Around the turn of the millennium, the Haida clothes designer Dorothy Grant had a shop in the Sinclair Center in downtown Vancouver. When she moved, we lost track of her. But I noticed her at a lecture a few days ago at the Bill Reid Gallery, where she was flashing a pair of earring by Gwaai Edenshaw, and yesterday we made a point of dropping by her new store and studio just off Broadway and Main.
Grant’s downtown store felt like a small clothing boutique, differing from countless of others only in her designs and impeccable tailoring. Her new location feels more like a work space; you go down a hall into a retail space, but the activity seems to be taking place either in the studio and meeting place up the stairs or the work area on the other side of it. The entire area is dedicated with art from Grant’s personal collection: A mask by Beau Dick, a print by Robert Davidson, a glass box by Alano Edzerza, and some recent glass plaques by Grant herself (which leaves no doubt that she could have become a gallery artist rather than an applied artist, had she chosen).
The location is open to the public, but you have to ring for entry, perhaps a reflection of the fact that the space is in the middle of an industrial area that, while not seedy, has probably seen better days.
Or perhaps the locked door reflects that this is more a work space than a retail outlet. It certainly seemed so during our visit, with Grant planning with a couple of other people (for a photo shoot, I think), and only stopping briefly to greet us in the friendly and energetic way that, from the little that I’ve seen, appears to be her most common public persona.
Whether you are female or male, you could easily drop a few thousand dollars going through Grants’ racks. But that few thousand would be exceptionally well-spent, especially compared to what you would get elsewhere for the same price in terms of cut and sturdiness of material, let alone the designs. And if you can’t afford that sort of money, you can still find blouses, shirts and jackets for a few hundred dollars, some of which will be heavily discounted if you arrive at the right time of year.
Even as an old-married, I can’t really speak to Grant’s line for women, although nine years ago I bought several blouses and vests as presents. But, from a male perspective, Grant’s line is a relief from mediocrity. Most men’s clothing is drab and unimaginative, and the most you can hope from more upscale offerings is better tailoring. But Northwest Coast designs are one of the few options for men who want a bit of flamboyance without being inappropriately dressed or having to fend off taunts about their sexuality (the sort that are supposed to be jokes but aren’t, if you know what I mean). And Grant’s simple, but bold designs are works of art in themselves that lend an elegance that nobody would dare to question.
Personally, I have arranged my life so that I only need a suit – much less a tuxedo – only for marriages and funeral. However, if I ever did, Grant’s versions of either, with designs on the lapels on one side would reconcile me to the uncomfortable garments. I might still feel uncomfortable wearing them, but at least I would know that I was artistically and well-dressed, and perhaps signaling to the world that I was indvidualistic, if not outright eccentric.
My life being as it is, I will settle for buying two or three buttoned shirts or polo shirts from the store – and I don’t especially like polo shirts.
I did succumb to a light black jacket with an eagle design on the back and a raven wing design on the left arm. Julie, the store manager insisted that I could carry off the look, and a survey of my image in the mirror suggested she was right. A look at the price tag reinforced her view, so I left with a different jacket than the one that was on me when I came in.
“That will bring all the ladies to you,” she said as we were leaving. I started to mutter about how little good that would be for me as a married man when an old customer arrived wearing a similar jacket.
She turned to him for reinforcement of her claim. He agreed, and called after me, “Better stay away from my part of town, man!”
I’ve looked in a mirror. Given the human material that the jacket has to work with, I remain dubious of Julie’s claims. All the same, I’m sure that I’ll return to Dorothy Grants’ the next time that I want well-made clothes with a bit of flare. When we have so much Northwest Coast art on our walls, why shouldn’t I be wearing some as well?