Calgarian's feather accessories to grace aboriginal fashion show
With high heels, a winning smile and six-inch-long feather earrings dangling from her lobes, Melanie Parsons has taken the Calgary fashion scene by storm with her feather accessory business, Savage Rose Designs.
After starting her business in 2010, Parsons has seen her fair share of upheaval, hardships and frustration — which she aptly calls "the feather wars" — while trying to brand herself and her business.
But despite the difficulties, she says she's always found a way to give back to her community while staying true to her aboriginal roots.
Parsons was born in Calgary to a Cree mother and an English father. Her mother made sure she honoured her culture and her people while she grew up.
"[My mother] said she wanted us to know where we came from, and to be in tune with the racism and issues aboriginal people face," Parsons says. "But she wanted us to be open to the beautiful side of our people and what we have to offer."
These principles were transferred from her mother to Savage Rose Designs with its reputation for both high-fashion accessories and aboriginal awareness.
Parsons, along with other up-and-coming designers and aboriginal models, is contributing to Mount Royal University's Native Awareness Month fashion show on March 27.
She says she feels the image of the aboriginal in Calgary needs to be updated, and the fashion show is a perfect way to showcase the beauty and power that her people have.
Alongside Parsons, Cory Cardinal, co-ordinator for the Native Student Centre at Mount Royal University, says people need too look beyond the Calgary Stampede's Indian Village when thinking about aboriginals.
"What we're trying to do is change that stereotype," Cardinal says. "We have contemporary fashion, music, art, and we've evolved as society has evolved. We're not stuck in the 1880s."
Fashion, Parsons says, is a great way to bring awareness to issues that have been swept under the rug for decades.
For instance, Parsons has held modelling contests that raised awareness for violence against aboriginal women and promoted the beauty of the community.
"Most people aren't getting into [aboriginal fashion] because of the politics or education behind it," Parsons says. "They're inspired by the patterns, shapes and use of materials. At least there's attention."
Parsons pioneered Savage Rose by selling earrings handmade with feathers procured from Michaels Arts and Crafts and a pair of oversized pliers from her brother's toolbox. Since then, she's moved on to using horse hair, shells, leathers and animal hides to compliment her rooster and pheasant feathers.
Before the birth of Savage Rose, Parsons received her public relations degree from Mount Royal University and lived in Australia for a year. After her travels, she settled down and took waitressing jobs to pay the bills.
Her goal was to actually acquire a "big communications job," at one of the oil and gas companies in downtown Calgary, but Parsons never made it to the downtown core. Instead, she created Savage Rose Designs on Facebook, and soon it became a forerunner for aboriginal fashion and awareness.
"I came home from a bad day serving pancakes and having somebody making me feel like crap about myself," Parsons says. "That's when I saw my bother's toolbox with a golden light shining out of it. I decided to go for it."
At $10-$15 per pair of earrings, Parsons was selling out her collections — 35-50 pairs — on Facebook in 10 minutes or less. But after months of success in autumn 2010, Parsons hit a wall on Facebook that would halt her sales on the social networking site.
There were legal issues surrounding the use of Facebook to sell her product, and out of fear that her page would be shut down for good, Parsons volunteered to remove her sales from the social networking site.
"I didn't know the licensing you need and the eight million clauses that Facebook has, so I started to get wigged out," Parsons says.
"[My mother] said she wanted us to know where we came from, and to be in tune with the racism and issues aboriginal people face, but she wanted us to be open to the beautiful side of our people and what we have to offer."
- Melanie Parsons
After taking a long look at her business model and the future she wanted for her company, Parsons decided to take her business off Facebook. She began selling her accessories in-store at White Eagle Native Crafts in the Tsuu T'ina Nation, and makes custom orders from client requests.
In 2011, Parsons received nationwide media attention when she became a contestant for The Dreamcatcher Charitable Foundation's the "Big Idea," a contest for young entrepreneurs.
Parsons says she enjoys the legitimacy that comes with having a business licence, a bookkeeper and "paying taxes like a big girl."
Margo Sitting Eagle, a long-time customer of Parsons and this year's winner of Savage Rose's most recent modelling contest, says she owns over 60 pairs of Savage Rose earrings.
"When I compare what she was [creating in 2010] and what she's making now, I think she's a visionary," Sitting Eagle says.
Facebook is still a pillar to Parson's business model, but now she uses her page to promote herself and her many charitable endeavours.
Because of her success in Calgary and in the aboriginal community, Parsons has been asked to speak at conferences like the 2011 Native Ambassador Post-Secondary Initiative Parent and Youth Conference — an initiative providing information on post-secondary options to aboriginal students.
"It's gone beyond that first collection and Facebook sales: the almost-shutting down of my page, to selling in stores, to being invited to speak by the United Way and the University of Calgary," Parsons says.
CORRECTIONS: The "Big Idea" contest was an initiative presented by The Dreamcatcher Charitable Foundation, not the CBC as originally said. Melanie Parsons did not sell accessories online on Etsy.com as originally said. We apologize for the errors.
- By JODI EGAN