By Stephen Hendrie
All photos courtesy of Julie Grenier
Vickie Okpik’s Facebook Messenger buzzed on July 5. It was Mary Simon asking Vickie for photos of dresses she had designed in the past. Vickie was at work at Makivvik in the Justice Department, and unfortunately forgot about the message. The next morning all staff were asked to watch a special broadcast in the Makivvik board room at 10 am. Mary Simon was announced as the Governor General Designate. Vickie said to herself, “Freeeeeek! She asked me to send her photos and I completely forgot about it!”
But Mary sent another Facebook message, formally asking Vickie to design a dress for her installation ceremony. Vickie responded that she would be honoured to do it, and started by sending three drawings to work from. The project just took off from there.
Carole Simon, Mary’s daughter, works in Ottawa at the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC). Carole was instrumental in liaising with Vickie to have the dress created in time for the installation ceremony on July 26, less than three weeks away!
“The main thing for me with my mother’s dress is that Vickie really knew how to capture what it was we were looking for, with her and I working together. My mother and I talked about the dress many times,” said Carole. We did a lot of research, viewing photos of what members of the royal family wear at ceremonies, paying attention to colours and style.
“The colour was one of the hardest decisions to make,” said Carole. “There’s politics involved, so we had to stay away from certain blues, and red.” While she’s a big fan of fuchsia, off-white was considered – though Vickie said it didn’t work well on TV. Eventually it came down to a strong navy blue, which was Mary’s original choice.
The next crucial decision related to beadwork. Discussions revolved around a separate beaded necklace sculpture to complement the dress, or incorporating beadwork into the dress itself. They decided to embroider beadwork directly into the dress.
Enter Julie Grenier, from Kuujjuaq, who Vickie described as an expert beader. “I bead in all kinds of different forms and styles,” said Julie, who has been beading since she was seven years old, and has a huge collection of beads from around the world at home. “I was really given carte blanche. I was able to design the flowers and the leaves, in the style that I like to work in. They just really trusted me to do what I do, which was amazing.”
With those decisions made, it allowed Vickie to move ahead with obtaining the rich navy blue fabric the dress and jacket were made from. Colonel Sanders doesn’t give away his secret chicken recipe, and Vickie doesn’t give away her fashion secrets either! Suffice to say the material was “crepe,” and sourced in Montreal. Asked if the colour had a name, such as “Koksoak River Deep Marine Blue,” Vickie said, “No, that’s nerdy.” So, it was just, “navy blue.”
Julie received the piece of fabric for the collar of the dress for her beadwork on the afternoon of Saturday, July 17, where she lives just off the island of Montreal. Her deadline was Thursday, July 22. She said the crepe fabric was very unforgiving. “It stretches in a diagonal sense. It’s very slick and shiny, slippery on the backside, and more matte on the front. Any tiny nick frays this fabric. So placing the needle was critical, and making sure my needles were sharp. I had to iron a backing to it to make sure it wouldn’t move, and make ripples, or bend the fabric.”
Talking about her design, Julie said, “I like to include a lot of little tiny details that you don’t necessarily see from afar, but when you look closer at the flowers you see there’s a lot more to it, and it’s how I see the tundra, how I see the land, the lichen, the greenery, the rocks. And of course there’s the purple bell flowers that we find a lot in Kuujjuaq. It represents where Mary is from, and to tie in the other Indigenous populations across Canada – you know the land and nature is something that ties us all together.”
Julie said she was beading well into the evenings, sometimes until 3 am, and needed more time, delivering the final product to Vickie on the evening of Friday, July 23.
In the meantime, Vickie was cutting fabric, sewing the dress and the jacket, liaising with Carole Simon, and Rideau Hall for the first fitting, originally planned for Friday night, but rescheduled to early Saturday morning, July 24. Vickie finished the dress on Friday night at 10 pm.
Her brother George lives in Ottawa, and said to Vickie, ‘make sure you bring your sewing machine in case you have to redo the dress,’ as he didn’t have one and she was going to stay at his place. At the first fitting at Rideau Hall on Saturday morning, Vickie said the dress was fine. “The jacket, on the other hand, needed a lot of adjustments, so I go to my brother’s house, and I start ripping it apart and redoing everything, for the final fitting on Sunday evening at 6 pm.” At that point, it was fine, even though Vickie said, “I had to do a little more tacking on the dress and the jacket. It was dark when I left.”
Shortly after 10:30 am on Monday, July 26, the world saw Governor General Designate Mary Simon, and Whit Fraser step onto the red carpet in front of the Senate of Canada building. The site is across the street from the stately Chateau Laurier Hotel on Wellington Street, where Mary and Whit were married.
It was also the moment that the world first got a close up look at the navy blue dress and jacket, and the fabulous beadwork. Media management of the installation was handled by Heritage Canada, and the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Among the media documents issued was a note about the designer, Victoria Okpik, and bead artist Julie Grenier.
Carole, Julie, and Vickie experienced the event at a watching party held at Rideau Hall. A large screen was set up in a ballroom. “It turned out gorgeous,” said Carole, “It was such an emotional moment when she stepped onto that red carpet.”
Julie said, “It wasn’t just the fact that we took a part in creating what she was wearing, but just the fact that it was Mary that was there, and now all of the sudden it’s Mary Simon, Her Excellency, know you, it’s a lot of emotions, but a lot of pride too. Proud of myself, proud of Vickie too, and proud of Mary, of course.”
Vickie was in her car on the way to Rideau Hall from Montreal when the ceremony began. She started listening to it on the radio. “The drummers started drumming, you know during the opening ceremony, oh my goodness, I was alone in my car and I was filled with emotion. The gravity of this was hitting me,” she laughed. “But when I got to the watch party, everybody’s sitting down, and I’m there, and I’m going, ‘OK, is the dress OK, is the jacket OK?’”
It was very definitely OK. The navy blue dress with the akuk-style hemline inspired by the traditional amautik, and custom beaded collar won wide praise. Vickie and Julie were soon featured on the cover of Toronto’s Fashion Magazine, and interviewed by local and international media about their creation.
It was an historic dress for the installation of Canada’s first Indigenous governor general. “It was one-of-a-kind,” concluded Vickie. “I’m not making that for the public,” she said laughing.