Alice Bioff’s designs merge traditional and cultural Alaska Native values with modern materials. She said her approach comes from her background as an Inupiaq woman living in Nome.
“I was surrounded by women who sewed atikluks, qaspeqs. I was around that all my life,” Bioff said.
Naataq Gear — named after one of Bioff’s daughters — makes qaspeqs with a water-resistant hard-shell.
“Traditionally the qaspeq or atikluk is an overshirt that went over garments to protect them,” Bioff said. “Some of them were made out of seal gut to make them waterproof, made with traditional materials.”
Bioff said some of her inspiration stems from her foster mother.
“I haven’t told this part of it, but I was also in foster care growing up, and my foster mom was also an avid sewer. That was Agnes Pagel,” Bioff said. “She sells Atikluks here locally.”
Bioff’s garments include versions of the qaspeq that can be worn by both women and men. There is the Atmik jacket, the Siku jacket and now a brand-new product.
“This is the Anugi, which is a wind-breaker,” Bioff said. “We offer it in three colors. It also has the zipper pockets like the Siku and the Atmik jackets.
Despite recent growth, Naataq Gear is still operating out of Bioff’s home in Nome. Bioff said she was hoping to sell garments to visiting tourists, but COVID-19 forced her to look elsewhere.
“We were scheduled to go to a few events, fashion shows — Trend Alaska was planned,” Bioff said. “We were invited down to Southeast Alaska for another fashion show. Those were definitely canceled. That put a big dent into our sales, and we had to pivot. We had to focus on online sales and start really pushing marketing that way.”
In large part due to social media sites like Instagram and TikTok, Naataq Gear is now reaching thousands of customers all over Alaska and outside of the state. According to Bioff, around 98% of her sales are generated through social media.
Bioff said businesses that share Alaska Native culture through the merging of traditional products with modern methods — like her’s, the Trickster Company in Juneau and others — can attract both Native and non-Native people.
“I think that is great,” she said. “I think it’s opening up a whole new industry for our culture and to show and share who we are here in Northwest Alaska. If done right and done respectfully, I think that is important.”
She said she also hopes to get her garments into more physical shops in Alaska, and even scale up production in Nome.
“Having our products offered in, I hope, ANICA stores or AC stores, maybe even the cruise ships if that works out,” she said. “And there was also a hope to bring manufacturing back here. There was some discussion about that. You know, learning this whole industry and what it takes to produce something on a larger scale.”