Jennifer and Kerry Shears with their daughter, Aspen, outside Natural Boutique, one of several business ventures that's allowed the family to stay in their home province.
Jennifer Shears remembers the looks she'd get back in 2009. "I could be walking down Water Street, or in the mall, or anywhere and people wouldn't even know if I had no head! Because they were staring at my feet," she laughs. "They really drew attention." Her footwear was made from sealskin.
“People knew they loved the look of it, but nobody knew what it was,” she remembers. “Now they ask ‘Where can you get it?’ ‘Where did you get those?’…It’s a really big change.”
In the last few years seal products have become fashionable, recognizable and very desirable. These days, anytime you’re out and about in Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s hard not to notice how many people are wearing sealskin boots, hats, handbags, coats, gloves - it’s everywhere. Though Jennifer and her husband Kerry, co-owners of Natural Boutique, see it another way: “We look at it and we see all the people who don’t have seal boots!” Kerry says.
Natural Boutique, a retail business that specializes in quality sealskin clothing and accessories, started small. The Shearses premiered their products at Christmas at the Glacier, an annual craft expo in Mount Pearl, in 2009. It was so popular, the couple opened a kiosk in the Avalon Mall for the holiday season. “That was a big leap for us. And that fall was so busy that we decided to open a store, so we set up down on Water Street,” Jennifer says. In May 2012, they opened their first storefront in downtown St. John’s. Business continued to thrive and in May 2015, they moved into a new location just around the corner.
When they started at the Glacier, Natural Boutique only had six designs: two pairs of boots, two types of mitts and two styles of hats. Now they have more than 140 different items and the line is constantly expanding. Jennifer designs the items, and while she doesn’t have any formal training, “I know what I like when I see it.”
A number of stores across the province also carry their products, including Labrador Rose in Labrador City and The Outdoor Shoppe in St. Anthony. And the Shearses take their business on the road, attending trade shows outside the province - in Halifax and Fort McMurray, for example.
Kerry jokes that there aren’t many products that can target as wide a demographic as theirs; their customers range from 90-year-old ladies to 16-year-old girls. And it’s not just Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who love the look of sealskin. Natural Boutique frequently gets visitors to the province coming into the store who fall in love with the products. Once there was even an online order for a pair of sealskin sneakers placed from Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, there are countries, including the United States, that have a ban on seal products. So while people can order online, the product might not make it over the border.
“That’s a big blow to the industry, that people do want this stuff but can’t because of country laws and things that make no sense,” Kerry says.
Jennifer says sealing “is so unfairly portrayed internationally, even nationally. And I think if the real key messages got out there, any rational person can’t be against it. Because if you look at it, it’s a renewable resource - it’s an abundant, renewable resource at that - it produces biodegradable products, it yields organic meats and oils.”
From an animal welfare perspective, Jennifer adds, “And the seals are actually to the point where they’re probably eating themselves out of house and home. And any natural population will get to the carrying capacity, where disease and starvation will take over.”
Jennifer and Kerry are as passionate about the seal industry as they are about their province and their desire to make a go of it and raise their young family in Newfoundland and Labrador. While they live in St. John’s from October to the end of the Christmas season, the busiest at Natural Boutique, they leave the business in the hands of a competent manager and return to Rocky Harbour for the rest of the year. There they are just as busy, running the companies they cut their entrepreneurial teeth on: Gros Morne Wildlife Museum and Gift Shop, Northern Taxidermy and Gros Morne Suites. Their phone is constantly ringing and “you never know who’s going to call,” Kerry jokes.
“It could be someone for taxidermy, or someone for sealskin, someone looking to book a room. It could be anything!”
The couple feel lucky they were able to make a year-round living in their home province. After high school, they watched their classmates and friends head out of town and to Alberta. Out of the 32 students that graduated from high school with Kerry, he estimates about four are still around Rocky Harbour. The ones who left “make a life, they love it, they make a lot of good money. [Though] the industry up there now is struggling for sure,” he says. “But you ask them all the same question ‘Where would you want to wake up in the morning?’ and they all would say ‘Home.’
“We decided when we were young that we did want to stay home. And to be home you pretty much have to be a jack-of-all-trades. That’s why we have different businesses in different seasons,” Kerry explains. “It’s a good feeling to say, ‘Yeah, we did make it,’ to be able to stay home.”
Jennifer says, “We like to think of ourselves as a great team. And gee, looking back it really seems that’s been the case since we started dating when we were 15. Everything we’ve done has been together and for one another.”
Both Jennifer and Kerry are Mi’kmaq and it’s reflected in how they run their business and live their lives. For their first dates in high school, “we’d be out rabbit catching and bringing it home and our whole family gathering around that,” Jennifer recalls. “That’s kind of where it all stemmed from - it’s in our roots, it’s in our blood, it’s our heritage.
“And even in our business model: our priorities are supporting small town and aboriginal. So it impacts all of our business decision-making and how we’re getting things put together,” she says. “And it has led us, really, to where we are because if it weren’t for that lifestyle growing up, we would have had no interest in our products, in taxidermy or renewable resource based things, taking care of the environment and having a great relationship with the land, really. It’s how we got where we are.” - By Elizabeth Whitten