The Fiercely Contemporary Aesthetic of Today’s Native American Fashion Designers

Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock) boots (2013–14), glass beads on boots designed by Christian Louboutin (photo by Walter Silver)
Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock) boots (2013–14), glass beads on boots designed by Christian Louboutin (photo by Walter Silver)

SALEM, Mass. — Do not walk into Native Fashion Now expecting fringes and buckskin. These traditional materials can be found around the gallery, but the focus of this exhibit is firmly contemporary, featuring repurposed computer parts and daring plasticine as much as glass beadwork and silver jewelry.

Native fashion is as much about innovation as it is about passing on a tradition, a balance suggested by both the artists and the curation of this exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts. The show features work from a vast array of Native fashion designers and jewelers, almost all of whom are creating right now, contributing to the vitality of Native expression privately, for the community, and for public consumption. Their work navigates between public and private, a balance where tradition explicitly dictates what can and cannot be commercialized.

Dramatic looks open the exhibit, including this cape and dress by Orlando Dugi (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless noted)
Dramatic looks open the exhibit, including this cape and dress by Orlando Dugi. The cape is created from a work by artist Lisa Rutherford. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless noted) (click to enlarge)

Native Fashion Now aims to direct the discourse away from imitation, appropriation, or even flattering emulation, allowing for the artists to set the tone. Curator Karen Kramer and her team worked with many advisors, including featured designer Patricia Michaels, Boston Fashion Week founder Jay Calderin, fashion scholar Francesca Granata, and Beyond Buckskin founder Jessica Metcalfe. The exhibit aims to showcase the adaptive and creative talents of Native designers who have always looked beyond mainstream stereotypes to form their identity as creators. As Michaels told Hyperallergic, “It feeds our soul to take risks as artists.”

Spanning 50 years of Native fashion designers, the exhibit is constructed in four parts. “Pathbreakers” features those who brought Native creativity to fashion early on, inspiring a generation of designers and creating an appetite for work that expanded what it meant to design as Native Americans. This section is followed by “Revisitors,” featuring designers whose work constructs a dialogue with both Native and non-Native designers. The “Activators” section bring the concerns of Native design to everyday fashion like streetwear, and “Provocateurs,” the final section, draw on all possible parts of the design conversation to bring fashion unapologetically in new directions.

Jared Yazzle's streetwear turns traditional narrative on its head (click to enlarge)
Jared Yazzle’s streetwear turns traditional narrative on its head.

In the 1950s, Cherokee designer Lloyd “Kiva” New was the first Native fashion designer to create a successful brand, targeting his customized clothing and accessories to high-fashion clientele across the nation. He also founded the Institute of American Indian Arts in 1961 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where two generations of Native artists have so far been trained, and many of these artists are represented in Native Fashion Now. New’s work leads the show, along with works of contemporary designers. His delicate shirt dresses are classically 1950s style, but show a commitment to a couture-like attention to detail and tailoring. The textiles are adorned with nature-driven patterns from other notable Native designers who collaborated with his fashion house in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Patrica Michael's dress and installation (click to enlarge)
Patrica Michael’s dress and installation (click to enlarge)

Patricia Michaels, known for her success on Project Runway, opens the first portion of the show with a shower of parasols and an understated white sheath. This look is sharply contrasted with the piece beside it, Orlando Dugi’s beaded cape and dress, designed with a dramatic porcupine headdress. Elsewhere, gorgeously beaded Christian Louboutin boots commissioned by the museum from Jamie Okuma may be more traditional in material, but they are just as outrageous as Michaels’s futuristic hot-pink jacket. Jared Yazzie’s streetwear T-shirts invert historical narratives of indigenous peoples, declaring: “Native Americans Discovered Columbus.”

It’s not just clothing featured in the exhibit — there’s a broad spectrum of accessories, jewelry, and conceptual work as well, and all of it is surrounded by projections of runway footage and an interactive process lab. Most importantly for Peabody Essex, the exhibition builds on the museum’s existing Native American art collection, one of the world’s best established; it includes artifacts dating back more than 10,000 years, as well as one of the most extensive collections of historic clothing and textiles alongside contemporary works in fashion.

Pat Pruitt, Tahitian Bondage necklace (photo by Walter Silver)
Pat Pruitt’s Tahitian bondage necklace (photo by Walter Silver)

Pat Pruitt, a jeweler who draws on his personal experiences in body piercing and tattooing as much as his Native background, explains that his practice has always evolved, and has always been deeply contemporary. “My work changes all the time because of resources, because of environment, though new explorations,” he told Hyperallergic. It’s a sentiment echoed by many designers in the show; Native design is founded on a tradition of pushing limits and working with new materials. In the age of social media, these artists can communicate their work directly to a hungry audience, without the historic arbiters of taste and narrative intervening to determine what Native work “should” look like. Now the PEM is hoping to be a partner to this growing artistic community, working to foster talented designers who have been consistently told they were “not Native enough” to be lauded as Native artists.

Orlando Dugi (Diné [Navajo]), cape and dress from “Desert Heat” Collection (2012) (detail), paint, silk, organza, feathers, beads, and 24k gold (photo by Thosh Collins)
Orlando Dugi (Diné [Navajo]), cape and dress from “Desert Heat” Collection (2012) (photo by Thosh Collins)
In addition to Native Fashion Now, the Peabody Essex is committed to promoting and advocating for Native artists and curators, to continue to bring such work to the forefront. For the past six years, the museum has funded a unique Native American Fellowship program, reserved for students of Native American and native Hawaiian descent. It supports students in curatorial, educational, media, and manuscript processing, helping to bring these voices to forefront of art and media. With a recent influx of funding for the fellowships, the museum is poised to continue to support the work of these communities as members raise their voices and create spaces for themselves.

Wolf Chucks by Louie Wong in a striking commercial style display
Wolf Chucks by Louie Gong in a striking commercial style display
Llyod Kiva New created beautiful designer dresses both contemporary and traditional
Llyod Kiva New created beautiful designer dresses that are both contemporary and traditional.

Native Fashion Now continues at Peabody Essex Museum (161 Essex St, Salem, MA) until March 6, 2016.

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