. He simply walked into the festival’s offices and was told all artists had already been picked. “My heart sank,” says Moses. “But then he said, ‘Yeah, we found everybody except this crazy-named designer who doesn’t have a telephone.’”  

His debut came at a turbulent point in Canadian history. The Oka crisis of 1990 saw Canada deploy its own army against First Nations protesters disputing a golf course and condo development on asserted Mohawk land near Montreal. That same year, Dances with Wolves broke box office records, bringing a taste of Native American culture to theatres and living rooms everywhere. The general public was just waking up to indigenous rights. And there was D’Arcy Moses, gracing high-profile runways with his bold colours and distinctly First Nations design elements. “All my friends told me, ‘Don’t incorporate First Nations with fashion, you’ll never make it. Nobody cares,’” he remembers. But for a while, they did care. His clothes were sold at top retail outlets, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman   Marcus and Holt Renfrew. His unconventional designs—like the natural wool loincloth-inspired skirts and board shorts in the Spring 1992 line—excited the fashion-forward. His name and ideas on fashion and politics graced the pages of newspapers and magazines. 

“It was a shame, because the fur industry built this country, right? And it’s had a connection to First Nations since day one with the Hudson’s Bay Company.” 

He seemed to thrive in controversy. In the early 1990s, the fashion world was being rocked by the anti-fur lobby. Protesters lined up at shows to scream about animal cruelty and throw fake blood at anyone audacious enough to wear real fur. Celebrities piled onto the bandwagon, and suddenly sales for the fur coats were drying up. “It was a shame,” says Moses, “because the fur industry built this country, right? And it’s had a connection to First Nations since day one with the Hudson’s Bay Company.” 

The Fur Council of Canada approached Moses with an offer: they would pay him to make the fur coat cool again. “I was kind of naïve about it,” says Moses, who accepted the deal and moved to Montreal. “I used to do shows at Parsons School of Design in New York and I dealt with, literally, people screaming at me six inches from my face.” It turned the one-time media darling into a favourite target of the anti-fur lobby. “It was a very, very touchy thing. And Toronto
(media) didn’t like it,” he remembers. “They didn’t like the fact that the fur industry was using the First Nations angle.” Some media reports implied Moses was being duped into working with the fur industry, and pointed out that he grew up in a white household and had never exactly lived a traditional lifestyle. Reaction in the U.S. was less severe, but equally fixated on Moses’ background. Still, his partnership with the Fur Council of Canada gave Moses the chance to travel through the U.S. and Europe, and provided a steady income. 

Moses uses all-natural materials, like this tanned buffalo hide from Alberta. Photo: Hannah Eden

Looking back on it though, the saga was, to Moses, a distraction from his real passion—designing trendy clothes that incorporated First Nations design elements. Fur coats never did make a significant comeback, and leveraging his newfound fame to help the dying Montreal fur district didn’t help either party. “If I were to do it over again, I wouldn’t have done it. But even bad press is press, right?” 

That’s not to say Moses has any qualms about using fur, hide, or any other animal product in his work—nor does he question the ethics of harvesting fur, especially now that inhumane traps have been phased out of use.  Many of his Wrigley relatives still work the trapline. “They just love being out there and there’s still this connection to the land,” he says. “And the North is one of the last places on Earth where we can roam and skidoo and wander and hike and hunt and fish and trap, you know, without prejudice.” If only the passion and focus of the anti-fur lobby could be used to promote something more productive, like First Nations education, he laments.

“We wear leather and we eat meat,” he says. “We’re an animal-use society, although most people, when they see meat, they just see it in a Styrofoam container in the supermarket with plastic wrap on it.”

One day, when Moses was working away in Montreal’s historic fur district, there was a phone call from Wrigley, NWT. It was Don Antoine from the band office on the other end of the line, calling to let him know that a cousin, Floyd, and his wife had been channel surfing the other night when they came upon a CBC documentary on Moses’ work, and they recognized his name. D’Arcy had a large extended family in Wrigley, and they’d been looking for him. Did he want to come up and meet them? “The rest is history,” says Moses, leaning back in his chair and cracking a smile. “They say once you’re in the North, you can’t get out.” 

"You have the best of both worlds: you have the First Nations culture and you have the non-aboriginal culture. You can utilize that, because you can mix between cultures at ease.”

It was now-NWT Senator Nick Sibbeston who took Moses to Wrigley for the first time in 1996. D’Arcy was just about to turn 31. “I was such a different person then. I won’t say I was a bit of a diva but… I was travelling a lot, I had never set foot in the bush,” he chuckles. “And, ah, when I first went to Wrigley, to Nick I’m like, ‘Don’t leave me here!’ And he’s like, ‘I’m gonna leave you here.’

“I remember meeting my relatives and shaking their hands and they invited me for a moose rib dinner on the banks of the Mackenzie,” says Moses, breaking into a huge belly laugh, throwing up his hands still stained black from the week he’s just spent in the bush picking morel mushrooms. “I still have pictures. I was wearing like a Yohji Yamamoto satin trench coat, right? It was a very different time.”

He knew what he had to do. “Even before I met my family in Wrigley and here in the North, I told myself that if I ever meet my First Nations culture, I wanted to move in and be part of the community,” he says. But for a tight-knit community like Wrigley, that’s a lot easier said than done. He’d always had the feeling he was, as he calls it, an apple—red on the outside but white on the inside. It’s a feeling Chief Leonard George helped him with back in his Vancouver days. “He said, ‘You have the best of both worlds: you have the First Nations culture and you have the non-aboriginal culture. You can utilize that, because you can mix between cultures at ease.’”

After several visits, Moses moved to Wrigley full time in 1997 to manage Nats’enelu, a now-defunct Dene-inspired fashion business that grew out of a community sewing circle. He eventually became SAO—a senior position in the hamlet government—and while that meant he’d been accepted, he also learned a few hard lessons along the way, not the least of which is not to mess with people’s access to Facebook, in a small town. He once banned social media from the hamlet office. “And oh my god there was an uprising.”  

While his heart remains in the North, Moses misses the creative pressure-cooker that is Toronto. Although he hasn’t been completely out of the fashion game since moving to the North—in 2012, he was part of a show for the McMichael Gallery’s Group of Seven Fashion Designers—Moses has long been itching to jump back into the big-time.  

Once, he did try, with disastrous consequences. In the spring of 2002, he moved to Winnipeg to work for a clothing company he had been in talks with to procure a licensing agreement for Nats’enelu. But when he left Wrigley, there was no one trained to take his place. At the same time, the company’s NWT Development Corporation funding was drying up, and within a few months, the business was shuttered. “When it closed, that almost killed me,” says Moses. Before too long, he was back in Wrigley. He hadn’t been ready to leave then, he says. He thinks he is now. 

So his Plan A goes something like this: he spends this fall and winter designing an eveningwear collection. Although he defected to this studio in Enterprise to ensure a quiet place to work, distractions still abound here, so he’s pursuing a residency at the Banff Centre to put together the collection. While the designs are in progress, Moses hints it will be loosely themed around First Nations identity, through the lens of how they are viewed by non-First Nations. He’ll get his collection on a runway in Toronto or Montreal—maybe both—and the world will look up and take notice, just as it did when he first arrived on the scene. And along with the reviews and buzz will come clothing orders. 

That’s Plan A, anyway. Moses acknowledges it’s been a while. “In two years if you’re not in the game, you’re not in the game,” he says. And he’s been out of the game for just about 18 years. But he still has friends in the fashion world and is banking on his profile still being strong enough to garner interest in showing a new collection. “If the work is good, it will happen,” says Moses. 

D'arcy Moses talks Dene design at his studio in Enterprise, NWT.

But it’s not all about him anymore. He hopes to establish manufacturing jobs and revitalize the textile industry in the North. The craftsmanship of Northern beading is unmatched, he says, pulling out a pair of moosehide gauntlets adorned with flowers. Traditional Dene beadwork uses the double needle stitch, where beads are strung on one thread while a second needle and thread couch each individual bead into place. The end result of this time-consuming process is a piece of beadwork that can stand up to wear and tear so you don’t have to worry about losing beads while jigging along to a fiddle tune at a community dance, or riding on the back of a snowmobile.

“This is the real thing. You know what I mean?” Moses’ fingers trace over the rows of flower petals on the gloves. “It’s haute couture.” He once showed a similar pair of mitts to a friend in the fashion world. “The only place you could do this in Europe is at Lesage,” his friend said, referencing a successful group of embroidery artists in France who supply beadwork to luxury labels. Tack on the Lesage label, and the gauntlets would cost in the ballpark of $10,000. Think of the potential, says Moses: “There’s more creative people per capita in the North than I see anywhere.” And if people don’t recognize that? “It really terrifies me that, in a few generations, the only place you’re going to see this kind of workmanship is in a museum.”

He pulls out another scrap: a traditional beaded flower on green backing. But upon closer inspection, it isn’t beadwork at all: it’s computerized embroidery emulating the beading patterns of the Dene. “You can reach youth, as long as you make it cool and you make it hip,” he says. “And it involves IT—I think that’s the next wave.” 

While talking about the future, Moses becomes more and more animated, pulling out fabrics and beadwork he’s been collecting, pointing out the moosehide in the corner he’s tanning, and showing paintings he’s been working on to get his creative juices flowing. “I haven’t painted in 15 years,” he says. 

Most of the materials in Moses’ workshop, as well as his latest products, are deeply traditional. Since moving to the Deh Cho, he’s been sewing traditional moosehide vests, popular among locals. It’s deeply rewarding to see his work on the backs of youths competing at handgame tournaments, he says. 

From somewhere in the back of the studio, Moses emerges with a leather satchel and hangs it on one of the mannequins. This is the last of a series of larger bags and small pouches he’s been crafting out of buffalo hide from Alberta. It’s proportioned specifically to hold a tablet and a small laptop. The smaller pouches—currently sold out—are for smartphones. That, says Moses, is the kind of thing that could be made in the NWT with a wide, global appeal. With help from a business partner in Toronto, he’s been working to set up a pop-up shop aimed at targeting an urban audience. 

“I’m thrilled he’s getting back to it. It’s about time,” says First Nations designer Angela DeMontigny, who got to know Moses in Toronto in the mid-90s when she worked with the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business. “He’s an amazing designer. He’s an artist, you know?” Still, she cautions, finding success as a Canadian designer is tougher than it used to be. “The fashion industry in Canada has really taken a hit as everybody moves their production overseas,” she says. “When D’Arcy was working in Toronto 15 years ago, it was just completely different.”

If his backup plans fall through, one of the great things about the North, he says, is that it will always be here if he needs to come back.  

In many ways, the ‘90s are back. As of this writing, the price of oil has plummeted to nearly $40 a barrel, the Canadian dollar is worth a measly 75 cents south of the 49th, and both the Spice Girls and the cast of Full House are talking about reunions. Meanwhile, Canada is once again making awkward advances at an honest conversation about how to properly respect First Nations and Inuit culture. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has tallied the impacts of the residential school system, and more Canadians are at least fleetingly aware of the damage done by forcibly taking children away from their homes and their cultures. A host of Canadian music festivals have banned headdresses out of respect for the cultural importance of earning the right to wear feathers. One might think that our newly-minted sensitivity to cultural appropriation could make it hard for Moses to sell his work in a larger market. Could anyone walk down a city street in a First-Nation inspired ensemble in this day and age? But true to form, Moses isn’t worried about the potential controversy. “It’s not dressing like a First Nations person, but it’s the ideology behind it,” he says. “And it’s promoting the culture in a positive way and it’s keeping it alive. I mean, for heaven’s sake, First Nations are a part of the fabric of Canadian culture. Society is turning into a one-tribe society again. We’re all becoming one culture. It’s almost like humanity is coming full circle and we’re evolving into one, you know, social network.” 

Moses has been completing his own full circle over the past two decades: from a starving artist, to a celebrated designer, to someone searching for his own identity in a strange land, to a modern Dene man looking to the future with one foot in the past. And now he’s back to being a starving artist at this small workshop in a town that’s also somewhere in the middle—between the North and the south; success and failure.

His only regrets are financial, but that’s slowly coming around. He’s heading back to Wrigley for part of the fall to earn some money to keep the lights on. “I’m doing what I love. And in the last six months, I have made more and created more than I have in the last 10 years.” 

But he still hasn’t answered the central question. How does he know it’s the right time for a comeback? 

“I guess I’ve got my focus back. And I’ve found that hum again.”