Backstage at the Runway: Native Fashion Now

GMarks-SWAIA2015-Fashion-BTS-09If the cultural mainstream is the domain of the popular, the proven and familiar, then the edges, where tributaries of distinct cultural streams meet and swirl, is the place where combined forces of friction and fusion create forms altogether new and innovative. The edges are where things really happen.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the world of fashion. In other traditional art forms––painting, pottery, basketry, among others––the primary audience is a self-selecting group of collectors, educated art historians, artists themselves. But we all wear clothes, and we are all influenced by fashion–– whether intentionally, through personal “style,” or peripherally, by simply buying what is available at any given time from major outlets. (Those who remember the epic “cerulean” speech by Meryl Streep’s character Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada already appreciate the sweeping implications of such a statement. )

The 2016 Southwestern Association for Indian Arts’ Haute Couture and Prêt-à-Porter Fashion Show provides a portal for those of us who don’t frequent the runways of fashion week to see first-hand the emergence of exquisite and exotic newly imagined designs, the energy and dynamic new forms of which promise to ripple across and disrupt the flow of the mainstream. These are designs marked by what journalist Laura Jacobs of the Wall Street Journal calls the “constants” of Native American design: “an affinity with the elemental; a sophisticated relationship with pattern and pictorial stylization; an emphasis on hand crafting; and, in the space between seeing and making, a sense of soaring.”

In 2014, then-newly appointed head of SWAIA Dallin Maybee JD (Northern Arapaho/Seneca) invited Amber-Dawn Bear Robe to produce the first-ever haute couture runway fashion show for Indian Market. The fashion show, like the new EDGE program that debuted last year, marks efforts to integrate new innovative concepts, media and subject matter with the iconic traditional crafts and motifs for which the market is best known. “I have worked with Amber on a number of fashion events in the past and immediately thought of her when I knew we wanted to explore a fashion event at Indian Market,” Dallin says.

GMarks-SWAIA2015-Fashion-BTS-07Amber-Dawn Bear Robe (Blackfoot/Siksika) is an art curator and art historian who currently teaches art history at the Institute of American Indian Arts. On moving to Santa Fe from her native Winnipeg, Canada, Amber-Dawn began producing fashion events for the Museum of Contemporary Native Art. Given her curatorial background and her already established relationships with designers through the MOCNA fashion shows, Amber-Dawn was the obvious choice in heading SWAIA’s foray into high fashion.

Indian Market has always featured Native American clothing, but historically the emphasis has been on the rich pageantry of traditional costume. With the addition of the haute couture runway show, Dallin says, “its been a venue that showcases the high-level fashion that is every bit as wonderful as our elaborate, one-of a kind traditional outfits, but within a context in which our designers are exploring, to accolade and accomplishment alike. These designers have participated in New York and Paris; it seems only appropriate that they bring their skills and talents to a venue like ours.”

Staging the Haute Couture show for Indian Market is an ambitious undertaking. Unlike the dazzling displays of Fashion Week with equally dizzying budgets, Amber-Dawn produces the annual fashion event with modest resources and an almost entirely volunteer crew––from Vogue Cosmetology and Adorabella Beauty Academy makeup artists to production crew to models, some of whom have runway experience, and some of whom do not.

GMarks-SWAIA2015-Fashion-BTS-08“It’s very ephemeral,” says Amber-Dawn about creating the show. “Here is something we’ve worked on for many months, and the energy is very high, it’s very fluid with so many working parts, dealing with so many people, and then it’s done within an hour!”

Within that hour, Native American fashion designers who have shown work in such fashion meccas as Milan and New York will debut designs never before seen. This year’s show features Orlando Dugi (Navajo), Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock), Sho Sho Esquiro (Kaska Dene/Cree), Pam Baker (Kwakwaka’wakw/Sqaumish), Dorothy Grant (Haida) and Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo), as well as accessory designers Wayne Nez & David Gaussoin (Picuris Pueblo/Navajo) and Crystal Worl (Tlingit Athabascan).

There are some who may be caught off guard by the contemporary infusion to an event that many see as a celebration of ancestral tradition, some who may be confused or even resistant to creative experimentation that doesn’t conform to expectations and stereotypes. But as Amber-Dawn puts it, Native Americans have always been ‘fashionistas.’ “Dress and ritual,” she says, “have always been central. We have always loved clothes. It’s beyond trend, it’s a way to distinguish yourself.” Self-expression is just as much a tribal tradition as custom beadwork.

Many of the designers featured in this year’s show have been distinguishing themselves in this way since early childhood, making costumes with elders for tribal ceremonies. As Taos designer and Project Runway finalist Patricia Michaels points out, “Clothing for Native American special ceremonies and occasions weren’t sold in stores. As soon as I could hold a piece of cloth in my hands, I started to help my mother create clothing for everyday and special holidays.” Clearly, these designers are sewing in the seams of their ancestors. But culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor is it held frozen in time like a museum diorama. Both Michaels and jewelry designer David Gaussoin, (native of Santa Fe; Picuris Pueblo, Navajo and French descent) recall making Star Wars costumes as well. The hybrid vigor of overlapping cultural influence, the spontaneous tango between a science-fiction rebel flight suit and tanned deer skin leggings, ignites the heart of Native American haute couture.

GMarks-SWAIA2015-Fashion-BTS-11A number of these designers were also featured in a recent landmark exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum show called Native Fashion Now. Curator Karen Kramer organized the show into four archetypal perspectives, Pathbreakers, Revisitors, Activators and Provocateurs, which provide a contextual framework for understanding contemporary Native American fashion: Pathbreakers “have broken ground;” Revisitors “refresh, renew, and expand on tradition;” Activators “merge street wear with personal style and activism;” and Provocateurs, design in the rarified elevations of couture, and “expand the boundaries of what fashion can be.”

With SWAIA’s haute couture addition to the market, it’s no coincidence Santa Fe is one of the epicenters of today’s Native fashion. In the early ’60s, then up-and-coming Cherokee designer Lloyd Kiva New moved to Santa Fe to help co-found the Institute of American Indian Arts. Lloyd is considered by many to be the founding father of contemporary Native design. His high-end label, Kiva, was once sold at Neiman Marcus and in boutiques around the country, and Lloyd was the first Native American to participate in international fashion shows. In celebration of what would have been his 100th birthday, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture hosted an exhibit entitled A New Century: The Life and Legacy of Cherokee Artist and Educator Lloyd Kiva New. This year’s fashion show is a celebration of that legacy, as well.

GMarks-SWAIA2015-FashionRunway-012The fashion world has been intrigued by Native American design for centuries. There are countless examples of cultural riffing, and outright theft, by designers seeking to tap into the vitality and visually compelling symbolism of Native American motifs and dress. One of the most publicized incidents occurred just a few years ago in 2012, when the Navajo Nation filed suit against Urban Outfitters, alleging breach of trademark and violations of the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act for their so-called “Navajo Hipster Panty” and “Navajo Flask.”

Shows like the Native Fashion Now, A New Century, and the Haute Couture show at SWAIA mark a seismic disruption in the social experience of Native American fashion design, signaling a new wave of Native authorship and identity within the fashion world that shifts the conversation from cultural appropriation to cultural appreciation.

For those who aren’t particularly interested, the word “fashion” is practically synonymous with a certain kind of superficial accessorizing––colors, cuts, materials that are little more than mile-markers en route to the always-moving target of what is “trending.” But a closer look at Native American contemporary design reveals in breathtaking textiles and cutting-edge silhouettes how significantly our clothes can reveal who we are, where we come from, and even perhaps who we hope to someday be.  

This year’s Haute Couture and Prêt-à-Porter Fashion Show at SWAIA offers a rare opportunity to see these designers and their work. As Amber-Dawn describes it, “…this is a unique, one-of-a-kind fashion show. Each year, the collection of designers is one that won’t be seen anywhere else at any other time.” For one fleeting day, this show will be center-stage to the dynamic intersection of tradition, personal vision and contemporary expression––a rare opportunity to see and hear first-hand a vibrant conversation about what it means to be––and look––Native today.
SWAIA HAUTE COUTURE AND PRÊT-À-PORTER Fashion Show: Saturday, Aug. 20, 1 p.m. Santa Fe Community Convention Center, 201 W. Marcy Street. Seats available for $10. Standing room is free.

To learn more about Native American fashion, check out designer Jessica Metcalfe’s blog, Beyond Buckskin,


Story and photos by Gabriella Marks

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