Linda Lundström on the Art & Ethics of Fashion Re-Invention

Therma Kota
Therma Kota co-founders Linda Lundström & Mosha Lundström Halbert Photo: Emily Wraith

Linda Lundström is a name that perhaps only Canadians of a certain generation will recognize. If you were a female in the 90’s, chances are you, your Mom or someone you knew, was wearing one of the fashion designer’s iconic coats, Laparka. Found in every town across the country, toppers of every colour had a signature fur trim around the hood, and often included a very Canuck emblem on the back, like a moose or polar bear. Remember when Valentino did that amazing haute couture collab with Métis artist Christie Belcourt a few years back?  Turns out Linda Lundström tapped her for those outstanding botanical prints first, in 2008. And while sure, you might find a Queen West hipster wearing one of the O.G. vintage pieces, Lundström is in the midst of a major fashion comeback with an outerwear line called Therma Kota, co-founded with her daughters, Mosha Lundström Halbert (a former fashion editor at Flare and Footwear News in New York) and creative director Sophie Lundström Halbert.

Built on the idea that a coat can be both glamourous and warm at once, this Icelandic-inspired line, now in its second year of online sales, features of-the-moment pink shearlings, reversible leopard baseball jackets and removable fur cuff and collar sets. We visited the matriarch’s home in Caledon, Ontario to chat about how truth and reconciliation is built into her approach to fashion, career re-invention and what style will make the label’s sell-out list next. (Did we mention Kate Hudson, Margaret Trudeau and fashion bloggers The Beckermans are fans?)

Linda Lundstrom
Vintage Linda Lundstrom
Beholdr: How did Therma Kota come about?

LL: Mosha was going to all the fashion weeks every season, and during the shows in February it’s very cold. From the way she tells it, you walk into the Chanel show, there’s Anna Wintour and all the street style editors and all you really see are their coats. This New York Times photographer kept photographing Mosha when he saw her over and over again, and it was always the coat. And she said to me, “A lot of these great coats are expensive but they’re not warm; and you can’t leave a Chanel show wearing a Canada Goose parka”. So she said, “Mom, there’s a space in the market, and you are the perfect person to make the product.”

Beholdr: What were you doing at the time?

LL: I was focusing on the Sewing Circle Project, which is bringing the capability to make clothes to remote First Nations Communities. Between April and August of last year alone I made six trips to Eabametoong, set up the Sewing Circle there, shipped industrial machines and fabric and trained basic sewing skills to women who had never sewn before so they can now make things like hoodies and tank tops. Therma Kota collaborated with The Sewing Circle for beading on our denim trucker jacket, and our goal is to do more. But the main idea is to help create clothing independence in remote communities that might otherwise have had to spend $500 to fly to the nearest Walmart.

“It’s not the job of the oppressed to teach the oppressor, and we have to take responsibility as the oppressor of Indigenous Peoples.”

Beholdr: How did you come to found the Sewing Circle Project?

LL: The nearest town to where I lived until I was seventeen is called Red Lake, in North Western Ontario. I witnessed the racism and the abuse and the violence against First Nations People. And so, when Mosha was born, I went through this sort of passage where I decided that I had to do something about it. So, I’ve spent a lot of my life advocating for First Nations People. Indigenous Peoples’ own advocacy is creating change, but there’s still extreme poverty right here in this country—overcrowding, mental illness, suicides. And I thought, if I could help bring the capability to make one’s own clothing, that could not only be a possible economic development project, but it could engage at-risk youth, getting them excited about fashion because it can be fun, sexy, badass, rebellious.

Beholdr: Fur is controversial these days, but you’ve always used it in your designs and continue to use it with Therma Kota. Tell us why.

LL: The coyote and fox fur that I use originate in Canada. And a lot of the trappers, though not all by any means, are First Nations. And the Indigenous People who are still trapping have a connection where they are still hunting and living off the land to a greater extent. Trappers use the hide and then eat the meat, whether it’s beaver or rabbit, or use the meat to feed to their dogs, nothing is really thrown away. And those are the communities that have lower suicide rates and better health, eating more of a traditional diet of berries and moose meat and deer meat.

Therma Kota
Linda Lundstöm adjusts the collar of a Therma Kota leopard design worn by Mosha
Beholdr: How do you know you’re making a difference?

LL: I don’t know but I am trying. Murray Sinclair headed up the (Truth and) Reconciliation Commission, and came up with 94 recommendations for creating truth and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. And it’s all about non-Indigenous people having a responsibility to get up off their asses and do something. Because there’s a lot of: ‘It’s so terrible, it’s so terrible’; and ‘People are dying in house fires’; and ‘There’s mold, they can’t drink the water’, but they are not f*cking doing anything! Pardon my language. You know, reading literature that’s written by Indigenous writers, appreciating art done by Indigenous artists, listening to APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network)—it’s amazing, you learn so much. We have a responsibility to educate ourselves. It’s not the job of the oppressed to teach the oppressor, and we have to take responsibility as the oppressor of Indigenous Peoples.

Beholdr: How has the aesthetic of your Therma Kota designs changed from the early days since the iconic Laparka and what can we expect to see next?

LL: I have always loved making reversible things, but now I collaborate with Mosha on the designs. So the idea that you can take a jacket and flip it around and it’s plain black on one side and leopard on the other, you could wear it as an evening jacket, you could wear it with a pair of jeans… Mosha is out there and I don’t even like going into the city. So it’s really a collaboration, very much so, and I really like working that way. Right now we’re working on a spring trench coat, and also a cape.

Beholdr: And how do you feel about designing under your daughter’s direction?

LL: In our heyday, Linda Lundström had three retail stores and we sold to 300-400 boutiques across the United States. I don’t think there was a town in Canada that didn’t carry my coats, right up to the 2000’s. I’ve had the experience of being totally responsible for every single style that was produced by my company. I was designing 800 styles a year; I was a machine. For me to just do eight styles a year was like… I’ve had my turn being the person to put all my creative ideas on the line and presenting them out there to be applauded or criticized. I don’t feel the need any more to be the person that goes, ‘Look at this!’ Thirty-five plus years of doing that, and I’m satisfied.

Therma Kota
The Lundström women in Therma Kota shearling coats
For information on supporting fashion by Indigenous Peoples of Canada, check out Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto, debuting May 31-June 3; the recently launched Vancounver Indigenous Fashion Week; and Otahpiaaki Fashion Week, an annual, Calgary-based Indigenous beauty, fashion and design week inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.