October 13, 2017
At home with Dorothy Grant
The Haida spirit of creativity is at the heart of fashion designer Dorothy Grant’s Tsawwassen home
Story by Laura Goldstein
Photos by Carsten Arnold Photography
Ferry foghorns echo through the haze across the Salish Sea, their mournful cries drifting over the beachfront where Dorothy Grant quietly contemplates a ghostly boneyard of driftwood through the floor-to-ceiling windows of her corner penthouse condo.
“I hadn’t expected to find this place,” says the Haida fashion designer and artist. “I had just opened my store in downtown Vancouver in 1994, but had always wanted to escape the city to live.” She is “still over the moon” about spotting the Ysatsu Shores sign on a winding forest road on Tsawwassen First Nations land. In 1996 she became one of the first buyers to move into the oceanfront condominium development by Chandler Associates Architecture, which resembles a sprawling Pacific Northwest lodge and overlooks a bird sanctuary
where hundreds of herons gather on intertidal pools.
It turned out to be the perfect location from which to establish her studio and online business designing Haida-inspired couture fashions, fabrics and accessories for both women and men.
The 1,900-square-foot condo has a master bedroom loft that overlooks the open-plan main floor with soaring 20-foot ceilings and windows that bathe Grant’s home in ever-changing light. “Sometimes I feel like it’s a sundial in my living room,” she laughs. Grant wanted a “beachy look” to tie in with the nature and shoreline outside so chose wide-plank oak hardwood floors throughout. The wrap-around terrace has outdoor seating and a daybed that’s perfect for sleeping on very hot nights when cool breezes bring welcome relief off the sea.
Interiors are decorated simply with dramatic punches of red and black emanating from indigenous paintings such as Alano Edzerza’s Red Raven, which has pride of place over the fireplace. Her personal collection of intricately woven baskets and headwear, some of which Grant made herself, is displayed on a tall étagère. Throughout, sculptures, masks and blanket boxes incorporate traditional Haida symbols of ravens, salmon and eagles. And, of course, there are the hands, the motif Grant has adopted as her logo.
“The Haida are in harmony with nature and we believe the hands are connected to the mind and heart,” she explains. “The palms have human faces that represent creativity and healing which the artist communicates by working with the hands. They reflect the creative spirit within.”
The kitchen was recently gutted and re-designed with IKEA cabinets in soothing tones of grey and white. “I love the quartz countertops and backsplash I chose because the veins remind me of meandering streams,” she explains. “I’m a very organic person and love to cook, entertain and eat healthy foods.”
One of three bedrooms has been converted into Grant’s design studio on the main floor, a comfortable atelier where clients receive fittings. From a rolling rack hang her classic-contemporary designs in cashmere, wool, cotton jacquard and silk, adorned with mythological Haida motifs. They are wearable art without looking like costumes.
“In Alaska, where I was born, girls took home economics and I was completely enthralled with the sewing machine,” relates Grant. As a 13-year-old, she made clothes for her younger sisters. Later, after Grant was married, her Haida “grandmother” through marriage, the late Florence Edenshaw Davidson, taught her the ancient art of basket weaving with spruce roots. “She saw something in me that no one else saw,” Grant says. “She instilled in me a very strict discipline and work ethic and an indelible spirit that has been with me through 33 years of a very tough retail business and three recessions.”
As early as the 1980s, Grant realized she could create a unique niche business and at the same time reclaim her culture from being appropriated by non-indigenous artisans.
“I’ll never forget that famous 1991 Time magazine cover with model Naomi Campbell in the Totem Pole Dress designed by Isaac Mizrahi,” Grant relates. “It’s not that I was so angry, just disappointed. I thought, why not reach out to an indigenous artist for traditional designs and work with them to create the dress?”
Why not, indeed.
Today, Grant’s pieces are collected and exhibited internationally. They were featured at the grand opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., in 2004, and can be found in the permanent collections of the Canadian Museum of History, Seattle Art Museum, National Gallery of Canada, Museum of Anthropology at UBC and the Audain Art Museum in Whistler.
Most recently, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., acquired her exquisite white deerskin Haida Wedding Dress. “I’m so excited about that because the Wedding Dress came about in such a mystical way,” Grant says. “Many years ago, I had a vivid dream in which my mother, who was deceased, told me I must create a wedding dress for her as she never had one. I began work immediately and years went by. At a fashion show in New York this year at which the Wedding Dress was modeled on the runway, someone from the Smithsonian was in the audience and got in touch with me! I think it was more than a coincidence.”
In 2015, she received the Order of Canada and she is currently writing her memoirs for a coffee-table book. And she continues to design wearable art for a mix of professional people and celebrities. Her fans have included singer-songwriters Buffy St. Marie and Susan Aglukark and actors Tantoo Cardinal, Mary Louise Parker, Peter Coyote, Richard Thomas and the late Robin Williams. “Strong, empowered women and men who aren’t afraid to be different are my clients,” says Grant.
In 2016, one of her designs appeared on the red carpet the Academy Awards when she dressed actor Duane E. Howard, who portrayed Elk Dog in the Oscar-nominated The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. His fittings were done here at her sun-soaked, art-filled condo in Tsawwassen.
“I dressed Duane in my Eagle Raven shawl collar bespoke tuxedo. We accessorized it with a fine arrow-tipped pleated front tuxedo shirt and a silver carved raven pendant by Haida artist Alvin Adkins. I also made the Eagle silk hankie as a final touch,” Grant says. “At the third fitting in my studio, when I saw him all put together, I literally cried.”