Ready to Wear
Native Fashion Now
mong the finalists in the 11th season of t he popular reality show Project Runway is Patricia Michaels, a fashion designer from Taos Pueblo. She had already become locally known two years before that season began airing, when models, dressed in her designs and carrying parasols she made, paraded through the 2011 Indian Market and made a striking impression. Her first challenge on the national stage of the Lifetime network was to make a garment inspired by New York City. Michaels created the “Cityscape” dress — hand-painted white leather squares that resemble a blurry urban skyline and silk that appears almost sculpted.
“I was going over the Brooklyn Bridge and I looked up, and Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings came to mind, the ones that she did that look up at the skyscrapers, with the clouds at the top,” Michaels told Pasatiempo. “And then I thought of Agnes Martin. Both of them came to Taos. Agnes Martin died here. I knew her; I used to visit with her and see her studio. She did these minimalist grid patterns. So I took the corner of a window of the skyscraper, and did a staggered off-grid pattern, and made it personal to me.”
“Cityscape” is the first plate included in the catalog for Native Fashion Now (Delmonico Books/ Prestel, 2015), an exhibition of North American Indian style running through March 6 at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. It’s the first large-scale traveling exhibition of its kind, curated by Karen Kramer, the museum’s curator of Native American art and culture. In 2016 and 2017, the exhibition travels to the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Oregon; the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York.
“Cultural knowledge and personal life experiences are important sources of creativity — but they are not the only ones,” Kramer writes in the introductory essay. “Inspiration can come from any number of disparate sources. Today’s Native fashion designers draw from their personal and cultural histories, but also from the world around them. What makes their creations ‘Native,’ or ‘authentic,’ is not necessarily the use of traditional motifs or materials; it’s the designer’s artistic agency, cultural background, and creative ambition.”
Native Fashion Now comprises four sections: Pathbreakers, Revisitors, Activators, and Provocateurs. Many designers are included in or referenced in more than one section, but the most historical designers are in the first group, which includes Michaels as well as one of her mentors, the grandfather of contemporary Native f ashion design, Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee). Pathbreakers push beyond clichéd expectations of buckskin fringe and feathers to make clothing and accessories that appeal to a broad cross- section of consumers. New founded Kiva Studio in Scottsdale in 1946, and was the first art director of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. He sold his lines in Manhattan and Los Angeles boutiques and through the upscale department store Neiman Marcus. Frankie Welch (Cherokee), a friend of New’s, dressed the Washington elite and was a favorite of Lady Bird Johnson and Betty Ford. In 1966 she famously designed the “Cherokee
Alphabet” scarf on commission from the wife of then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who gave the limited-edition scarves to visiting dignitaries.
Pathbreaker Virgil Ortiz (Cochití Pueblo) was a ceramic artist until Donna Karan met him at Indian Market and invited him to intern with her. In 2003, he launched his own line of edgy sportswear, Indigene. He is also included among the Provocateurs. As Kramer writes, Ortiz’s clothing designs “often seem to take their cues from the soft yet substantial malleability of clay.” Another Pathbreaker, Santa Fe resident Orlando Dugi (Diné), creates vibrantly colored and embellished sheer couture dresses — the same line that was recently highlighted at the Santa Fe Street Fashion Show at La Fonda.
Designers in the Revisitors group refashion and upcycle traditional motifs and styles for use within their community for ceremonial purposes as well as for outside markets. Bethany Yellowtail (Apsáalooke [Crow]/ Northern Cheyenne) utilizes traditional materials, including elk teeth, to adorn Italian-made lace in her award-winning “Old Time Floral Elk Tooth Dress,” from her 2014 collection. “The dress is a knockout — elegant, sophisticated, and devastatingly sexy,” Kramer writes. “Balancing color, texture, and an incredible range of fabrication techniques, it embodies Yellowtail’s creative vision and worldview — and shows what amazing things can happen when the past merges with the present.” Revisitors take inspiration from historical fashion outside of Native communities as well, such as the parasol, a 19th- century European accessory that Plains Indians adopted and embellished upon. Teri Greeves (Kiowa) uses pictorial beadwork on her “Indian Parade Umbrella” that shows contemporary Native people in symbolically important representations of Crow community events.
Also featured as a Revisitor is the non- Native American designer Isaac Mizrahi and his 1991 “Totem Pole” dress, the inspiration for which comes from the totem poles of the Northwest coast. While not all Native designers consider Mizrahi’s dress a particularly good interpretation of a totem pole, catalog contributor Jay Calderín also notes that not all Native people consider totem poles to be sacred objects. And though Mizrahi used totem poles as inspiration, he didn’t directly recreate them. Taking cues from identifiably Native American color schemes, patterns, or shapes is different from actually stealing from another culture, a practice called cultural appropriation. Native Fashion Now is careful with this distinction, as appropriation of Native culture in mainstream American fashion has become a hot topic of debate in recent years.
Jessica R. Metcalfe (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), who holds a Ph.D. in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona, is the founder of Beyond Buckskin, a blog and online boutique for Native fashion. She was a consultant for the Native Fashion Now exhibition and wrote many of the image descriptions for the catalog. She often writes about cultural appropriation, which she and other scholars define as the unauthorized use of elements of an oppressed culture by a dominant culture in culturally inappropriate ways, which includes turning a profit. Though cultural appropriation happens every day and is especially rampant around Halloween, when white people often don feather headdresses and other
What I design is the part of Native America that embraces nature. — Patricia Michaels
Native “costumes,” one of the best-known examples is currently being litigated in federal court. The Navajo Nation is suing the retailer Urban Outfitters for labeling jackets, underwear, and flasks with a Southwesternstyle design as “Navajo.” Obviously, Navajo is not a catch-all term for every Native American tribe, nor is it a descriptor that’s in the public domain for general use, even if the design in question includes elements of traditional Navajo weavings.
“Appropriation isn’t a line in the sand. It’s a gray zone. The line is constantly moving, and we can’t really nail it down,” Metcalfe told “But we can be better designers. We can think about other people instead of stealing designs and profiting off them — by people who have no connection to Native people and have no desire to make a positive representation of Native culture, either. I think it’s a topic that we have to talk about.”
The best way to avoid issues of cultural appropriation is to buy from Native designers, but it isn’t just non-Native designers who should be sensitive to the specifics of their inspiration when it comes to Native culture. For instance, Michaels is not allowed by cultural practice to take something sacred from a Taos Pueblo ceremony and use it in her designs. “I can’t turn that into commerce,” she said. “I know what I feel during the ceremonies, so I can draw from that, and then I’m not offending anyone or doing anything taboo.” The content of ceremonies doesn’t belong to any one person, she said. “It belongs to the spirit world. What I design is the part of Native America that embraces nature. In the past, we were wrongfully depicted as savages because we talk to the trees or we pray at the water. That’s our religion. Society has caught up with us and no longer are we savages — but we’re not mystical. We’re just trying to be at peace with our environment.” Designers referred to as Activators in Native Fashion
dwell in the world of street fashion, which takes many of its cues from hip-hop and graffiti culture, and can be quite political. One of the most wellknown examples is Jared Yazzie’s (Diné) “Native Americans Discovered Columbus” T-shirt. Photos of people wearing it pop up all over social media every October, when the United States celebrates the 1492 “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus. Another famous T- shirt in this section is “Ceci n’est pas un conciliateur (This is not a peacemaker)” by Dustin Martin (Diné), which features an image of a single action revolver nicknamed the “Peacemaker,” that was used by Custer’s 7th Cavalry during the Great Sioux War of 1876. In a completely different vein are the futuristic, punk-rock looks by Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock). Plate 43 in the catalog shows a pink jacket made of holographic Italian lambskin paired with black leather pants patterned with cut-outs, and a half-moon-shaped yellow leather purse adorned by spikes.
Fashions by the fourth category of designers, Provocateurs, are more conceptual art t han wearable clothing. Like the Activators, Provocateurs often address political themes in their garments and accessories, but the approach is less direct, cloaked in layers of symbolism and historical reference. Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke), a seamstress, explored the intersection of reservation life and the outside world in a 2013 installation with Terrance Houle (Blood), Sikahpoyíí, bishée, baleiítaashtee (Motor oil, Buffalo, Dress), for the Portland Art Museum. An extravagant black leather fringed dress stands before inky silhouettes of buffalo, calling attention to the exploitation of Native lands for natural resources.
Michaels also appears in the narrative about Provocateurs with her “Cityscape” dress that was first featured among the Pathbreakers. It is fitting that
Native Fashion Now comes full circle with Michaels, who began designing in the 1980s, first at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and then at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She comes from a family of powwow dancers and was raised by a single mother in Taos and Santa Fe.“I attended Cristo Rey Academy, so I grew up partly on Canyon Road,” she said. “I had a really beautiful, tricultural life.” She described visiting the home of her Spanish friends from school, and attending gallery openings populated by wealthy Anglos. “I went to my first opening when I was eight years old, and it was for T.C. Cannon. I saw these beautiful paintings, and all these women draped in diamonds and turquoise and gold. And art collectors everywhere. And in the middle of all this was T.C. Cannon. I’d never seen a Native American in such a contemporary setting.” Her realization of how intrigued outsiders were by Native culture is part of what led her to become a fashion designer.
“If I can give something back to the world, to everybody, as a designer, then I’m really living my life, who I am,” she said. “I’m not limited to any one arena of art and culture. I’m a designer and I happen to be Native, but I love all the cultures. I love going to powwows, and to the Santa Fe Opera, and to Catholic mass and hearing the ladies sing in Spanish. I love the biscochitos and the farolitos at Christmas. I love all of it.”
“Native Fashion Now” is on exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, through March 6. The exhibition catalog, “Native Fashion Now: North American Indian Style,” by Karen Kramer, was published by Delmonico Books/Prestel last November.
Top to bottom, 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; skull and tulle fascinator by Dominique Hanke for Sho Sho Esquiro, photo Thosh Collins; Alano Edzerza ( Tahltan): Chilkat tunic, 2013, cotton, photo Thosh Collins; Patricia Michaels ( Taos Pueblo): Cityscape dress, “Projectect Runway, Sea ason 11” Collection, 2012, leather, pai nt, and silk, co urtesy Kathryn Ro ssi Below, Lloy yd Kiva New (Chero okee):
Kiva dress, 1950s,1 screen-prin nted cotton and metal, courtesy Fa ashion by Robert BlackB with Doreen n Picerne Opposite p age, an installation view of
Native Fash ion Now
Teri Greeves (Kiowa): Indian Parade Umbrella, 1999, brain tanned deer hide, glass beads, abalone shell, Bisbee turquoise, cloth, brass and nickel studs, Indian bead nickels, and antique umbrella frame, courtesy Gilbert Waldman; right, David Gaussoin and Wayne Nez Gaussoin (Diné (Navajo)/Picuris Pueblo): Postmodern Boa, 2009, stainless steel, sterling silver, enamel paint, and feathers, courtesy the designers
Pat Pruitt (Laguna Pueblo) and Chris Pruitt (Laguna Pueblo/Chiricahua Apache): Belt buckle, 2012, stainless steel, silver, Teflon, turquoise, and coral