Born and raised in Wenatchee Valley, Mary Big Bull-Lewis is a creative entrepreneur who designs with a purpose—her creative business, Wenatchi Wear, features fashion and accessories with a ‘modern spin on Native American art.’
A percentage of Wenatchi Wear’s proceeds go towards Wenatchi Land Back, an organization started by Big Bull-Lewis to raise funds for building a community center in the area.
She told us about getting creative with her pop-up shop presence and how Wenatchi Wear made their pandemic pivot when pop-up shops fell through, why having an e-commerce website is so important, and why it’s important to say no and set boundaries when starting up a new business.
You launched your online shop in April of 2019 and your company did well during the pandemic. What was your secret?
When the pandemic began, I wasn't sure what the future was for Wenatchi Wear. We were focusing on attending local pop-up shops at Farmers Markets and community spaces to create a presence and get the word out about our new clothing line.
Like many, we all adapted to new ways. Local news stations reached out to interview us and help share our new venture. Our business was featured in NCW Magazine, and the episode also aired on local television. With many people who were primarily staying at home, the episode helped drive more traffic to our website.
When launching Wenatchi Wear, you used pop-up shops to promote your business. Will you explain what a pop-up is and how they help with a business launch?
Pop-up shops are typically at farmers markets, or community centers will host events that allow vendors and artisans to pay a fee to participate in the event. We load up our merchandise and haul it to the location, set up a canopy, table and our items to sell to customers. This is a great way, that typically doesn’t cost a lot, to meet new people/customers while creating brand recognition.
When the pop-up shop business model collapsed during the pandemic you shifted to online retail sales. Do you have any advice for making a website?
Being artists in the graphic design industry, my husband and I help start up small businesses with their branding. So, when we launched Wenatchi Wear we followed our own recommendations and were able to put our knowledge of marketing into action.
As with our first business, R Digital Design, we start with as little overhead as possible and grow from there. Creating an e-commerce website was very important for launching Wenatchi Wear. We knew we would be able to reach more potential customers through a visually appealing website.
Why is it important for creative businesses like yours to have a good website?
A website presence is crucial for any business in this digital age. Many consumers view a website presence important and professional, giving companies credibility.
Building the site was a learning curve. I set timelines and I worked relentlessly towards meeting those goals. Through social media marketing, we are able to drive customers across the United States to our site to shop from the comfort of their homes.
Why is learning how to say “no” important in business?
Something I am constantly reminding myself is that it is okay to say no. However, being entrepreneurs it is difficult to turn away work because we don’t want to disappoint our clients and we have to ensure we continue to bring in income. Recognizing that fine line between busy and being overworked is difficult. When we are running on empty, 15+ hour workdays, we are not giving our 100% selves to our projects, our families, and our home, which causes stress.
Rather than saying no, create boundaries and realistic timelines. Clients would rather know it will be several months rather than committing to a project with unforeseen delays. Our current society has many believing we have to cram as much into our days to measure success. We are not machines, but humans with emotions and desires. We need the ability to disconnect from work in order to recharge.
Some of the branding images you use for Wenatchi Wear could be considered “offensive.” Why do you think it's important to use branding images that could be considered controversial? And how do you distinguish which images are offensive and which images are appropriate to generate?
I would ask, who are they offensive to? If you ask me or my family or numerous Native Americans if they are offended by the Skookum image, they will tell you no. That’s whose opinion matters when referencing Native American imagery. Native American imagery, caricatures, and words have long been appropriated by non-natives. To me, that is offensive and disrespectful.
The Wenatchi Wear Skookum design was created to reclaim. We share important history about the image. Our design was handsketched by myself, making the image more feminine by giving her eyelashes, softening the lines and actual braids. The original image was created by non-natives who have continually failed to create a lasting relationship with Indigenous Peoples. That is where many sports teams, businesses and organizations fail.
So, I do not distinguish or censor our art process as we use art to create awareness and empower Indigneous Peoples.
Where do you find inspiration in your community?
I find inspiration in the stories of my ancestors who are the original stewards of these lands. To me, it is important to show up as my authentic self rather than a version that focuses on blending into a primarily white community. The geological features in our valley have rich histories and stories that have been shared amongst our relatives. It is important to me to share these stories and reference them as their original names rather than the settler given names.