15 Native designers you need to know — because there is more to this culture than those who appropriate it
Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock designer Jamie Okuma recently made headlines when she featured a jingle dancer on her runway at the Power of Native Design fashion show in N.Y.C., which was livestreamed on The New York Times Styles Facebook page. The show — along with the current Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) exhibit Native Fashion Now — reveals that Native designers continue to produce quality fashions from streetwear to high-end accessories, even as the fashion industry struggles to define and curtail cultural appropriation.
Often, what we hear about Native American (and First Nations) fashion is what not to do: Don’t wear a headdress to music festivals. Don’t dress like an “Indian” for Halloween. Don’t appropriate Native design for your fashion label. All of these admonishments have to do with a problem that Native people face in many areas, from the sports mascot issue to misrepresentation in the media: Being seen as historical figures rather than contemporary people.
To find out how Native designers are dealing with those misconceptions, HelloGiggles spoke with Jessica Metcalfe, founder of the Native fashion blog Beyond Buckskin about the state of Native fashion.
“Native American fashion has existed as a named entity since at least the 1950s with Lloyd Kiva New, who was a successful Cherokee fashion designer operating out of Scottsdale, she said. “Right now we are experiencing a major moment — with the Native Fashion Now exhibit traveling the U.S. and wrapping up in New York, with Patricia Michaels' participation on Project Runway, and with the numerous Native designers receiving recognition by fashion, news, and lifestyle media outlets ... It's an exciting time and we want to take the opportunity to share our stories, designs, and personal style with the world in authentic and respectful ways.
She explained that appropriation of Native designs by mainstream fashion labels does more than offend people — it has an economic impact as well.
“Many non-Native designers use our symbols or names without permission, and they do it to make money for themselves,” she said. “They misrepresent our cultures while taking valuable income away from actual Native American artists. We feel the impact when non-Native brands perpetuate stereotypes that we have to confront on a daily basis. Our art, our cultures, and our practices are not in the ‘free bin’ for just anyone to use and exploit.”
Metcalfe said buying from Native designers helps combat the problem.
“The ones I work with are connected to their communities and are keenly aware of what sacred items and symbols should not be sold or worn by outsiders,” she said. “They specifically design beautiful, cool, contemporary garments meant to be appreciated and worn by people of all backgrounds.”
Interested in Native fashion? Check out these 15 designers from tribes across the U.S. and Canada:
1Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock)
Hot off the N.Y.C. show and exhibit, Okuma will present her Art ready-to-wear line on April 30th. Trained as a graphic artist (like her mother, who designed record covers for MCA in the ’70s), Okuma has been a professional artist since the age of 18, and she is known for graphic detailing and beadwork — especially on incredible shoes like the Louboutins shown in the introduction to this list. Her work has been shown around the world and is part of several permanent museum collections.
2Dorothy Grant (Haida)
Also part of the N.Y.C. show, Grant dressed actor Duane E. Howard for his Oscar appearance in February. She wrote of the experience,
"At the third fitting in Vancouver, when I saw him all put together, I literally cried. I realized it was about us all … about the native youth who would see him, the ones having self image issues, the ones feeling like giving up, the many pat racist atrocities that have happened to our people. We both stood in a place of power and felt the ancestors looking at us with thumbs up! It was like a long journey we both came to at once at a crossroad, like reaching a mountain top."
3Bethany Yellowtail (Apsaalooke [Crow]/Tsetsehestahese/So’taeo’o [Northern Cheyenne])
Also featured in the N.Y.C. shows, B.Yellowtail is a fashion line founded in 2014 by this designer, who also heads up The B. Yellowtail Collective. The collective features the art of over fifteen Native clothing and accessories designers from tribes of the Great Plains region.
In an interview with Forbes last year, Yellowtail said, “My bigger goal and dream is to bring manufacturing jobs back to my community. I mostly manufacture in downtown Los Angeles right now. I actually learned how to sew on my reservation, so that inspires me to someday bring that creative work back to the reservation and create jobs. The creativity there is immense. I think the Collective was the first stepping stone in making this happen.”
4Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo)
Michaels is best-known for reaching the final round of Project Runway in 2013, but her work does not end there. She continues to produce eco-friendly, organic couture through her company, PM Waterlily. In her artist’s statement, she writes, “Each piece is created, is worn, and continues to create fresh new meanings into the future. Every person brings his or her own sense of self into the narrative … In this way, we might defy the consumerist sense of fashion as something we can put on, take off, and casually cast aside.”
5Maya Stewart (Muscogee [Creek]/Chickasaw/Choctaw)
Stewart’s luxury handbags have been carried by Jennifer Lawrence, Anne Hathaway, Carrie Underwood, Kerry Washington, and Jaime King, among others. A graduate of the London College of Fashion, Stewart is now based in Los Angeles. Her designs reflect the influence of her Southeastern heritage as well as the work of her mother and aunts, who designed as The Fife Collection during the 1970s-80s. Recently, Stewart has expanded her line to include accessories like her popular arrow bracelet, shown above.
(Full disclosure: She is also my cousin. Not to brag or anything.)
6Belinda Bullshoe (Blackfeet)
Bullshoe was a newcomer to Couture Fashion Week in New York in 2016, having begun her venture into couture only four years prior. Before that, she had been known for blankets and the leg warmers common to the tribes of her region. Today, she designs formal dresses like the one shown above, from this year’s N.Y. Fashion Week.
7Sho Sho Esquiro (Kaska Dene/Cree)
Sho Sho Esquiro Clothing designs are part of the Native Fashion Now show, and they have also appeared on the runway at Couture Fashion Week in New York. In 2013, Metcalfe said that this avant-garde designer “pushes for fashion to be viewed as another form of art.” Her daring designs have been acquired by several museums, including the National Gallery in Ottawa and the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, where the label is based.
8Jared Yazzie (Diné)
Yazzie started his clothing line, OxDx, out of the trunk of his car, after dropping out of college. (He was an engineering major on a full-ride scholarship.) The brand has gone on to become one of the most well-known Native streetwear companies, with designs from pin-up to punk.
In his Beyond Buckskin artist profile, Yazzie writes, “Everywhere we see people O.D.ing not only on drugs but on greed, self appearance, and possessions. OxDx strives to make art for the people to remember where we came from and to not forget the teachings of elders. Regaining lost traditions is a task for the up and coming generations.”
9Keri Ataumbi (Kiowa)
Raised on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, this Santa Fe-based designer calls her work “wearable art.” On her website she writes that she, “is interested in exploring the relationship between jewelry’s capacity as adornment and as sculpture.” Ataumbi writes that she grew up around art and design. Her Italian-American father, Richard Greeves, is famous for bronze sculptures. Her sister, Terri Greeves, is a well-known beadworker.
10Leah Mata (yak tityu tityu [Northern Chumash])
There is no Chumash word that exactly translates as “artist,” but Mata’s design company takes its name, Saqwamu, from a close equivalent whose elements translate loosely to “maker” and “place where things are made.” On her website, she writes,
"My mission is not just to create things, but to create beautiful things, while also preserving my tribal traditions and bringing awareness to environment issues."
11Darylene Martin (Navajo)
Martin’s company, designhouse of darylene, consists of three houses: Martini Couture, Summer Rain, and Savage Beauty, all of which showcase a different side of Martin’s artistic vision. Summer Rain explores the Navajo concept of “walking in beauty,” while Savage Beauty is was described in Beyond Buckskin as “a bold and sexy (and sometimes punk) interpretation of an urban Native woman.”
12Marisa Mike (Navajo)
Along with several other designers on this list, Mike will be a presenter at Tradish, a fashion show that is part of Rezilience Indigenous Art Experience in Albuquerque on April 30th. The annual event showcases innovative Indigenous artists like Mike, whose work incorporates Navajo design on long, flowy dresses perfect for special occasions.
13Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo)
Ortiz is from a family of potters, and he began his artistic career in clay. In 2002, he collaborated with Donna Karan on a line that featured the Southwestern designs of his pottery transferred to Karan’s well-known silhouettes. In addition to pottery and fashion, he also works in film, photography, and home decor. He is working to create a summer arts program for Pueblo youth.
“Whatever they want to learn, the sky’s the limit," he wrote on his website. "I really want them to believe in themselves, and I want to help pave the road and teach them all that I’ve learned. It’s important for them to learn traditional Cochiti culture and art forms, but also to think outside the box. To live as an artist these days and compete with anyone in the larger, non-Native art world, you must have both skill and versatility.
14Kenneth Johnson (Muscogee [Creek]/Seminole)
Johnson is a metalsmith whose award-winning work has appeared in several exhibitions. He teamed up with Cochiti Pueblo designer Virgil Ortiz (#13 on this list) to create the unisex jewelry design RAIN. He has worked with designer Tom Ford, and he has done commissioned pieces for chiefs of several tribes as well as people like actress Jennifer Tilly and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
15Cody Sanderson (Navajo)
Sanderson is known for the imaginative, edgy style of his jewelry and his use of hand-fabricating techniques like bending, forging, casting, and hand-stamping. He has collaborated with several designers, including Maya Stewart (#5 on this list).
These designers are continuing fashion traditions and creating new ones every day. Next time you’re looking for that perfect piece to complete your look, consider a Native designer!