The fact that Portland, Oregon, is one of the coolest and most creative cities in the US wasn’t news to us. However, we had no idea that the basement of a beautiful little house in the northern part of the city is home to one of the most exciting clothing brands around. Until, that is, we met up with Erik Brodt: M.D., fashion designer, member of the Ojibwe people, and all-round, thoughtful, cool dude.
Text and photo: Jonas Larsson
One half of the brand Ginew, Erik Brodt, meets me at the back of his house in a sleepy, suburban neighborhood in northern Portland, a world away from corporate offices and creative factory lofts. I didn’t have any idea what to expect from their office space when I made this appointment with the co-founder of the only fashion brand run by two members of America’s Indigenous population. However, it all turns out to be much better than I could ever have imagined.
“Did you eat breakfast yet?” Erik asks me. I lie, and tell him I haven’t–in part out of politeness, but also because of how exciting the food he’s prepared looks: white corn porridge with blackberries and hazelnuts. It’s a traditional breakfast from Amanda’s people, the Oneida. There’s no mistaking how important their heritage is to Erik and Amanda, who is the other half of the Ginew clothing brand.
“We use the term ‘American Indian’ when we refer to ourselves more generally, but there are so many different tribes, and they all have their own customs, languages, and religions and so on, so it doesn’t really make sense to group them all together and label them ‘American Indian’. When we’re talking about Ginew, we prefer to use ‘Ojibwe’ and ‘Oneida’, which are the names of our tribes,” Erik explains.
Over the next few hours, I’ll become almost comically aware of the abundance of prejudice and ignorance that exists in relation to Native Americans and their cultures. But the main purpose for my visit is to take a closer look at a denim brand that is quite a bit smarter and more multidimensional than any other I’ve come across.
The attitude that comes across in the interview and in the couple’s clothing collections is impressively thoughtful and contemporary. Ginew blends humility, pride, frustration, and a heavy dose of what defines many of Portland’s creative entrepreneurs: collectivism. The love of and belief in the principle that helping each other helps us all grow. Listen up world, they’re onto something!
When Erik and Amanda were getting married, Erik’s dad shot a buffalo for the wedding. His family has always been into leatherworking, so they decided to make belts from the buffalo hide as gifts for the best man and the singers on the drum–a most appreciated gesture. Erik decided to go apprentice for a belt maker in Texas to improve his craft. One day, when he was busy in the workshop, a man came in and saw what he was doing. He asked if it was buffalo hide.
“The man said, ‘I’ll give you 200 dollars for it!’ and I said, ‘Mmmh… OK!’” Erik says, and bursts into laughter. He could tell that there was the potential for some really good business here. So, Erik and Amanda spent a couple of years doing leatherwork, but the market ended up getting saturated when, suddenly, everybody else was doing it, too. The couple realized that they needed to find something else to do.
“One morning, when Amanda and I were in Marfa, Texas, I was sitting at El Cosmico, (a super-cool vintage trailer hotel and camp site that you simply have to check out if you’re ever in the area). I’d had far too much coffee to drink, and I was designing a jacket in my mind. I had been looking for a particular jacket for a long time, but nobody was making one just like I wanted it. It got me thinking about my grandfather, who made an enormous lifestyle change when he went from the traditional ways of fishing and hunting to become a settled farmer. It was a big step, and the government was really pressuring the Indigenous population to abandon their nomadic ways. I thought about that, and about my grandfather, and those days. And then, I designed the jacket based on these ideas. It was kind of a thought experiment.”
The couple made a few jackets for their friends, and posted pictures to Instagram, where they were discovered by the Japanese magazine Lightning and Clutch. Then, things began to move quickly. Suddenly, they were invited to the Clutch Collection Show in Tokyo-Yokohama. Erik went there, and before they knew it, they were a clothing brand. Erik and Amanda are both physicians, so now, their interest had suddenly become their second jobs.
Erik explains that Amanda is a surgical oncologist who specializes in gynecology, and a researcher at the Oregon Health & Science University, and that he is a family medicine physician. They both do a lot of work that involves visiting remote tribes that live far from the nearest hospital. He’s also the director of a center that educates Native American doctors who specialize in ailments that are prevalent among the Indigenous population. (Visit www.WEAREHEALERS.org and www.NNACoE.org to find out more.)
Each garment is based on a story or a member of our family. We try to include our own lives and our own history, and not borrow from other cultures. In Amanda’s tribe, Oneida, they sew the sacred creation story onto the hem and cuffs of their clothing.
Her goes on to explain that their clothes are manufactured in Seattle, Portland, and L.A. They like to keep their production as local as possible, but their top priority is quality:
“We use the best materials we can get our hands on, and the best manufacturers. Some of the materials come from us–for example, the hide we used for the collar on this jacket came from a deer that we shot ourselves,” he explains.
“We only make one collection each year, adding a garment or two every time, and we never remove anything from the line. Each garment is based on a story or a member of our family. We try to include our own lives and our own history, and not borrow from other cultures. In Amanda’s tribe, Oneida, they sew the sacred creation story onto the hem and cuffs of their clothing – this is something we have hidden in plain sight on our garments. A sacred symbol from Erik’s tribe, Ojibwe, is the Thunderbird which we have hidden and sewn into the clothes. It will appear over time as the clothes are worn,” Erik tells me. I think to myself that this reminds me a little of how Swedish snuff users get marks on their jeans from their snuff boxes.
When the couple visited the Fashion Week in Berlin, people told them things like, “You should be called Bows and Arrows or something like that, it would sound more ‘Indian’. What does Ginew mean, anyway?”
“My name is Erik, but the part of my name that comes from my tribe is Ginew, which means ‘Brown Eagle’ (an important animal in Ojibwe mythology). When I explained this, they said, ‘That’s a perfect name!’” Erik tells me, and laughs. He laughs a lot, especially when he’s telling me about the prejudice and misunderstandings so many people have when it comes to Native Americans and the North American tribal peoples.
Generally speaking, people know very little about the indigenous peoples of North America, and this ignorance has only been exacerbated by the stereotypes that most of us have been fed by popular culture. It’s easy to see why Erik is frustrated.
The couple ended up in Portland because of their medical work. They both received job offers, and they had to decide whether to move to Portland or Wisconsin. Since they had met a lot of nice people from Portland, who had given them a taste of the friendly, creative spirit of the city, is seemed like an easy choice. Soon after they moved here, they received an email from a friend who asked them what the competition was like there.
“Competition? We don’t have any competition; there’s no such thing here. We have friends who are in the same business. If one of us is strong, that makes us all strong. We try to help each other improve, and learn from one another, basically. By the way, have you met Mike, who runs Ship John? Somebody once asked me, ‘is Ship John a big competitor of yours?’ Not at all! Mike made the sheath for the little axe my grandfather gave me when I was four, and which means a great deal to me. That’s how it works–we help each other out!” Erik continues.
“We started out in the garage, but now we’ve moved to… the basement, ha ha! We’re careful to avoid taking on too many expenses while we’re still new to this. But now, it looks like we might outgrow the basement, too. It’s funny–sometimes people come here to shop, and they’re often surprised, ‘I thought it would be much bigger’. But we need to keep our expenses to a minimum, especially in the beginning.” I’m impressed by their creativity and industriousness, and I wonder how they find the time to do all this stuff.
“If you want something done, ask a very busy person, they know how to manage their time. Amanda is from a tribe that is extremely well-organized, so we’ve based our business practices on that tradition.”
Tradition and Modernity
Their goal for Ginew is to be a modern business without losing touch with their backgrounds, and they’re well on their way to achieving that. The fashion industry needs a company with this background and ambition. Their objectives aren’t financial so much as oriented around the vision they have for the company. Erik continues:
“How can we tell our story in a way that’s authentic? There are many people out there who borrow our history and try to make money off of it. We believe that anyone who tries to emulate our culture is going to fail as long as we’re there to show everyone what it really is. I believe that our customers will see the difference. To achieve that, we need more people who share our background to contribute, and start their own brands and raise awareness. The next phase for Ginew will be to spread the word about our culture and make it so that people like us are simply natural members of the fashion industry.”
“Our goals for this aren’t financial; what we want is to bring visibility to our culture, and get more people to realize that we’re still here–we’re still a part of this world, and we can contribute to it.”
“In Japan especially, a lot of people seem to think we’re Navajo–but there are actually 573 different tribes, each with their own faiths and cultures. I think conversations like the one we’re having right now are the best way to promote deeper understanding. You couldn’t have this conversation in any other house in Portland. Amanda and I are sharing our culture with you, and we’re able to engage in a meaningful discussion even though our homes are separated by a vast ocean–or maybe it would be better to say that the ocean connects them?” Erik asks me.
His restrained frustration and deep conviction that way forwards lies in dialogue are fascinating to me, and I feel like I’m talking to a philosopher, not a fashion designer.
Genuine and Fake Symbols
Erik interrupts my thoughts by showing me a jacket with an amazing embroidered motif on its back. I ask him if they do their own embroidery.
“For the embroidery, we work with a crew in Austin that call themselves Fort Lonesome. They’re really cool people, and they make fantastic art. Katie, the owner, made that one–it’s pretty cool, huh?”
As we go through Ginew’s entire clothing collection, I find myself wanting too much of it far too much. It all looks great, and it’s all really well-made–you simply can’t miss the quality and all the careful thought that’s gone into it. I go crazy over a long jacket, the Heritage Coat, which has lining woven by Pendleton. The jeans feel stiff, but you can tell they’re built to last. I settle on the jeans in the end. Erik suggests I have them hemmed, but I’m more of a turn up kind of guy, so I tell him the length will be fine.
The Thunderbird symbol, which is featured in the creation myths of certain tribes, is a common motif in American fashion and culture. Erik finds this to be both comical and a little sad.
“A lot of people are using the Thunderbird symbol without even having a clue what it really means, but it has an important role in my tribe. I like to give people who use it a friendly rib: I ask them, ‘Ah, you’re Ojibwe as well?’ In Marfa, there’s a great hotel called Thunderbird, which has the symbol in their logo. Every time we go there, we hang out in their bar, and I always ask them, ‘Which one of you is the Ojibwe?’” Erik laughs, and continues.
“We designed the patterns on our blankets and the linings on our jackets ourselves–it’s a free interpretation of the traditional stories of my own tribe and Amanda’s, and we collaborate with the wool manufacturer Pendleton, who make them for us. They’re simply the best supplier we could find, and they also happen to be an Oregon-based business.”
The Portland Mentality
“Now, I’m going to show you the coolest thing of all,” Erik suddenly exclaims, and walks across the basement floor. “I have this friend who manages the coffee shop where I go every morning. He makes surfboards. One morning, he told me, ‘Erik, I want to make a board for you that has your amazing pattern on it,’ and before I knew it, he came round to our place with this.” Erik produces a gorgeous surfboard that is decorated with the same pattern that’s on the blankets and jacket linings. I can tell Erik is happy and proud to own it. “I’ll move this over here, so you can get some good pictures,” he tells me.
It does look good–incredible even–but it’s also a typical, wonderful example of the cooperative spirit of Portland. As they often say here, it’s all about “Community, not competition.”
“A talented guy who says, ‘I love what you do’–and we love what he does, too! He’s a really cool dude, and he really embodies the attitude here: ‘Hey, I make surfboards, and I think a board with your pattern would look great–could you give me the file with the pattern?’ And then, he brings this over. All he would let me pay for was the material he used–that’s Portland for you!” Erik announces.
“I’ve been to fairs in Japan where they had a lot of stuff from Portland, but it’s not the products that make Portland what it is; it’s the people and the way we interact–our particular brand of collaboration and craftsmanship. If we lost that sense of community and ethos of helping each other out, we’d lose ourselves. That’s what we moved here for, and I love it!” he continues.
As I leave Ginew’s basement offices, my head is spinning. I’m fascinated to have met someone in the fashion industry who doesn’t just have a great sense for design and quality, but also this great, holistic perspective on what they do. Erik’s and Amanda’s garments feel more like a vessel for their message than a clothing brand. I’m sure they could have channeled their ideas into something else, but as I walk down the street carrying my new jeans in a bag, I’m happy they decided to get into fashion. I want so badly to put them on right away, but it’s almost 100 degrees out, and this is tightly woven denim that’s going to last forever, so I reluctantly think better of it. But I’m breaking them in now, and I’m excited to see the symbol that will appear over my back pocket once I’ve worn them for a while. And nope, I haven’t snuck a peek yet!