Made in Manitobah

Made in Manitobah

It’s always nice to have celebrities endorse your product, but for Sean McCormick it’s his community that he cares about most

Sean McCormick doesn’t keep up with celebrity culture – he probably couldn’t tell you who Leonardo DiCaprio is dating, or the name of Blake Lively’s new baby. But he does know which A-listers wear his company’s products. “Megan Fox orders from us quite regularly,” says the entrepreneur behind Winnipeg-based footwear manufacturer Manitobah Mukluks. Beyoncé and Kate Moss are buyers, too.

His celebrity shoppers aren’t buying his mukluks – soft boots made from animal hide – because it’s the trendy thing to do. Rather, it’s McCormick’s story, his company’s branding and his high-quality wares that keep stars and regular folks coming back.

An aboriginal creation, mukluks have been around for centuries, and McCormick is a proud Métis who grew up in moccasins. He got his start running a trading post where he swapped tanned hides for handmade moccasins, which he then sold. When he couldn’t keep up with demand, McCormick went into business manufacturing his own shoes.

Today, Manitobah makes about 160,000 pairs of footwear per year and boasts 75 employees in Canada. Revenue is growing consistently, having jumped almost 300 per cent from 2008 to 2013, and landing the firm a spot on the PROFIT 500 list of Canada’s fastest-growing companies.

While McCormick didn’t invent mukluks, and he isn’t the only one making them today, his commitment to quality and authenticity is what makes his footwear stand out among the competition. “If you look at consumer feedback, we consistently rank at the top of the world as far as comfort, warmth and quality,” he says.

Part of its appeal is that the company works with local artisans to recreate thousand-year-old shoe and boot designs, but with modern shoe technology. The company partnered with Vibram, the world leader in high performance rubber soles, to design a foundation that could withstand the effects of urban environments. The company also hired an aboriginal artist to create a beautiful tread based on aboriginal symbolism.

Manitobah Mukluks could almost be mistaken for a social enterprise, but the private company isn’t one yet. However, it does support aboriginal people and culture in myriad ways, such as employing aboriginal staff, supporting aboriginal artists, teaching local kids to make mukluks and offering educational bursaries to aboriginal students.

Most importantly, though, the company is inspiring aboriginal entrepreneurs, says McCormick. “We’re kind of like rock stars in our community because we’ve taken something so tangibly aboriginal and created a global brand.”

Despite the impact that Manitobah Mukluks is having on the aboriginal community, McCormick dreams of taking things a step further. Some day, he says, he wants the company to be owned by the aboriginal community itself. “I want it to become an official social enterprise,” he explains. “Our community needs more economic opportunity, and I want us to be part of that solution. We already are now, but we can do more.”

- Kim Shiffman / Photograph by Thomas Fricke