Fashion forward: Nunavik clothing company finds European markets

Published in Indian Country Today in February 2005.

When you’re hot, you’re hot. Audience members at Nunavik Creations’ recent fashion shows in France wanted to buy designer Vickie Okpik’s fur-trimmed coats, skirts and tops right off the models’ backs. Okpik, Inuk, shown near left and below, had traveled to Europe with Austin Greene, who manages the clothing company, handling production, sales, marketing, fulfillment of catalog and bulk orders, and training of personnel from a boutique in Kuujjuaq, the capital of the northern portion of Quebec.

     The two women were in France to look for markets for Nunavik Creations, formed in 2001 by Makivik Corp., which administrates the Arctic region’s 1975 land claims agreement. They met with chambers of commerce and store owners, and presented shows in Paris and Bordeaux.

     “Sometimes we take Inuit models with us when we travel, like when we went to the July 2004 Riddu Riddu cultural festival, hosted by the Saami in Norway,” said Greene. “This time, we used local models. As I was sashaying down the runway before the show, demonstrating how I wanted them to walk, I asked myself, ‘Was this also part of my job description?’”

     Okpik’s tailored designs, which manage to be both prim and sexy, were a hit. The fashion-conscious French found them chic and – better yet – very affordable. “The Canadian dollar, like the American dollar, is way down, so our clothes are a great deal for Europeans,” said Greene. “Sealskin coats that cost $1,500 Canadian are about 800 euros. Britain and other northern European countries are other possibilities for us. We just got an invitation to visit London and talk about what we do. To market, you’ve got to get out there and show people your products.”

     These days, while Greene follows up with contacts made during the trip to France, Okpik is at her drawing board. Many fashion houses bring out an entirely new line twice a year; in contrast, Nunavik Creations prefers to add new items to proven sellers, which means that its list of offerings metamorphoses from year to year. “Austin and I brainstorm about what we need to add to the line, then I get to work,” explained Okpik. “Stylistically, I think in terms of both tourists and local people. Most of what we sell is ready-to-wear, though occasionally throat singers or dancers want something special. Or someone might order a traditional Inuk wedding dress.”

     When Indian Country Today caught up with Okpik at her Montreal studio, she was experimenting with ways to work a beaded collar into new creations. “My ideas come while I draw,” she said. “First I do the design, then I create a pattern, and finally I make a sample.” Once all the details are worked out, the patterns go to nine full-time seamstresses, some of whom are shown right, and a varying number of contract workers in Nunavik.

     Creating jobs for Inuit women, for whom sewing is a traditional occupation, is a big part of the enterprise’s mandate. “Like all Inuit girls, I learned to sew,” said Okpik. “At first, I made socks and mittens, then outerwear. When I had a child of my own, I began to sew for her, and that was the beginning of thinking of myself as a designer. After I graduated from fashion-design college, Makivik told me they wanted to start a clothing business.” She and Greene have been with the company since the beginning; the first big commission they handled was 60 parkas for the Arctic Winter Games, a project they completed in just two months.

     Nowadays, a sportswear line that can be worn just as easily to a party as to the office has joined the parkas and other outerwear. “Everyone loves Vickie’s sealskin-trimmed collection. We get thousands of Canadian, American and European tourists through here during the warm months, and they’re always taken with those items,” said Greene, as she held up a black wrap-style top and matching miniskirt that were accented with strips of silvery-gold seal fur. “When we went to France, I was a little worried about the sealskin. I wondered if we’d see protests from animal rights activists, who might think it has something to do with the clubbing of baby seals. We have a lot of education to do on this subject. Seal is eaten here, so if we didn’t use the fur for trim, it would be wasted. It’s no different from eating beef and using cowhide for shoes.”

     Because of U.S. prohibitions against importing sealskin, Nunavik Creations is not focusing on the American market. “You guys are tough,” said Greene. “It’s really too bad. It’s such a big population, with money. I have to tell the Americans who come through here, ‘Sorry, but you can’t take anything with sealskin back with you.’”

     Nevertheless, the company does have some U.S. customers for sealskin-free clothes. One popular item is the traditional Inuk woman’s coat, which is both stylish and practical. A cross between a down parka and a baby carrier, the knee-length amautik is constructed so that the child fits snugly inside the coat, right next to the mother’s back; a capacious hood can be flipped up to cover both mother and baby in inclement weather.

     Other items sold in the boutique that any tourist can buy and bring home include an array of crafts and accessories – knitted hats, embroidered felt socks, candles in decorated containers, and more – that the company spends about $125,000 a year to purchase from community members.

     Customers who can’t make it to the boutique in Kuujjuaq will soon be able to find Nunavik Creations on the Internet at www.nunavikcreations.com. The company also has just finished a catalog that will go out to a list of about 1,000 potential buyers, culled from Native-related publications (for a copy, call (819) 964-1849 or email info@nunavikcreations.com). “We were selective,” said Greene. “Before you send out a catalog mailing, you have to think hard about who’ll be interested in what you’re selling. Our products are high-end because labor costs and shipping are so expensive in the North. The upscale four-color catalog and the list reflect that.”

     Nunavik Creations’ annual sales are currently running around $250,000. The enterprise has just updated its business plan and is hoping to top $400,000 in three to five years. “It’s hard to say if we’ll be able increase the number of full-time employees a great deal,” said Greene, “but we’ll try to do contract work in more communities, so more Inuit women benefit from the company.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Stephanie Woodard.

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