Vancouver fashion designer Dorothy Grant has been interpreting Haida legends through haute couture — and was the first to do so — for more than three decades. And she seems to be on the way to becoming a legend herself.
Surviving in the ultra-competitive world of fashion for that long might be enough to qualify her. But how many designers can say their unique pieces are found not only heading down major fashion runways but also on display at 16 museums around the world, including the National Gallery of Canada? Among the many awards on her wall is a 2015 Order of Canada for her “contributions to the fashion industry as an artist, designer and mentor.”
The symbols that appear on her work — ravens, hummingbirds, orcas — may be particular to the Haida culture. Yet Grant has discovered that they have universal power. “I call my work’s appeal multi-national,” she says, “because it’s not just about the First Nations. I always talk about Yaagudaang, a Haida word for having respect for all things and, more importantly, yourself. It’s something I want people to feel when they wear my work or see it in a show or museum.”
It’s a feeling many celebrities have resonated with over the years. Grant designed the tuxedo that actor Duane Howard, star of The Revenant, wore to the 2016 Oscars ceremony: an impeccably tailored form-skimming suit with raven and eagle motifs embroidered in silk on the lapels. “I remember vividly the great pride I felt when wearing it,” he says. “Everyone backstage kept asking who designed it. It had even more meaning for me because she worked in my family crest; I’m of the Nuu-chah-nulth nation.” Grant watched from Mexico on the big night, keeping an eye on the online likes and shares, which hit a half-million in one day.
Non-celebrities, both women and men, also enjoy the feeling of empowerment her designs give them. The lucky ones go to the Tsawwassen studio she calls her second home for a final fitting. When we caught up with her, she was completing a bespoke suit for a male client in Alaska who finds it difficult to find clothing that fits his six-foot-nine frame, and a wedding dress for a woman in Hawaii. Grant was also putting the finishing touches on five dresses to be shown at the Santa Fe Indian Market. That major showcase for indigenous fashion is but one of many shows she participates in each year.
And yet the designer’s life might have taken a very different turn. She was reminded of this fact while preparing a speech accepting an honorary doctorate from Simon Fraser University last June. She thought of the students who would hear her, and the many choices before them. And how when she was their age in the early 1970s she was bound on becoming a computer programmer in a secure and lucrative career. Yet she abruptly walked away from that path to pursue a passion for Haida art. “I have sacrificed a lot to get to where I am today,” Grant says. “But sometimes you have to stand in your power and proclaim: ‘I was born to do this.’ ”
She went on to study at the Helen Lefeaux School of Fashion Design, dabbling with fabric art and designing dance costumes. She fell in with a group of artists, including the renowned Bill Reid, who provided the seed idea. She had a vision of how Haida art might translate into fashion. But it couldn’t be static; it had to fit the body and flow with it as it moves.
Today, Grant continues to work in her own way. She remains aloof to fashion trends, preferring to follow her own artistic instincts, and unlike other designers, does not produce collections. Every garment in her Feastwear and Gold Label lines of womenswear and the men’s suits is made to measure for clients who approach her, usually through her dorothygrant.com website; only the handbags, shawls and scarves are off-the-rack.
She designs her own fabrics; a New York City company has them printed for her overseas. And she uses the fabrics exclusively for her garments.
The trouble with legends is they are often open to embellishment. To ensure her own story gets a true telling, she has started working on an autobiography. The need to get her life and work on paper was brought home to her two years ago while she was at a National Art Gallery exhibit in Ottawa. A young student asked for her autograph, saying she was studying Grant and her work in a course at Carleton University. The designer suddenly realized that, since she has turned down numerous offers to write her story over the decades, they likely had scant information to fill the curriculum.
With three chapters completed so far, she has found the writing process an introspective one. “It has made me think about my cause and effect,” Grant says. “What I do, my art, is my cause. Until now, I never really realized the effect it has on thousands of people who are watching. And that gives me more incentive to continue with the book. Because it’s my story, my history.”