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Meet the Native American Designers Innovating in the Fashion World

"Native Fashion Now" celebrates modern designers working at the intersection of tradition and revolution.
Orlando Dugi (Diné [Navajo]). “Desert Heat” Collection, 2012. Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum.

The Native American designers featured in Native Fashion Now construct their wearable visions in silk, leather, woven cedar bark, and Mylar. They adorn their garments with fox fur, elk teeth, and screen printed graphics. The main thing they all have in common is that they are part of an exciting wave of contemporary indigenous design.

Hailing this renaissance, the touring fashion exhibit, mounted by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, brings together high-profile Native designers such as Patricia Michaels (Taos-Pueblo), who competed on the 11th season of Project Runway, and Bethany Yellowtail, the Northern Cheyenne and Crow designer behind the fashion line B.Yellowtail. The pieces in the show represent many indigenous North American nations and many approaches to the idea of fashion. Some items bust stereotypes with pointed statements, while some celebrate tradition, and others manage to do both.


Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock). Boots, 2013-14. Glass beads on boots designed by Christian Louboutin. Photography by Walter Silver. Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum

One of the most striking items in the exhibit is a pair of Louboutin boots exquisitely hand beaded with a swallow design by Jamie Okuma, who is Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock. Speaking over the phone, Okuma praises Native Fashion Now for "showing people that we are here, we adapt, and we are thriving in the fashion industry. And that it's really beautiful when you see the real deal and not a knockoff, or someone's idea of what Native fashion and art is." Indeed, curator Karen Kramer consciously sought to build a show that would engage with current Indigenous American identity, culture, and creativity in a way that would provoke visitors to question their assumptions about what "authentic" or "traditional" Native fashion looks like.

Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock). Boots, 2013-14 (detail). Glass beads on boots designed by Christian Louboutin. Photography by Walter Silver. Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum

Speaking over the phone, Kramer explains that, "I really wanted to demonstrate that Native fashion is constantly reinventing itself, even if you're using a time honored motif or color story." Native Fashion Now is full of clothing, jewelry and accessories that illustrate this idea beautifully.

Jared Yazzie (Diné [Navajo]) for OxDx. Native Americans Discovered Columbus T-shirt, 2012. Cotton. Gift of Karen Kramer, 2015. Photography by Thosh Collins. Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum

In this decades-spanning collection, you can draw a line from Louie Gong's Chuck Taylor sneakers covered in hand-drawn Coast Salish formline patterns, to the minimalist 70s update of a traditional woven Navajo biil dress created by Margaret Wood, down to the printed 50s frocks of mid-century Cherokee designer Lloyd "Kiva" New. Each item helps make the point that indigenous American artists and artisans have always innovated and incorporated new ideas and materials into their work. Perhaps it's that tradition of change reflected in each piece that makes the show seem so very "now."


Pat Pruitt (Laguna Pueblo). Tahitian Bondage necklace, 2008. 315L stainless steel and natural Tahitian pearls. Photography by Walter Silver. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum.

Pat Pruitt (Laguna Pueblo) and Chris Pruitt (Laguna Pueblo/Chiricahua Apache). Belt buckle, 2012. Stainless steel, silver, Teflon, turquoise, and coral. Photography by Walter Silver. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum.

Sho Sho Esquiro (Kaska Dene/Cree). Wile Wile Wile dress, "Day of the Dead" Collection, 2013. Seal, beaver tail, carp, beads, silk, rayon, and rooster feathers. Peabody Essex Museum purchase with funds provided by Ellen and Steve Hoffman, 2016. Dominique Hanke (British) for Sho Sho Esquiro. Wile Wile Wile fascinator, "Day of the Dead" Collection, 2013. Animal skull, silk, horsehair, crinoline, felt. Photography by Thosh Collins. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum

Alano Edzerza (Tahltan). Chilkat tunic, 2013. Cotton. Photography by Thosh Collins. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum.

Native Fashion Now is currently on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City. After touring across the country, this stop will be its last. It closes September 4, 2017.


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