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Say aaniin to the first Indigenous department store in Toronto

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Chelsee Pettit is the founder of aaniin, the first Indigenous department store in Toronto. – Photo supplied

By Kelly Anne Smith

TORONTO — Aaniin is hello in Ojibwe or Anishinaabemowin. aaniin.shop is also an Indigenous store online and officially on June 10, aaniin is the first Indigenous department store in Toronto.

aaniin’s founder, Chelsee Pettit, has been taking back design and now she has created the Indigenous department store in Stackt Market, North America’s largest shipping container market.

As a platform for Indigenous talent, aaniin helps artists to tell their stories and sell their wares. Some of the brands that will be featured include Cheekbone Beauty, Lesley Hampton, Luke Swinson, Ocean Kiana, and Running Fox Beads.

Chelsee Pettit of Aamjiwnaang First Nation explains aaniin’s concept as a traditional department store.

“Instead of the Hudson Bay Company selling Indigenous designs and apparel and beadwork, I’m trying to create our own department space.”

The entrepreneur is excited for new fashion designers in the Indigenous community.

“They are able now to sell their products, sell their designs, sell their collections whether it’s small-scale or large-scale production inside of a store,” Pettit explains. “We have a huge client base. Most people in business ask, ‘What’s your demographic?’ Its everyone. That’s who enjoys the clothing – Indigenous cousins and friends all across Canada, North America, to educators, to allies, people walking inside of the market liking the designs.”

Chelsee sees a huge response from all different types of demographics.

“I was trying to build a brand that allows people to come in and shop Indigenous designs and made products. It’s really nice to see that there is so many options for the average Canadian and Indigenous people.”

aaniin Retail Inc. has gone through an evolution.

“We started off as Indigenous streetwear in June ’21. The main mission was to create 365-day visibility for Indigenous languages, starting the conversation on Indigenous languages, and that we’re still here integrated into society and we’re a major pillar of the community.”

Growth from artists ready to be represented at aaniin has been steady.

“We just started with ten other Indigenous brands last May and over time throughout the last year, we’ve grown to over 30 Indigenous brands inside of our store front, alongside with our house brand of apparel.”

Chelsee created aaniins house apparel after becoming intrigued with syllabics – used in Canada to write Cree, Ojibwe, Inuktitut and sometimes Blackfoot languages.

“When I first came up with the concept I was basically walking down the street in downtown Toronto, I thought I saw someone wearing Indigenous syllabics on their clothing. I wanted to run up to them and ask them what it said and where they got their shirt. I wanted to support something like that. As I got closer I realized that it was just a triangle,” Pettit explains. “That’s really where I came up with the concept to just start a streetwear brand that uses the syllabics because they’re so much more distinct than written out anglicized versions of everything.”

Braided into Chelsee’s brand is that every conversation starts with aaniin.

“So many people will come into the store and they’re like, ‘I was wearing my hat the other day and somebody said hello to me. And somebody came up and asked about this design.’ It’s really great to see it put into practice.”

Being business savvy, Chelsee enjoys supporting bead artists.

“I work with local beadworkers in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area). I help them by taking one of their own styles and I’ll make some suggestions on what colours to use and if we should modify the design at all to fit a little more with a mass scale in terms of being able to sell the items. I’m there to help with curating and selling the pieces. This is a way that Indigenous bead workers are able to get into the store and make sales so that they can continue to grow and keep thriving with their passions.

Chelsee was front and center in Toronto’s Indigenous fashion scene April 27, calling the night “incredible”.

“We just did a collaboration with Lesley Hampton. We did a Fashion Art Toronto Runway Show where I helped curate 35 Indigenous models to walk the runway in Leslie’s garments and accessories. We had paired them — every single outfit — with beadwork that I carry in the store. The collaboration ended with a bomber jacket that has a syllabic translation of the word buoyant or he or she floats.”

At only 28 years old, Chelsee envisions a bright future.

“In the next few years, I see aaniin basically setting up a headquarters hopefully on the reserve in Aamjiwnaang. I really want to provide hands-on learning experiences through internship opportunities for other Indigenous youth, Pettit says. “After creating my own vision, the future possibilities are endless.”

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