Wenatchi Wear LLC, is a new clothing company whose designs focus on sharing the history of both the Wenatchi Tribe and the geological area surrounding the city of Wenatchee.
Clothing designer Mary Big Bull-Lewis and her husband Rob co-own the newly created company, which officially launched in April. Big Bull-Lewis says Wenatchi Wear is a sister company to the couple's first business, R Digital Design, which was started in 2013 and is located at 3024 Gs Center Rd in Wenatchee. Wenatchi Wear shares space with R Digital Design at that same location.
The 39-year-old Big Bull-Lewis was born and raised in Wenatchee and has lived there most of her life. She is a member of the Colville Tribe with connections to the Wenatchi, Moses and Entiat bands and the Blackfoot Tribe of Alberta, Canada. She and her husband have one son, 16-year-old Riley.
Tribune: When did you start the business and what was the process like?
MBBL: I started planning in 2018, just focusing on the name and what I wanted the business to represent. It was important to me to share the history of this area, particularly Native history. Starting the business wasn't all that difficult because we already had a lot of the computers and design software we needed, as well as my husband's background as a graphic designer. Our biggest costs so far have been advertising, creating a website, and the time we put in. We use local wholesale print providers to produce our products, which keeps costs low and also supports area businesses.
Tribune: How long have you wanted to start a business like this...where did the idea come from?
MBBL: I'd wanted to start a business like this for several years. My husband and I love to hike in this area, and it was while we were hiking one day that the idea for Wenatchi Wear hatched. It's been several years in the making, but my goal was to create a unique company that would represent the area.
Growing up I'd noticed there was such a lack of Native history taught, so part of it was my desire to tell the stories of the local indigenous people through art. Each design has a definite purpose or story to tell,so that's our motto...“Design with a purpose”.
Tribune: Did you study business or clothing design in school?
MBBL: I graduated from Wenatchee High School in 1998, and attended Wenatchee Valley College and completed some prerequisites for a business degree. I went back to school when I turned 30 for the medical assistant program, and graduated in 2011. After that I worked for Confluence Health for several years. My husband has a computer animation degree from the Art Institute of Phoenix, and we had worked together at another graphic design firm before starting our digital design business. During that time I learned a lot about graphic design, and took some online courses. I still try to keep up on strategies and research when I can.
Tribune: Did you have anyone who inspired you or helped along the way?
MBBL: My grandmother was a big influence on me growing up. She passed away several years ago, but she was the one who taught me I could do anything I put my mind to. Both my husband and I also have really great family support. They always believe in us and are always excited for our next big thing.
Tribune: How do you go about creating the products you make, and where can they be purchased?
MBBL: We make designs for t-shirts, tank tops, hoodies, hats, vinyl stickers, and mugs. I try to make sure we have new designs and products throughout the year. We primarily sell online through our website, but we also attend pop up events and farmers markets each month.
I start by hand-sketching all of the designs, and those images are then made into graphics for whatever type of printing process is being produced; either silk screen, or digital. Having an “in house” graphic designer (Rob) is also a huge benefit, because we're able to produce our designs on various products.
Tribune: How well is the business doing so far?
MBBL: We've had lots of great feedback, both from people here locally and others from out of state who've purchased online. We're really working hard to get the word out, because not a lot of people have heard of us or our mission yet.
Tribune: What are your future plans for the business?
MBBL: I'm working on a few new designs that we'll be releasing soon. I like to keep things fresh. We're also looking to develop more whole sale relationships with local stores. Recently we were approached by a pet shop and are considering launching a pet brand that would have our designs on it, which would be fun! But our biggest future goal is saving enough capital to purchase a direct to garment printer. We're hoping that will be possible sometime next year. If everything goes well, a couple years from now we might be able to consider moving Wenatchi Wear to its own dedicated space at another location.
Tribune: What are some examples of the designs you've created that include local and Native history?
MBBL: It was important to me to make designs that give people an understanding of Native history and the background of this area in particular. One of the designs I made depicts a local hiking hill known as Saddle Rock. It's an important location that's associated with the tribe. In our stories, the two pillars of the rock formation represent the two bears who were turned to stone by Coyote because they wouldn't stop arguing.
One other popular designs shows what's called a skookum doll, which a lot of people don't know the history of. The skookum dolls are dolls that look like Native Americans, but were actually created by a non-Native woman in the 1900's. Her dolls also inspired the use of the name by a local fruit packaging company here. The word skookum is actually Chinook jargon that has a few different meanings.
However, many people who don't know about those connections mistakenly think it's a jab at Native culture, so it's nice to be able to explain the history to them.
Tribune: What would you say to young people with dreams of starting their own business or creative venture?
MBBL: I'd tell them to be true to themselves, follow their dreams, and work on educating others to create positive change. There's a lot we can do to educate those around us who don't know our history or culture. I'd also say entrepreneurship is hard, but it can be rewarding. Hard work, determination, and a good plan go a long way. There are many programs offered to help you get started, and many of them partner with tribes to help entrepreneurs take the first steps. I'd say don't be afraid to try new things, stay positive and keep pushing through the hard days.