On the two-and-a-half-hour flight north from Ottawa to Iqaluit, passengers are appropriately bundled up for their chilly destination. But instead of wearing the menagerie of fox-fur coats and sealskin caps I had expected after months of researching the Nunavut capital's winter wardrobe preferences, the 737's cabin is full of Canada Goose and North Face parkas.
It's not until we land and walk across the icy tarmac into the town's primary-yellow airport terminal that I finally spot an amauti. The traditional Inuit coat features an oversized fur-trimmed hood that not only keeps the wearer toasty when faced with the season's frigid wind but also functions as a baby carrier when a pocket is created in the back of the garment by cinching the waist with a length of rope.
Sara Acher, our guide on this style-seeking expedition, arrives in a pair of kamik, handmade sealskin boots that can sell for more than $1,000 on Iqaluit Auction Bids, the Facebook-based online auction page. Between shots for the corresponding fashion spread, Globe Style cover girl Malaya Qaunirq Chapman (read Ingrid Peritz's profile of the Nunavut-born, Los Angeles-raised model and television news reporter here) sports her own pair of mittens inlaid with the silhouette of an ulu, a mezzaluna-like knife traditionally used to prepare animal skins.
It's all pretty traditional stuff, worn more for function than fashion, but there's a growing movement in the territory toward upping the design ante while maintaining the spirit of sustainability that connects its clothing to the land and sea like nowhere else.
"The Nunavut scene for design is very active," says Rowena House, executive director of the Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association, a group that advocates for the territory's creative talents and showcases their work at industry trade shows such as the North American Fur & Fashions Exposition, held annually in Montreal. "Our designers work heavily in the function category due to weather conditions, ensuring [their pieces] are warm enough; however, they do also look to current fashion trends."
The options for learning to create fur clothing and accessories in Nunavut range from classes on traditional garment making taught by Inuit elders at local community centres to a 10-month fur-design and production program that launched in 2007 at the Nunavut Arctic College in Iqaluit.
After years of creating pieces using knowledge shared by her mother, Elisapi Davidee-Aningmiuq was part of that program's first graduating class and quickly became a local favourite for her coats that mix high-fashion shapes with traditional materials.
"Inuit women in particular have always had to make clothing for their families using different furs and skins [provided by] the Arctic environment," she says. Outdoor clothing worn by hunters on the land, for instance, is often made with sealskins that have been softened using traditional hand tools. Skins destined for the fashion industry, however, are tanned and dyed in Montreal, Winnipeg or Newfoundland before being sold back to designers through the Fur Harvesters Auction in North Bay, Ont., although many designers and consumers are increasingly seeking out natural Nunavut sealskins. "These are very much in demand and they sell quite fast," Davidee-Aningmiuq says.
On the more contemporary side of the fur-fashion aesthetic, Rankin Inlet's Victoria Kakuktinniq is a designer to watch, according to House. While Kakuktinniq also creates outerwear, her most striking pieces include simple, geometric earrings cut from swatches of dyed white, navy-blue or burgundy sealskin.
Iqaluit's most established fashion force is Rannva Erlingsdottir Simonsen, who operates Rannva Design out of her home in Apex, five minutes outside Iqaluit's centre. Originally from the Faroe Islands, the trained architect moved to Nunavut in 1997. She employs 22 people, 16 of them Inuit, who create fur outerwear, knit pieces and a collection called Vrong, made up of hats and mittens pieced together from scraps of beaver and fox.
"In order to be a good designer, you have to live what you are designing," Erlingsdottir Simonsen says. "I have the advantage of a super-cold and challenging environment that makes it easy for me to test and prove what I make."
Erlingsdottir Simonsen sees educating consumers about the North as her biggest challenge. Although she has seen her domestic market grow, the European Union's 2010 ban on seal products was recently upheld by the World Trade Organization and is a barrier to international distribution.
"Sealskin is actually being more and more accepted by Canadians," she says. "I sell more and more of my products to other parts of the country."
Indeed, many northern designers suggest that their close connection to the land, their familiarity with the hunters and their commitment to a craft that has been passed down through generations are all selling points for customers.
"I like to use interesting and useful details and notions that reflect this rugged and barren part of the world," Erlingsdottir Simonsen says. "[We're] very much at the mercy of nature."
On location: Iqaluit, Nunavut
Despite its status as the capital of Nunavut (and the presence of a newly renovated boutique hotel), Iqaluit retains a frontier-town vibe. From mid-March to early June, tourists head to the city for winter adventures on the snowy tundra, while visitors who make the journey between June and early September can camp and kayak in milder temperatures.
First Air (www.firstair.ca) flies directly to Iqaluit from Ottawa and Montreal. Additional flights are available from Edmonton and Winnipeg with connections in Yellowknife and Rankin Inlet. Globe Style flew to Ottawa from Toronto on Porter Airlines (www.flyporter.com).
Where to stay
Seconds from the airport and recently renovated, the Discovery Lodge Hotel (www.discoverylodge.com) is a 37-room boutique-style home-far-away-from-home featuring free wireless Internet, compact but stylish private bathrooms and ample storage space to stash your coats, scarves and mittens. Up on Astro Hill is the larger Frobisher Inn (www.frobisherinn.com). Ask for a west-facing room with a view over Frobisher Bay and don't stress about getting snowed in: The hotel and conference centre feature three restaurants, a convenience store and Iqaluit's only movie theatre, all accessible from within the building.
Where to eat
Fresh-caught Arctic char, which can often be seen drying on racks outside Iqaluit homes during fishing season in July and September, pops up frequently on restaurant menus around town year-round. At the Discovery Lodge Hotel's Granite Room, it's prepared with a bright pistou sauce and served with lightly sautéed veg. At the Frobisher's Gallery Fine Dining Room, order the elk osso bucco and settle in for a bit of on-site shopping:
Between courses, Iqaluit artisans stop by tables to sell everything from knit tuques to soapstone sculptures. To non-residents, the $40-plus starting prices for entrees on most menus in town can be jarring, but main courses leave you well fed. If you're looking for simpler fare, The Snack (867-979-6767) is known for its burgers and poutine.
What to do
A short drive from Iqaluit's town centre, Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park (www.nunavutparks.ca) is located around the Sylvia Grinnell River, which flows out to Frobisher Bay and the Labrador Sea. It's a popular hiking spot and provides amazing vistas, especially from the viewing platform by the main park pavilion. Inukpak Outfitting (www.inukpakoutfitting.ca) offers various opportunities to explore the land in every season, from four-hour dogsledding adventures on a traditional qamotiq in the winter to a seven-day expedition to Auyuittuq National Park and Mount Thor (a landform famous for the world's tallest vertical drop) in summer. In town, don't miss the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum (867-979-5537) and its collection of sculpture and Cape Dorset prints. For more information, visit www.nunavuttourism.com.
Airfare, accommodations and additional support were provided by Nunavut Tourism, Nunavut Parks, First Air, Iqaluit's Discovery Lodge Hotel and Porter Airlines. None approved or reviewed this article prior to publication.