When she was a little girl growing up in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, Jennifer Munick had a very important job to do while her grandmother was sewing. She would crawl on the floor to pick up any stray beads that fell from her grandmother’s hands as she stitched them intricately onto her latest sartorial creation.
“Every time her beads would drop, I would be the one picking them up off the floor,” Munick, now 36, tells me, laughing at the memory. “You know how small a pebble bead is? So, I used to lick my index finger to try to pick them up. And my mom would be the one telling me, ‘More over there, under the table!’”
Munick is no longer wrangling rogue beads with sticky fingertips. Now, she’s using the skills passed down from the women in her family to design a one-of-a-kind jacket (or "atigi," the Inuktitut word for “parka”) for Canada Goose in honour of her late grandmother. Munick’s atigi, along with designs by 13 other Inuit women, is part of Project Atigi, an initiative launched by the company to showcase handmade pieces by Inuit seamstresses. The exclusive bespoke collection went on display for the first time Friday at a swanky art space in New York City, on a night that felt like -20 in Manhattan, and was actually -24 in Iqaluit, Nunavut.
Mishael Gordon looks at her atigi — displayed proudly below her name and also inspired by her late grandmother — and jokes that the frigid temperature is exactly what she’s used to in her hometown in Nunavut, but not what she was expecting at Project Atigi’s launch party or for her first time in New York City.
“I thought it would be warmer!” Gordon exclaims before getting serious about what Project Atigi means to her. The Canada Goose collection represents nine communities across the four Inuit regions (Inuvialuit, Nunatsiavut, Nunavut, and Nunavik), and all proceeds from the sales of the jackets will go to Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), an organization that works to improve the health and wellbeing of Inuit in Canada.
The fact that 100% of the money made from the sales will go back to her community, and that Canada Goose bought each design from the seamstresses instead of claiming them as their own, is why Gordon wanted to be involved.
“We are being acknowledged for our artwork, it’s very much art to us. Our form of art is sewing,” Gordon says passionately over the sound of party-goers oohing and awing over the 14 creations. “Inuit women being acknowledged for their hard work and their amazing skills is really empowering, not just for us Inuit women participating in the project, but for all Inuit women who provide for their families.”
It’s easy to be skeptical of a big brand using the work of members of a marginalized community, but Canada Goose CEO Dani Reiss says the company saw Project Atigi as its “social responsibility” and a natural progression from its Resource Centre Program, through which Canada Goose donates materials to communities across the Arctic for seamstresses to outfit their friends and family for the cold. Project Atigi was born out of an urge to appreciate “the original parka makers,” says Reiss.
“We don’t want to appropriate anyone’s history or experience or heritage. It’s about using our platform,” Reiss says. “What’s really powerful here is that we can create a bigger demand for these products and create opportunities for Inuit people to make these products and sell them. The dream would be to create a marketplace that’s bigger than 14 jackets.”
The dream for Jennifer and Mishael is to see Indigenous representation throughout the fashion industry, not just one brand. Veteran Canadian model Coca Rocha was at the Project Atigi event and agrees that this collection is a step in the right direction.
“When I started modelling, we didn’t see a variety of anything very much," says Rocha. "It was the same model – same skin, same body type. Fifteen years later, we’re seeing quite a difference.” Rocha pauses thoughtfully before delivering her next point. “Is it the best? Nope. Can it be better? Yep. I am happy something like [Project Atigi] shows that there are other creative people in the world who aren’t born in Paris, New York, or London.”
Rocha mingles with Munick, Gordon and other seamstresses as Inuit folk band The Jerry Cans give a stirring performance unlike anything I’ve seen at a fashion event. It’s not often the word “colonialism” is mentioned at a launch party (the president of ITK gave an impassioned speech about the impact of this project) or that cultural appropriation is discussed alongside fabric choices and design inspiration, but this isn’t your typical collection. It’s better.
Here’s what Munick hopes people will take away from Project Atigi:
“It will promote Inuit all over the world, I hope. Inuit are strong people. Give us a project. We’ll do it for you. If I can’t do it myself, I’ll find someone Inuit to do it for you!” She laughs again before landing on a hopeful smile. “Although we have a tough life, we still have a good life. I know we have a bright future ahead of us.”
The Project Atigi parkas are on display in Canada Goose stores across the country for the next two weeks and are available for purchase at canadagoose.com. Prices are available upon request.