Fashion faux pas
Inuit women fight for control over designs

Maria Canton
Northern News Services

IQALUIT (Oct 18/99) - The growing national and international interest in Inuit fashion is a two-edged sword, says the vice-president of Pauktuutit, an Inuit women's association.

"There is no denying the pride in having our creations recognized for their beauty and quality," said Monica Ell.

"But on the other hand, we see the potential danger of having our traditional designs misappropriated without due compensation to the original creators of the product."

Pauktuutit is speaking out after American fashion designer, Donna Karan, sent a representative to Fort Simpson, NWT, where local designer D'Arcy Moses lives and works.

The representative was on a 10-day tour to "find inspiration" for the Donna Karan clothing line. The thousands of dollars worth of clothing she purchased is now on display in a Madison Avenue boutique in New York.

"The rep was looking for clothing with older designs," said Ell.

"The older pieces are traditional and something that we've been working to perfect for many, many years."

Pauktuutit has consequently written a letter to Karan asking her if she is aware of their objection and what her thoughts on the issue are.

Although current laws providing for the protection of intellectual property do not protect garments or designs, Pauktuutit is discussing the matter with the World Intellectual Property Organization, a subsidiary of the United Nations.

For two years they have been using the amoutiq, a traditional Inuit jacket worn by women who are carrying small children, as a case study under the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The convention recognizes the importance of indigenous traditional knowledge.

"We choose the amoutiq because it is a design that is unique to Inuit women and it has not yet been taken and mass produced," said Ell.

Clothing such as the parka, which has been mass produced in southern markets, may face considerable resistance -- Pauktuutit hopes the amoutiq will be the first to pave the way.

"Our efforts are to inform Inuit women about these issues," said Ell.

"And to seek their input on how they wish to manage their traditional knowledge and the benefits that may arise from the use of such knowledge and skills."

Veronica Dewar, president of Pauktuutit, says she is concerned when she sees a multi-million dollar company move in on designs that have been unique to the aboriginal culture for centuries.

"I am concerned about the cultural and financial appropriation of our collective and individual property by an organization with annual revenues in excess of $600 million per year," she said in regards to New York designer Karan.

However, designer D'Arcy Moses says that kind of exposure in the world of haute couture is phenomenal.

"Her assistant bought a moosehide jacket and took a bunch of business cards -- just the exposure from that alone could open doors," he said.

A representative from Pauktuutit will be at a UN conference in Geneva in November where the amoutiq will be discussed on an international stage.