When Linda Kay Peters began designing her own clothes as a teenager, she had no idea she would one day be showcasing her designs at a fashion show in the Paris Eiffel tower.
Yet as the date for Paris Fashion Week looms, Peters is in full fundraising and design mode as she prepares for local talent, and celebrity models, to strut her designs down a catwalk in the most iconic building in the city of fashion. Peters will show 10 to 15 outfits at the Paris Indigenous Fashion Week event, taking place March 1.
“I’ve never really seen myself as showing my clothing to fashion cities like New York and Paris. Those were things that were never really in my plans,” Peters said, who designs clothes through her company Ringing Bell Robes. The name comes from her Cree name Kaysaywaysemat, meaning person who rings a bell.
“I just enjoyed creating clothes and showing them off, especially with First Nations symbols and designs. And that’s a source of pride for me. I’m proud of my culture and I love to share that.”
Self-taught designer reaches Paris
Peters traces her love for fashion and clothing to the paper dolls and cut out clothes one would fold over the dolls.
“That’s probably where I got the idea of clothing, I started there. And also my mom was very fashionable. My mom always liked to dress up and look nice,” she said. Then her grandma showed her how to use her treadle sewing machine and she began making doll clothes.
This soon transitioned into Peters making curtains for her windows and even her own clothes as a teenager.
“I remember making this big white poofy dress for a friendship centre dance when I was about 14. I still to this day don’t know how I made it because I didn’t know a thing about patterns or how to make patterns,” she laughed.
“I just know I just went and bought a whole bunch of fabric, made this big poofy white dress.”
Peters did wear the dress to the dance. But this was the end of her design career for the time being, she didn’t sew or design anything for about 20 years until another Indigenous designer walked into her life.
Carol Mason, from the Blood Tribe in Alberta, became her assistant at Seabird Island Band. An accomplished designer, Mason began bringing her portfolio to work and encouraged Peters to take up sewing, and later designing, again.
Without any formal training on sewing or design, Peters began with the most difficult pieces to make: coats. After coats came jackets and vests and then formal wear. Lately she has evolved into working with buckskin wedding dresses and vests. She uses skin from deer or elk, both soft and supple fabrics, and has begun to ditch machine stitching to pieces purely hand stitched.
“Everything that I’ve done and been doing is basically self taught. I’ve never taken any training, no design training, no sewing machine training, I just kind of learned all of this on my own through trial and error,” she said.
As she works on the 10 to 15 designs she will take to France, she often finds herself asking whether her work is Paris-worthy. At times it is scary, but she is determined to have her work come from the heart and from her own design vision.
Missing women not far from designer’s mind
It’s taken Peters until this late in the game to prepare for the show, as she experienced many deaths in her family this summer. One of those deaths was her niece, 29-year-old Shawnee Inyallie, whose body was found near the Fraser River in Delta Nov. 4 after four months missing.
Police continue to investigate the circumstances of her disappearance and continue to check in with family, Peters said.
Peters said Shawnee will be a part of the show in some way, as will all missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across Canada.
“Most of the fashion shows that I do are usually to create awareness on murdered and missing Indigenous women. I would say probably pretty well all of them, the majority of them anyway. And that’s because of the crisis that I think that our women are in, all across Canada and have been forever,” she said.
Bringing the missing and murdered into her work as a designer is a way to be a voice for her mother, who experienced violence and impunity when Peters was a child.
“She was abused and left to die. And nothing ever happened to those men,” Peters said, adding her mother was sexually assaulted, beaten unconscious and left to die. This wasn’t uncommon in her community of Red Lake, Ontario. Peters remembers groups of men who brutalized Indigenous women. When the attacks were brought to the police, they were ignored.
Her mother didn’t share her experience with Peters until her daughter was an adult, and it was at this point she began using her art to raise the profile of an issue that affects thousands of Indigenous families across Canada.
Hope models heading to Paris
The event is also a way to honour the four local women who have volunteered their time to model for Peters as her designing career grew: Rena Louis, Charity Joe, Dayna Nelson and Judith Pete.
“The reason I invited these ladies is because they’ve been very dedicated to me. They’ve modeled for me, one of them up to about 15 years,” she said.
“I want to take them with me because it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. They never modeled before this, and they started to model for me. And it was exciting to watch them grow and become more self confident.”
In order to bring the local models and herself to the event it will cost over $20,000. It’s not a small price to pay for the event, where Peters also has to pay $3,700 to participate. If the fundraising ends up being even more successful, Peters hopes to bring celebrity models and other surprises to the show.
Although she cannot announce what these surprises will look like, as it will depend on how much money is raised, Peters can say Canadian Indigenous model and 2015 Miss Universe Ashley Callingbull will appear in her show.
Anyone interested in donating to bring the Hope designer and her models to Paris can do so by contacting her at email@example.com or through her fundraising coordinator Leanne Ellis.
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