When Nicole Camphaug created her first set of stiletto heels out of low-quality sealskin and a pair of shoes from Facebook’s Swap and Sell page, she never imagined her designs would end up in a museum.
“My favourite pair are the ones in the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto,” she says, explaining that they’re a part of the museum’s Arctic education section. “They’re a high heel open-toed sandal...and probably four to five inches high. They have a buckle on the back and they have the most beautiful leopard ring seal fur on them.”
The Rankin Inlet-born designer grew up sewing, “as most Inuit do,” but mostly made outerwear–parkas, mitts and hats–for her family, while selling the occasional item to friends. But with extra sealskin on hand, a few years ago, that was too thin for more practical items, Camphaug decided to get creative. In 2014, she began buying old heels and created sealskin patterns to sew over top. While the first pair was simply created for the fun of it, the trend quickly kicked off and Camphaug was interviewed by media organizations across the North.
She has now made dozens of shoes, from pumps and stilettos to Oxfords and men’s dress shoes, all available through her site ENB Artisan. And that’s on top of the bags, hats, corsets, jewelry, and foot stools she designs outside of that.
While the shoes themselves are still ones she buys from other companies, Camphaug sources local sealskin and other traditional materials, such as caribou and muskox bones, to make adornments, like pearls.
Camphaug makes each item outside of her full-time government job, but the designer was recently accepted into the EntrepreNorth program, which will help her and 11 other designers learn how to grow their business.
“Through EntrepreNorth, maybe I’m going to learn how to have a viable business in Nunavut as an artist or as an entrepreneur,” she says. “Like, maybe you could go to a factory and get [sealskin shoes], but you’re not able to get it from an Inuk woman who possibly knows the person who hunted the seal.”
Her designs are certainly diverse and popular. Activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier has worn a pair of Camphaug’s shoes while hosting a Ted Talks event, and actress Anna Lambe (The Grizzlies, Trickster) wore a pair during an award show in 2019.
But you don’t need to go to a red carpet event to don Camphaug’s shoes.
“I use them every day, walking around town,” says the designer.
And that’s a message Camphaug would like to get out there. Sealskin isn’t just for traditional clothing. It’s versatile and can be used for just about everything.
“I hope one day [sealskin is] going to be mainstream again and people will educate themselves on sealing and how important it is to Inuit.”