A growing number of Native American designers are making a mark in the fashion world by challenging outdated notions of what is considered Native style.
“Contemporary Native design goes way beyond the ‘beads, buckskins and feathers’ that the fashion industry perpetuates as mainstays of Native American fashion,” says Karen Kramer, curator of the traveling exhibition Native Fashion Now. On display at the New York branch of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, the exhibition highlights the work of indigenous North American designers from the 1950s to today.
The show, developed by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, includes nearly 70 works of wearable art that reflect each designer’s unique aesthetic, from glamorous runway looks to urban streetwear.
Native Fashion Now reveals how 21st-century Native designers are benefiting from their predecessors’ struggles and triumphs. For example, when Charles Loloma (of the Hopi tribe) began designing jewelry in the mid-1950s, he created strikingly modern pieces that critics initially rejected as “not Indian.” Loloma used unconventional materials (gold, lapis, sugilite, pearls, diamonds) instead of the silver and turquoise used in traditional Native jewelry.
After several years, however, Loloma’s designs won widespread acclaim, spurring other Native jewelers to innovate.
“Today’s Native designers draw from their heritage,” said Kramer, “but they expand on it and creatively employ a variety of styles, motifs, materials and techniques, along with wildly diverse color palettes.”
Kramer points to jeweler Pat Pruitt (Laguna Pueblo tribe), who is “two generations removed from Loloma, and conceptually related to him, but different aesthetically.”
Pruitt trained as a mechanical engineer, “so he’s into industrial design and uses a restricted palette of grays and blacks,” she said. “His jewelry, made from stainless steel and zirconium, is very radical and Gothic-looking.”
The exhibition includes haute couture looks — an evening gown featuring rooster feathers, carp skin, beaver tail and seal fur, by designer Sho Sho Esquiro (Kaska Dene/Cree tribes) — and diaphanous daytime dresses by Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo tribe), who competed on the TV show Project Runway.
For shoe lovers, there’s a pair of high-heeled Christian Louboutin boots, with elaborate beadwork by Jamie Ocuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock tribes), whose designs regularly start with a canvas provided by designer footwear.
Streetwear by T-shirt designer Jared Yazzie (Navajo, or Diné, tribe) expresses political messages. Yazzie “turns history on its head in four short words,” said Kramer, referring to a T-shirt that reads: “Native Americans discovered Columbus.”
Kramer says that native designers don’t just occupy a specialized niche within the fashion industry but rather are part of the mainstream fashion world. Yet, as their work demonstrates, they can mine their cultural roots while upending tribal clichés.
“I hope visitors walk away with a deeper understanding of the diversity and dynamism of Native American expression in fashion design,” said Kramer. Today, “Native fashion increasingly permeates ordinary life, across the internet, in stores, at skate parks — it’s pretty much everywhere.”