Alice Bioff’s designs merge traditional and cultural Alaska Native values with modern materials. She says 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 says some of her inspiration came 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.”
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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 says. “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, located in one of the more remote cities in Alaska. Bioff was hoping to target visiting tourists for her clientele, 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.
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The internet’s importance to Naataq Gear’s model cannot be overstated. Bioff says businesses that share Alaska Native culture through the merging of traditional products with modern methods — like the Trickster Company in Juneau, Naataq Gear and others — can attract both Native and non-Native people.
“I think that is great. 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,” stated Bioff.
But she 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. And there was also a hope to bring manufacturing back here [to the region.] There was some discussion about that. You know, learning this whole industry and what it takes to produce something on a larger scale,” Bioff said.