Being Unorthodox in the Yukon

Unorthodox Yukon is one of the Yukon’s most-colourful spaces—partly because it’s decorated with cheerful, bright paper flowers made by Tara Kolla, and partly because it’s home to some of the most-beautiful Indigenous beadwork pieces in town. The store’s owner, Douma Alwarid, is funny, open and animated. During my conversation with her, she punctuates the conversation with an emphases on certain words (crazy, love), an occasional Texas accent, and more than a few f-bombs.

Colourful Unorthodox Yukon
P3 – Unorthodox Yukon, decorated with Tara Kolla (of The Wishfactory) flowers

Unorthodox Yukon opened as a small, narrow shop in Horwood’s Mall in June 2019. Alwarid’s intention was to have a northern-themed business with products from Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and northern BC. She especially wanted to work with the “Yukon Built brothers,” whose product she had featured in a previous business and it “sold like crazy.” The first months of the store were a huge success.

“It was gangbusters from the get-go,” Alwarid said.

Along with the Yukon Built apparel, Unorthodox Yukon offered Klondike Kettle Corn, local ceramics and decorative tiles. Alwarid also had one case with Indigenous designer Kaylyn Baker’s beadwork.

“The response [to Baker’s work] was so insane, right off the hop, that I quickly realized that there was a little niche there—there was a need for this type of store in Whitehorse.”

So, just seven months after Unorthodox Yukon opened, it expanded. Alwarid pushed out a wall, and now the entire back of the store is devoted to Indigenous work. But while the store’s first year was promising, Alwarid also experienced a devastating personal loss, followed by the upheaval of the pandemic.

“My dad [Shakir Alwarid] had passed in early November (we had opened in June); we expanded the store in early December, for the Christmas rush; COVID hit in March, right after I had spent most of December’s profits on restock for what I had expected to be a busy tourism year,” Alwarid said. “I was convinced I had bankrupted myself.”

Fortunately, Shelley MacDonald (a jewelry designer whose work Alwarid carries in the store) “hooked me up with her awesome cousin” who built a “basic but wicked website” for the business.

“That literally got me through five or six months of crazy COVID.”

She had 1,200 online orders in one year, all out-of-territory orders from customers across Canada and the United States. She had a particularly avid buyer in Luxembourg.

Part of her success was due to the website; the other was the product and the burgeoning popularity of Indigenous designers and their work.

“This is design, this is art, this is fashion. We’re on the cusp, in Yukon, of a creative explosion with these artists; and can you just imagine if we could feed them the funds that they could do nothing but focus on this day in, day out? The artwork … my god. I’m already blown away by it.”

Lots of other folks are blown away by it, as well. I often see Alwarid’s customers posting their new earrings on Instagram and wearing them during online meetings.

“And this jewelry … my god,” Alawrid said. “I have ladies, some of my regular customers, wear their jewelry mountain biking … and I know the person, if you print this, she’ll know who I’m talking about.”

One of the biggest inspirations for Alwarid continues to be her late father, Shakir Alwarid, who was a senior official in Yukon government, for many years, and who also worked with First Nations in the Yukon, Alberta and British Columbia.

“Being of Arab descent, he was subjected to racist comments and attacks throughout his adult life,” Alwarid said. “But he never let it phase him, his drive, or passion for helping. He was also one of the most-giving and loving people, in addition to being one of the most intelligent. He always defended the underdog. I am constantly striving to be more like him in my life.”

One of the ways Alwarid emulates her father is through her generosity. She’s donated significant amounts to community organizations such as CAIRS.

Alwarid is a visionary with big plans for developing the business website, to promote the designers and their work. And now that the pandemic seems to be subsiding, she may see the true potential of her business.

“I’d love to see my shop and website eventually in the hands of an Indigenous organization or group,” she said. “We’ve done so much with so little, already … The possibilities are endless in the right hands!”

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