March 29, 2016–Laura Wright, Parka Maker
Growing up in Anchorage since the 70s, I’ve heard the name Laura Wright many times. More than that, I saw her handiwork everywhere in the beautiful parkas worn by Alaskans and visitors who were lucky enough to own one. While I could recognize her distinctive parkas, it dawned on me this week I had no idea who Laura Wright was. Was she even a real person? Or was she a name only, an invented persona to lend authenticity to a downtown vendor?
She’s real all right! And what a life!
Laura Wright is a world famous parka maker. She opened her own shop in downtown Anchorage on Fifth Avenue, Laura Wright’s Alaskan Parkys, selling her beautiful creations. I walked by her windows many times as a young woman, stopping to marvel at the colorful fabrics and ribbons that went into these beautiful coats.
Wright designed and patented Laura Wright Alaska Parkys, an original
winter parka incorporating traditional Alaska Native designs. Her parkas won numerous awards including Best Costume in a Miss Universe Pageant. Her parkas also caught the eyes of several celebrities. Notable clients included Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Ricky Nelson, Shirley Jones and Burl Ives.
Wright was born in Candle, Alaska in 1926. She passed away in 1996 at the age of 87. The following is taken from her obituary posted in the Fairbanks Daily News Miner (I especially love the part about the sharpshooting!):
Wright moved to Haycock. In 1926 she marred John Albert Hagberg. The couple operated a gold mine and raised their six children, eventually moving to Fairbanks so the children could attend high school.
After John Hagberg died in 1948, she married Dallas A. Wright in 1951. In 1971, they moved to Anchorage to open their downtown parka shop. Dallas Wright died in 1981.
As a member of the World War II Tundra Army in Alaska’s Territorial Guard, Wright proved to be a sharp shooter: During a training drill she hit the bull’s-eye 49 out of 50 times. She also delivered the U.S. mail by dog team, delivered babies, conducted funerals, and was involved in community activities. The Alaska Federation of Natives named her “Most Outstanding Living Eskimo,” and she was listed in Who’s Who of American Women in 1967. She also was nominated for the Alaska Mother of the Year award in 1968.
Wright was described by a family friend, the Rev. William Warren, as living a life that was “more unbelievable than a novel.”
“She had a compassion for placing others’ needs before her own,” her family said. “Her cheerful heart and home were always open. She was an inspiration to all who knew her.”
The success of Wright’s parkas and sewing enterprise was due to her attention to detail. To me, each parka looks like a masterpiece. The people inside her parkas are toasty and happy, even on the coldest days–these are people that long for winter bluster and flurries so they have a reason to don their parka.
I’m thinking right now of a distant friend of mine who had a Laura Wright Women’s Winter Parka in turquoise, with gold embroidered ribbon and a white fox ruff. The coat came below her knees. The fabric sort of glittered and rippled like the waters of Kenai Lake on a sunny day. My friend looked like an extraordinary work of art–an extraordinary work of art that lived and breathed and walked around our town doing ordinary things like carrying groceries in from the car or checking the mail.
That’s the thing about these parkas. They are magnificent. If you owned one, you might be tempted to pack it away and save it for dress occasion or to pass down to your descendants. But they are meant to be part of everyday life when the weather turns cold.
In 1985, Sheila Ezelle, Wright’s granddaughter bought the sewing shop, still calling it Laura Wright’s Alaskan Parkys, and moved it one block over onto Anchorage’s 4th Avenue. Ezelle continues in the family tradition of quality workmanship using the same patterns her grandmother created to make parkas with a distinctly Alaska aesthetic– warm, durable, and so beautiful everyone wants one.