Kookum’s got talent: Fashions designed by matriarch of famed Manitoba jigging family showcased on the runway

Winnipeg designer Dawn Harris-Flett gets her creative inspiration with every dance step her grandchildren take — and last week, some of her creations were featured on the runway at an event in the city.

She is not only the kookum, or grandmother, of the Ivan Flett Memorial Dancers — the sibling dance group from Winnipeg who blew the country away with their Métis jigging/hip-hop audition last year on the TV reality show Canada’s Got Talent — but also the person who designs their eye-catching dance outfits.

“When I see all the dancers come out, I see them all coming out dancing in my outfits. It just makes me proud,” she said.

“I love the rush. I love the excitement I see on everyone’s face.”

She says the family tradition of jigging started over two decades ago with her daughter Ashley. Eventually, Ashley got her parents — Harris-Flett and her husband, Ivan Flett — dancing too.

Harris-Flett then passed on the steps she knew to her grandchildren, including the Harris siblings — Mikey, Jacob and Cienna — who are now the core members of the Ivan Flett Memorial Dancers.

“I wanted a different style for them,” she said. “So I started designing their own outfits.” 

All of Dawn Harris-Flett's twelve models do thier final view on stage with the fashion designer
Harris-Flett’s family helped showcase her work at the RBC Reaction by Collision event at RRC Polytech on April 19, an event highlighting the work of Indigenous entrepreneurs in the food, fashion and music industries. (Desmond Travers)

Harris-Flett, who is from Ebb and Flow First Nation in western Manitoba, says people started seeing her outfits when the Ivan Flett Memorial Dancers would perform. That’s when the calls started coming in for custom design orders.

Last week, her family hit the runway to showcase her collection at RBC Reaction by Collision, an event held by the school of Indigenous education at Red River College Polytechnic to highlight the work of Indigenous entrepreneurs in the food, fashion and music industries.

As her family stood on stage after modelling her collection, Harris-Flett called her talent a gift — one her late husband was always supportive of.   

After Ivan Flett died in 2012, the family stopped doing anything dance-related for a while, she said.

“We just took a break for a while and then the kids told me, ‘Well, Grandma, you gotta keep doing, keep going, keep designing,” she said.

“And then I told them, ‘Well you guys gotta keep dancing too then, you know, in honour of him.'”

Dawn Harris-Flett and her late husband Ivan Flett look into the camera happily while out at an event.
Harris-Flett with her husband, Ivan Flett. After his death, Harris-Flett says her grandchildren told her, ‘Grandma, you gotta keep doing, keep going, keep designing.’ (submitted by Dawn Harris-Flett)

That’s when they created the Ivan Flett Memorial Dancers. 

“I know he’d be very proud of me today,” said Harris-Flett.

Bringing sparkle, bling to Métis fashion

Typical Métis fashion covers the whole body and features the Métis infinity symbol, Harris-Flett said, but her designs are known for their sparkle and bling.

“I changed it up,” she said.

A composite of 12 photos shows brightly coloured skirts, shirts and dresses featuring Metis-fashion-inspired designs.
Some of Harris-Flett’s work. (Submitted by Dawn Harris-Flett)

She gets that bling effect by using metallic fabrics, appliques and fringes, she said.

She makes not only dance outfits, but any kind of custom orders. 

“I make square dance outfits, ribbon shirts, ribbon skirts, jingle dresses, powwow regalias, fancy shawls. I’ve done bridesmaids’ gowns, the vests for all the guys,” she said.

Ashley Campbell, the daughter of Harris-Flett who first got the family into dance, was part of last week’s fashion show along with her husband, Clint Campbell.

She modelled one of her mother’s newest designs at the show.

“You can always tell which outfits are my mom’s,” said Campbell.

Clint and Ashley Campbell stand at the end of the run way each looking the opposite way while modelling Dawn Harris-Flett's Metis Outfits at the RBC’s Reaction by Collision event hosted by Red River College’s Polytech Indigenous Education center on April 19, 2023.
Harris-Flett’s daughter Ashley Campbell and Ashley’s huband, Clint Campbell, model Harris-Flett’s Métis outfits at the Reaction by Collision event last Wednesday. ‘She’s like the go-to person whenever a [dance] team wants an outfit,’ says Ashley. (Janell Henry/CBC)

Her mother has been making outfits for her since she was a little girl, she said. Since her mom is a dancer herself, she understands that dancers need outfits that are comfortable to move around in. 

“She’s like the go-to person whenever a team wants an outfit — they run to my mom right away,” said Campbell.

She said she dances because it helps keep her culture alive, but she also loves the dance life because it brings her family together.

“We’re always at each other’s event, always supporting, whether we’re dancing together or just being supportive of each other.”

Dawn Harris-Flett stands in front of seven finished ribbon shirts at her workplace, Turtle Woman Indigenous wear
Harris-Flett stands in front of finished ribbon shirts at her workplace, Turtle Woman Indigenous Wear. (Submitted by Dawn Harris-Flett)

Harris-Flett said she gets the vision for her designs while she watches her family dance. When that vision comes, she makes notes right away, she said.

“I told them as long as they keep dancing, I’ll keep making their outfits,” she said.

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