Victoria Kakuktinniq can hand-fasten fox fur onto the hood of a custom parka in five minutes flat. In two-and-a-half-hours, she can make the whole coat.
“If you did as many parkas as I did I’m sure you’d be just as fast,” she says, laughing. The 28-year-old Nunavut designer behind Victoria’s Arctic Fashion has made approximately 1,300 parkas—each a contemporary twist on traditional Inuit outerwear—since creating her first in 2012.
Kakuktinniq’s form-fitting, triple-layer “Arctica” design features a fluffy fox fur hood, side-set zipper and signature embroidery on the back bodice. Its scooped hem and ample hood are inspired by the Amauti baby-carrying coats worn by Inuit women.
Each hem and sleeve cuff are trimmed in a wide band of soft silver sealskin, a precious material that is integral to Inuit culture due to its traditional use for clothing that stands up to harsh Arctic winters. Whereas many mainstream designers on the world stage are moving away from using real fur—largely due to public pressure—Kakuktinniq says lately artisans like her are seeing an upswing in public recognition of the value that sealskin has for Inuit culture.
“People are starting to ease into the idea of wearing it,” she says. “It looks so good. It’s elegant, it’s luxurious, and it’s very warm.” Fur is lighter, lasts longer and is more waterproof and windproof than synthetic materials, she explains.
Kakuktinniq typically uses harp seal sourced from Newfoundland, as the shorthaired Atlantic pelt is more durable and easier to work with than the ring seal pelts hunted around Baffin Island, though she does sew with local ring seal when she can. The Newfoundland pelts come from Carino—a company that promises environmentally sustainable dressing and dying of its seal furs—and are hunted by licenced seal hunters in remote coastal communities. The Nunavut sealskins are from animals caught by Inuit hunters through a territorial government sealing program run by Nunavut’s Department of Environment.
“I’m not hesitant to use [animal skins] at all. It’s part of who I am. Especially the sealskin,” Kakuktinniq says. “It’s so important for me to add that because I’m an Inuk and I want to promote Inuit culture and continue to use the traditional materials that Inuit used a long time ago.”
Like most traditional handmade parkas in Nunavut, the body of the coat is made from commander, a durable blend of cotton and polyester. A reflective layer in the lining makes the coats stand up to temperatures as low as -35 degrees Celsius without the bulk. And that slim silhouette—unlike the sleeping-bag proportions of many other parkas—has Kakuktinniq’s coats on constant backorder.
The young designer’s success sparked when she moved to Iqaluit from her hometown of Rankin Inlet, a central Nunavut community of around 2,800, in 2013. She was fresh out of a Winnipeg design program that she enrolled in after quitting her government job to take a five-month course in traditional sewing two years prior. In a small apartment, with one machine, she started making parkas to sell locally over social media.
“It was me and my daughter. I was sewing out of my living room, making a huge mess,” she says, sitting in her Iqaluit workshop on a Monday evening, post snowstorm. Her daughter, now six, is in another room watching Disney movies. “It wasn’t even a living room, it was my sewing room.”
Nowadays in Iqaluit, you can hardly go to the grocery store without seeing a parka by Victoria’s Arctic Fashion. But she sells them all over the rest of Canada, too, and clients in cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal almost always request the sealskin trim.
Last November, four years after moving to Iqaluit, Kakuktinniq opened her first shop. To keep ahead of orders, she’s hired three staff to help measure and cut out the pieces for each parka. The thick furs are cut with an ulu—a rounded blade used traditionally to scrape skins or cut fish—or an X-Acto knife. Once the pieces are prepped, Kakuktinniq sews each parka together herself. Her spacious shop—a far cry from the cramped living room where she first worked—has a string of industrial machines, each fitted with a leather-sewing needle to puncture the durable materials she uses.
Kakuktinniq also makes fur mittens, headbands, wrist cuffs, earrings and pompoms to pin on hats and bags. This spring she has plans to dream up new designs for some sealskin blazers and shawls.
So far the designer has maintained a Canadian client base, since international regulations make it tricky to sell across the border. (It’s illegal to take sealskin from Canada into the U.S., for example.) Eventually, she would like to open a store outside of Nunavut, or see her coats carried by a specialty boutique in the south. For now, she plans to nurture the young business she’s building in Iqaluit, where—as a successful Inuk designer in a remote community of 8,000—she’s proving that you don’t have to live in a large centre to create and market covetable fashion.
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