Transforming northern culture into global fashions
A white wedding gown adorns a dressmaker’s mannequin in Martha Kyak’s sewing room. Its fitted bodice drapes in long, white tails in front and back, like the traditional akuq on Inuit women’s amautiit. The satin fabric is covered in tiny opalescent beads and sequins, patiently handsewn in paisley‐like swirls. A skirt of white tulle spills out from behind the akuq, flaunting a modern mix of northern and southern culture and style.
The wedding dress is stunning, elegant, and unique. It is haute couture, something you would see on a fashion runway in Paris or New York. This kind of chic design is undoubtedly Inuit. Kyak calls it InukChic—the name of her fashion design firm.
“When I think of a design and it goes into my head, before I forget, I have to do a sketch,” says Kyak, sitting in what she calls her “creative mess,” surrounded by material, furs, sewing machines, and other seamstress’ accessories.
Kyak has no shortage of clothing design ideas. She turns the sketch-filled pages of a black covered notebook: a mini sealskin skirt, a dress jacket with a high fur collar, a casual top with a hood and akuq, and a fitted dress patterned with two types of material. “Teal leather” and “sealskin” are written beside the sketch.
One of those sketches, now an actual garment, hangs on another mannequin. It is a classy, black, fitted parka, cinched with a wide belt. The black sealskin leather below the waist is etched with a diamond pattern.
“She is taking Inuit fashion to the next level, away from more traditional styles into more stylish, chic things that a lot of young Inuit are attracted to,” says Krista Ulujuk Zawadski, an anthropologist from Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet), and a Nunavut Sivuniksavut board member. “People like my nieces—16, 17, 18-year-olds—are buying these very chic, beautiful parkas.”
Kyak says she always loved to draw, and was inspired to design clothing, as living in Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet) in Nunavut didn’t have a lot of choices for clothing made for the Arctic. For years, she made clothes for herself, her three children, and other family members.
“I grew up seeing a lot of Inuit making their own parkas. That was part of our culture—sewing—and I did a lot of sewing. I came to Ottawa carrying that knowledge with me of sewing,” says Kyak who moved south 10 years ago to teach Inuit history and Inuktitut at Nunavut Sivuniksavut, a college that provides unique cultural and academic learning experiences for Inuit youth from across Inuit Nunangat.
“She can take a very plain or a very random piece of fabric that you see nothing in, and she turns it into something absolutely gorgeous. She transforms it,” says Melissa Irwin from Igluligaarjuk (Chesterfield Inlet) and former instructor with Kyak at Nunavut Sivuniksavut. “She has that ability in graphic design. She has that ability in her clothing design; she does it with painting; she does it with sketches; she does it with anything she touches.”
After moving to Ottawa, Kyak needed to make extra money to help pay for the rent on her Ottawa home and the mortgage on her house in Mittimatalik. She made parkas and posted them on an Iqaluit auction Facebook page. Someone noticed her designs and contacted her about showcasing her pieces at the 4th Indigenous Art/Music & Fashion Show in Ottawa in 2017.
In the four years since, models wearing Kyak’s unique, identifiably Inuit designs have walked the runways at eight fashion shows in Iqaluit, Ottawa, and Calgary. She is now preparing for a fashion show in Vancouver for April 2022. Originally planned for 2020, it has been rescheduled twice because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This fashion show is global, worldwide. I wanted to showcase Inuit as much as I can and I really wanted to include sealskin—how much it impacts Inuit, and that it’s okay to wear fur and sealskin. And it’s more environmentally friendly than fake fur,” says Kyak.
Kyak not only designs the clothes and hires the models, but she chooses the music and orchestrates the event. Nothing is left to chance. Fashion shows aren’t just occasions for Kyak to feature her new clothing designs. They are also an opportunity to make a statement and, as she says, “mark ourselves in a map of the world.”
At Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada’s Annual General Meeting in February 2020, Kyak’s InukChic fashion show was the closing event. The half hour program was divided into four sections: casual wear; parkas, coats and jackets; elegant attire; and red dress. In the finale, the models all wore red dresses, some elegant, some not. But each woman had a red handprint across her mouth and one side of her face, as if she was being silenced with a bloody hand. It was a tribute to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). The reaction was immediate and emotional for the women attending the AGM.
“Being an Inuk, an Indigenous person, we all know personally women who leave us too soon,” says Irwin. “Maata (Martha)’s red dress collection was one of those things that came across to its audience in such a powerful way, and you don’t need to be an advocate for MMIWG to feel the powerful emotions. If you are a guest at that show, it’s raw. You feel it. It’s powerful. That’s what Maata has effectively done so well.”
Kyak has a personal connection with the MMIWG national inquiry. In June 2019, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke at the inquiry’s closing ceremony, the red amauti onstage behind him was created by Kyak. It was a powerful symbol of what Inuit women have suffered for so long.
“When I was asked to do that, I was quite emotional. My sister was murdered, so I dedicated that to her. And it was like a healing process for me,” says Kyak. “Seeing the amauti there, I could see her presence, like she is there and making sure she is okay. She was representing Inuit, and it felt good after.”
Irwin recognizes that Kyak’s creations come from a deeply personal place.
“I think her art is inspired through her experiences, and in some ways maybe it helps her heal and express herself—and speak to the volumes of people who are lucky enough to see her work,” she says.
Ulujuk Zawadski agrees, and notes Kyak is educating her audience through her art and designs.
“Through art you can make powerful statements. These are issues that affect us all with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls,” she says. “Maata can take the spotlight and keep all the attention on herself, but she’s choosing to take this opportunity to draw attention to these important social issues.”
At the upcoming show in Vancouver, Kyak will have 10 minutes when her designs will be centre stage. People will be there from around the world. Kyak sees this as an opportunity.
“For that 10 minutes, what do I want to say to the rest of the world about Inuit?” she asks.
Her answer is already designed into the clothing she has created for the event. Like the red dresses, it will have an impact on the people watching, and they will take home with them an insight, a knowledge, about her people. That is the power of Kyak’s art.
Season Osborne is the author of In the Shadow of the Pole: An Early History of Arctic Expeditions, 1871-1912. She lives and writes in Ottawa, Ontario.