Published on October 9th, 2005 | by Lorraine Leslie0
Linda Lundstrom – My Greatest Gift Is In My Hands
The first time I actually meet Linda Lundström was October 29th 1999 at the first Women with Vision Conference in Collingwood. I had arranged for her to be one of our exciting eight keynote speakers… and believe me when I tell you that when she stepped up to the podium the room went silent. She presented herself as an authentic woman who shared her story of success with passion and gratitude for her blessed gift of being able to work with her hands.
I’ve met Linda at various networking events since that day and most recently, almost six years to the day, (October 20th 2005) at a reception in Toronto for the RBC Canadian Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Awards. As we chatted I expressed an interest in interviewing her for this magazine. After a few phone calls (with her PR company) my request was granted. I was invited into Linda’s home in downtown Toronto where she made me feel like a soul sister. As we ate lunch, sipped on wine, giggled about years gone by, Linda unfolded her life before me. She did so as if she was laying a delicate tissue pattern on a piece of suede, pinning each piece carefully into place as she was ready to cut another award winning international design.
Linda Lundstrom, the youngest of three girls, was born on April 24th 1951 in a small mining town called Red Lake in northwestern Ontario. History notes that the first non-native people to live in the Red Lake District were fur traders in the employ of the Northwest Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company as early as 1786.
“As a young child I loved to fish and I hunted with my parents as they were always a positive reinforcement to me. Not having much money I learned to value my parent’s teachings, like catching a pickerel, and to fillet and cook it. This built my self esteem as a young child and at the age of three my mother felt comfortable enough to let me use her little Singer Sewing Machine.”
At this time Linda excused herself from the room and brought back a small black box. Gently she opened it up as though it was a treasure chest full of magical memories. Inside was an old Singer Featherweight Sewing Machine just like the one her mother had let her play with at the age of three.
“It was amazing; the sewing machine was my mother’s most prized possession. There we were in the middle of the bush and she had bought it through Eaton’s Catalogue, which was like a lifeline to us as there was only a gravel road up to Red Lake at that point.” Linda then proudly showed me her finger where the needle had gone through it.
“My Mother had a small sewing business in the basement of our house and had all kinds of fabric so it was natural for me to be putting different pieces together to make a new dress. The patterns were all in my head. I didn’t make doll clothes. I don’t remember having a doll, so I made clothes for myself. By the time I was nine I entered a sewing contest in Red Lake at the Polish Hall. I was entered into the Beginners Category because of my age. My entry, which won first prize, was a jacket with dolman sleeves and a pair of pants. By the age of fourteen I was sewing for other people and of course my girlfriend. I’d whip up a pair of bell bottom pants for both of us to wear to the Friday night dance.”
Linda attended a small public school with combined grades of 1-2, 3-4-5, and 6-7-8. The teachers worked with grouped classes to ensure the students were learning at their grade level. “I liked public school but when I got into high school my marks weren’t great. Actually, it wasn’t until four years ago that I learned I had Irlen Syndrome as a child, (www.irlen.com), a reading disability, so when it came to chemistry or any subject that confined me to reading a lot I didn’t do too well. At the age of seventeen my family moved to Winnipeg where, to our surprise, I ended up in a private school. Some of the neighbours had mentioned that if I went to the certain school it would be central to where we lived and my father could go in one direction to work, my mother in the other, and I’d be close to school. It just happened that we received a bill for $1500 from the school board and that’s when we found out it was a Private School. My parents paid the bill and I repeated grade 11 due to a different curriculum. I became discouraged and instead of completing grade thirteen I left school after grade eleven.”
“I did everything expect school work. I played basketball, volleyball, ran the school newspaper and was on the student council. I loved parties. I was the party girl. On the lighter side I always had a great outfit to wear to the exam!”
“My mother had gone to a mining convention in Ontario with my father and while she was there she checked out a college for me to attend. When she returned home she told me that she had found the perfect school that was for fashion designers. I didn’t know what fashion design was, all I wanted to be was a dressmaker. The course was on clothing construction, pattern making, textile science, and knitting. I didn’t understand the whole “fashion” part of it. I would take McCall’s and Butterick patterns and mix and match them to make an outfit. I didn’t see it as designing, I saw it as dressmaking. At nineteen I left home to study Fashion Design at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario. At this point in my life I started to rebuild my self-esteem. I took the technical side of fashion design and the journey to discovering my creativity was to come later. This is where I met and am still great friends with, Wayne Clark, another Canadian Fashion Designer.”
Linda, Wayne and four other students were chosen from the college (an honour that she had not experienced before) by a program designer Jean Pearce, a retailer and couturier on Eglinton Ave. in downtown Toronto. As a result Linda won a Fashion Canada Scholarship and spent a year apprenticing in Europe. With $3000. in her pocket she ventured out to capture the world. By the time she found a place to live, paid her first and last months rent, and became familiar with the social eateries Linda, like most young travelers, had to ask her parents to help her out financially. Eventually to save on expenses she and Wayne became roommates for a while. After a few months in Paris, Linda went onto London, England to apprentice with Frank Usher before returning to Canada.
Now, at the age of twenty-three, Linda had European experience, had worked with three brilliant fashion designers and thought she could get work anywhere.
“When I returned to Ontario, I went to Phantom Hosiery and all the design shops on Spadina with no luck. It was so depressing, I was bursting with ideas. I called up Mom and Dad and told them I wanted to start my own company. They said OK, how could we help you? From the time I was twelve until I was seventeen I lived on top of a fabric store. My mother had been running her own Koshener Fabric Centre (in Winnipeg), selling fabric and renting sewing machines and my Father had left the mines to run his own business, so they knew where I was coming from.”
“In 1974, with a $10,000 loan from my parents I formed Linda Lundstrom Inc. in a two-bedroom apartment in Toronto. My dining room had plate boards around the top of the walls which I could hang things from; I had a long cutting board in the centre of the living room; sewing machines in one bedroom, and rolling racks in the other bedroom. My living room was my show room and a hide-a-bed worked as a couch during the day and I slept on it at night. I worked and lived like that for two years. I remember a very kind lady by the name of Marnie Groba who had a store in Yorkville. She came up to my apartment, looked at the line and placed and order. That year I made $14,000. I couldn’t take a salary; I don’t know how I lived. Sometimes I would make something and just sell it for cash to keep me going. I had two employees; one of them is still with me. She didn’t speak a word of English and I didn’t speak a word of Italian but she sat down at the sewing machine and just started sewing. The next year it was $25,000; then the following year $50,000 and it just kept growing.”
“It was hard work. Financing was difficult. Fabric suppliers and banks refused credit privileges, especially for a woman without a personal guarantor. I was underestimated as an entrepreneur and as a woman. I eventually moved into a 3,000 square foot space but still kept my apartment. It was nice to have my own space to get away from the factory at the end of a long day. As time went by I moved into a 10,000 square foot factory in Toronto. Things were doing so well that within two years I had to take another 8,000 square feet across the street.”
“In my tenth year of business I visited Japan and saw the return of the ancient kimono to the fashion scene. It was wonderful to see how a country had taken something from its past and made it contemporary. This led me to wonder what Canada had, like the kimono is to the Japanese. This inspired me to design the LAPARKA, a modern interpretation of a traditional Inuit parka. The journey led me into collaborations with native artists and, with the creation of products with a deeper meaning; it gave me an identity as a designer. It became the heart and soul of my company.”
Linda Lundstrom Inc. flourished. Her entrepreneurship, social and environmental commitments were honoured across Canada with recognition and awards that she deeply values.
By 1997 Linda Lundstrom Inc. sales had grown to over $12 million. In 1999 the company executed their fourth move, this time to a 60,000 square foot, state-of-the-art facility employing 150 people. Linda was designing six women’s collections a year. Her clothing was being sold in over 500 independent boutiques across Canada and the United States and there were four Linda Lundström flagship stores in Ontario.
This is where I met Linda for the first time. After twenty-five successful years on the Canadian fashion scene, the eroding global economy, combined with a decline in sales and increased expenses, took its toll on the company. Drastically, Linda did everything she could to restructure the company and through determination and team management, together with a reduced staff, Linda Lundstrom Inc. rose from the brink. From her heart, Linda publicly shares the lessons she has learned through this difficult journey.
“My greatest gift is in my hands and everything that I do with my hands. When I look back on the really important things in my life, relationships, career, the good feelings I have about myself, the confidence came through my hands. In school I was never rewarded for what I could do with my hands.”
“I realize now, life is a journey of getting to know this fascinating person called ‘me’. The whole process of self-discovery is dissecting the complexity of one’s own inner journey and one of the things I’ve discovered is accepting who you are when you get to that part of the journey, and that is to accept it rather than try to fix it or change it.