Fashion forward

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Nunavik clothing company finds European markets

KUUJJUAQ, Quebec - 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, 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."

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 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 e-mail 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."