Made with Indigenous-sourced wild fur, Vanessa Ægirsdóttir’s beautiful small batch jewellery will transform your outfit, but the textile and jewellery designer is focused on making a much larger positive impact.
Ægirsdóttir works out of Whitehorse alongside her husband, George Bahm who is Tlingit. Together, they created Wild Yukon Furs to support local trappers who are Indigenous or supporting an Indigenous community. Their goal is that working directly with Wild Yukon Furs would mean that trappers no longer need to send their furs to auction, creating opportunity and fostering economic sustainability within the community.
Since 2018, Ægirsdóttir’s business has scaled up rapidly, moving from a 65 square foot store to a larger flagship location in Horwoods Mall. The pair also now operate a retail space south of the border in Skagway, Alaska. On a mission to weave together creativity and community to fashion lasting change, Ægirsdóttir shares her journey to becoming a Yukon maker, how she and Bahm work together, and why raising awareness about wild fur is at the heart of her work.
How did you become a maker?
I've always been a maker. When I was six or seven years old, I was in Brownies, and I wanted to weave something. I just tangled together a bunch of yarn and earned myself a weaver badge. My mum was my earliest teacher and mentor. She was very young when she had me, and did not come from means so she was extremely resourceful. She would go to the Goodwill and buy clothes there, and then take the fabric and turn it into new clothes and dolls and blankets. I got to see my mom be super resourceful with those repurposed materials. And that was my early example of how to generate revenue from made goods. That was magic.
I've kind of gone from textiles into portrait photography, because my kids were small and scrapbooking was cute, and now I’m back to textiles again. Every day I use all the skills I have acquired for what I'm doing today. The knowledge is all accumulated and has led me exactly to where I am right now. It’s been an incredibly circuitous journey.
What do you make?
The signature line that we're best known for is the V.Ægirsdóttir fur jewellery collection. The very best-sellers are the Wolverine Giant Hoops. The hardware measures 2” wide, but the earrings can be upwards of 6" depending on the fur used. These are what we use in most of our marketing because they are so compelling and dramatic. The design makes people very curious. We've always done a silver hoop, and I've just introduced gold and gunmetal hoops, and everyone's losing their minds.
The line was born while I was doing an artist residency in Nunavut, during the Great Northern Arts Festival. I was working in textiles and jewellery, and had made pieces with Icelandic fish leather that I'd brought home after a three month stay on the island. In the very wee hours, with the sun still very much up in July in Nunavut, I was deep down a Pinterest rabbit hole of researching ideas and getting inspiration when it occurred to me that sewing with hairless hide — the fish leather — was really no different than sewing with hair on hide. My husband, who at the time was my boyfriend, is a trapper in the Yukon and I texted him to see if he had any furs left in his collection. He did, so I asked if I could buy everything he had. Of course, he very much said yes. I started experimenting, and immediately began doing pop-up shops to test the viability of this product concept. It was an instant success.
What makes your fur jewellery unique and how does the Yukon inspire you?
We're working exclusively with Indigenous trappers, and this is a three-pronged definition for us. When we're buying our furs it’s either from someone who, they themselves, or the trapper, is Indigenous, they are somebody assisting on an Indigenous held trap line, or somebody who comes from a family that has some Indigenous folks that are going to inform how they trap.
We use a spring-style trap or a neck snare, both of which are quick kill. We don't use leghold traps, like the jaws-style from Bugs Bunny cartoons, and we personally choose not to use restraining traps in areas where we are permitted to do so. For us, using the quick kill traps that we are required by law to use, in addition to partnering with Indigenous trappers, means that not only are we abiding by the Canadian guidelines for humane trapping, but we're also adding on extra layers of responsibility, ceremony, mindfulness and sustainability.
It’s a total shift in perspective from taking and killing animals to setting a trap and receiving whatever we do, or do not, receive. I go out with my husband on the trap line, if we come into an empty trap site, we can still observe the tracks of who came through, and whether or not they took the bait or what other tracks are around. We can still interact with the environment that we're in. And maybe that's all we're supposed to receive from that particular trap site. It's about being out on the land where my husband's grandparents stood. Driving out at 11 o'clock on a Friday night to where it's pitch black, and you can see the Milky Way easily. There's so much more out there than just collecting the fur.
How do you and your husband work together as makers?
The line that George traps on now was part of the original holdings of that ancestor, it's gone through several generations. His mom was born out there and she grew up trapping. She's almost 90 years old and was a prolific trapper. In day-to-day operations, my husband is a cultural influencer and advisor for me in how I do business, helping me decolonize my own thinking and behavior in life. His day job is with the Yukon government in the Department of Education. He's the First Nation's experiential consultant for the entire territory, working with hundreds of teachers on ensuring that they're integrating Indigenous ways of knowing, doing and being in all classes and grade levels. And he's working with those teachers to go to their local, Indigenous elders and communities, for guidance that's placed-based.
Watching, listening and learning from him, has helped inform how I do my artwork, whether it's with the fur or with textiles. I'm working in a way that is reflective of where I do the making. I'm bringing components from outside. We don't have manufacturers, but I try to make as much of the work as placed-based as possible. That's what makes it so unique, too.
Being a white Canadian and descended from settlers, anytime I'm asked to speak about our products, I always make sure that my husband can come with me, because it's not my place to speak about someone else's culture. Plus, he’s such a dynamic speaker. Give him a microphone, and you're going to have everybody laughing and crying before the end of it. There are tears in our store every damn day. This man has a gift for storytelling and it's a privilege to share airtime with him anywhere.
How do you cultivate community?
From the very beginning, the one thing I've noticed is that the people who come into the store and are purchasing (especially the fur goods), they're not customers, they're collectors. They have already created that sense of community themselves. It happened organically, and I had to do very little. The folks within the local community here are our biggest supporters. They see the fur out living its best life on people's ears. Then they come into the shop and tell me, “Oh my God, my friend had them and I had to get a pair.” This happens all the time. It's a unique looking item and once people understand why it exists, they just can't help themselves.
How do you connect with non-fur consumers?
The main reason that I started selling jewellery that was not made with fur was for the people who wanted to support us but weren't quite ready. When you wear fur, you are telling everybody you are pro-fur, and they're going to ask you about it. Not everybody wants that. As an introvert, I understand not wanting to carry the banner. That's completely fine. The non-fur merchandise gives those people something else to buy so that they can still support us in doing the work we’re trying to do.
What do you consider special about being a Yukon maker?
There’s connection with individuals — the chance to build relationships with one person at a time, as well as with those people within the context of their circles and their communities. To become part of the fabric of those people's lives and where they live, I think that's what's special. Any maker who's super invested in what they're doing is going to say the same sort of thing. What makes it inherently unique is where we are and who we are.
How do you hope to serve the community through your business?
One of our biggest goals with our Wild Yukon Furs brand is to be able to purchase all of the furs that are harvested by Indigenous trappers in the Yukon to replace the need for those trappers to send it out to the auction. Trapping is not profitable and it should be. It's the primary producer that gets the least amount of the share of the final sale. Most people have to fly out and spend two to three months on their trap line to be able to harvest enough to warrant having gone out there in the first place. This country was built on the exploitation of Indigenous people through the fur trade and that has to stop. It's something that I can do through what I make.
What’s been the most surprising part of your maker journey?
I knew there was going to be a responsibility to pass on the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys’ of what we do, but I didn't realize that so much of my time was going to be spent educating people. One of our biggest business successes has been the fact that both George and I, in our two separate stores, have sold fur jewellery to vegans. That’s because we've had the opportunity to share the story of why this fur is different. I like to describe myself as being ‘anti anti-fur’, because the anti-fur movement paints the fur industry in very broad strokes. It's rooted in individualism, which is not how Mother Nature operates. But individualism is at the root of capitalism, and I understand that that is how our society operates. I have a lot of compassion for people who hold those views. I'm just hopeful that they will afford me, or anyone else working in the wild fur industry, the opportunity to speak about why this is different and necessary. Humans are the blight on the face of the earth because we are taking up increasingly more space and taking away animal habitat. We have a responsibility to manage those animal populations, and the choice to shift our thinking from a ‘taking’ point of view to a’ receiving’ point of view. I love having opportunities to speak about why we do it, how do we do it, and what makes us want to be part of that whole process. I don't have any delusions of being able to turn everyone, but if I can shift their thinking a little and give them something more to consider? That, to me, is a huge win.