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Native Fashion Design

By Jessica R. Metcalfe

While flipping through Native Peoples magazine one day in 2003, I came across a photo spread of contemporary Native high fashion. It intrigued me how the designers incorporated elements from their cultures’ traditional art forms into high fashion. Who were these designers, how did they break into the competitive world of high fashion, and how did they do it on their own culturally specific terms? These questions led me to explore the world of Native high fashion and wearable art focusing on the life and artwork of Chickasaw/Choctaw weaver Margaret Roach Wheeler and the Squamish designer Pamela Baker. Through them, I investigated several aspects of Native high fashion, including the use of clothing as a communicator, clothing as a means of perpetuating aspects of Native cultures, and the use of clothing in honoring and expressing status and identity. Building on this research, I plan to document the Native fashion movement and the evolution of Native American dress as fashion.

In order to narrow the parameters of my research, I set up boundaries for myself, and limited the definition of “Native designers of high fashion” to artists who design clothing, participate in fashion shows, sell their garments and have clients, and constantly create new clothes for a regional, national, or international market. As for the question of who is Native, I simply focus on those individuals who self-identify as Native and are recognized by their Native communities as members.

Through the individuals highlighted in this paper, I discuss how designers continue cultural traditions of customary clothing design and innovation by updating traditional designs and “Indianizing” contemporary fashion styles. These designers also highlight how Native people have always incorporated new materials and ideas into their preexisting cultural frameworks to make them unique and culturally meaningful. Continuing this practice, contemporary designers explore how modern cuts, silhouettes, and materials can be blended with traditional cultural design concepts and symbols to create unique, expertly constructed, artistic, and highly valued garments. High fashion, as created by Native artists, offers a particularly vivid opportunity for designers and their patrons to express varied ideas about Native cultures and identity.

My research which will culminate in a PhD dissertation begins with Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee) and focuses on the development of his successful Scottsdale fashion boutique in the 1940s and 1950s. I will discuss the historical development of the Institute of American Indian Arts’ (IAIA) fashion program in the 1960s and 1970s and spotlight the career of Wendy Ponca (Osage). As the Institute’s main fashion instructor, teaching the Fashion courses for a decade, she undoubtedly had a huge impact on her students, who include Pilar Agoyo (San Juan Pueblo) and Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo), and also on Native fashion today. I will look outside of IAIA fashion program, and changes the focus to Native female designers. Margaret Wood (Navajo/Seminole) and Dorothy Grant (Haida) are just two of these women. Chapter 6 focuses on the breakthrough artist and designer Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti). And Chapter 7 offers a glimpse into the international world of Indigenous fashion by featuring Angela DeMontigny (Chippewa/Cree/Metis).

Lloyd Kiva New was born Lloyd Henri New on February 18, 1916, in Fairland, Oklahoma, as the youngest of ten children to a Scots-Irish farmer and a Cherokee woman (Fudala 2005). In December of 1945, New, along with a group of other artisans, opened boutiques in Scottsdale’s Arizona Craftsmen Court. This group tapped into the Scottsdale market, which at this time was developing into a resort town for the wealthy. Scottsdale’s combination of wealthy patrons, conspicuous consumption, and artists who created fine, hand-made, unique items produced a prosperous environment for New and a select few others who established businesses there in the post-World War II years (Fisher 1958, Fudala 2001, Living Treasures 1994, Scottsdale Historic Preservation Commission 2002).

Initially, New’s business focused on experimenting with leather, creating belts and hats, and handbags inspired by Navajo medicine pouches. These re-interpreted and secularized bags were the genesis of the Lloyd Kiva leatherworks company. The purses were made of soft leathers and decorated with hand-worked silver or brass pieces that included Native designs and symbols (Fudala 2005, Living Treasures 1994, Lotan 1954, MacKenzie 1948).

As New’s handbags became nationally known, they became increasingly desired by upper-class women. Many of New’s clients would request copies or variations of styles that he had made for other clients. In 1949, the phrase “It’s a Kiva bag,” was coined and printed in local and national publications, such as Harper’s Bazaar, Holiday Magazine, The New Yorker, and Town and Country. New sold those handbags for comparatively high prices. In a 1957 they sold for $150 to $200 each, which translates to around $1000 in today’s economy. Accessories, which were carefully coordinated even in everyday wear, had enormous fashion status in the 1950s. During that time it was important to match handbags with gloves and footwear in both color and style and quality leather bags were symbols of luxury and wealth (Buxbaum 2005: 78). New’s business, which recognized the role accessories played as status symbols, created unique handbags that would mark individuals as well-traveled resort-visiting jetsetters who could afford to purchase high-quality, one of a kind ‘souvenirs’ (MacKenzie 1948).

Because clients wanted only his signature style handbag, New found himself virtually out of work as a designer (Living Treasures 1994). To keep him interested in the fashion industry and to expand his clientele base New began experimenting with fabric. In 1948, he began to design coats and jackets and then expanded his business into fashion design and fabric silk-screening in the early 1950s (Fudala 2005: 3). In 1951 New participated in the Atlantic City International Fashion Show. The Scottsdale Progress newspaper reported that “Lloyd Kiva will be showing his new Indian Beadwork Dress, one of his two print Cherokee outfits, a Seminole type skirt, and a lovely new designed greatcoat of hand woven wool…Several of his bags will be featured” (N.A. 1951: 1). New participated in Atlantic City’s Second Annual Fashion Show in 1952 where he was awarded even greater national recognition.  While in Atlantic City the Museum of Modern Art purchased one of his designer dresses.

In April, New was featured in the Los Angeles Times, which reported it was an “Indian summer” for fashion and that the clothing industry was “going Native.” The article featured an image of his two-piece dress, described as cactus-green and desert-sand wool with hand-woven trim (Short 1952: H24). The colors of his garments were inspired by and named after various characteristics of the desert. These names helped in describing the garments pictured in black and white periodicals of the time and added a uniqueness and novelty to his couture. The fact that portions of the garments were hand-made and one of a kind, added an additional sense of luxury and exclusiveness to them.

In order to maintain the quality and individuality expected of high fashion, New would select a small yardage of fine fabric onto which he printed a unique design with the help of his assistants including Manfred Susunkewa. With this uniquely printed fabric, he created his limited-edition garments which typically followed the popular silhouettes of the time. One pleated skirt incorporated a gold Pima basket design under-layer, which was sewn to extend slightly below the hem (Lotan 1954:16). New’s knack for integrating Native aesthetic design elements onto popular clothing styles established him as a notable designer by the mid-1950s. One reporter remarked: “A true artist, Lloyd sees the possibility of odd accessory touches and combinations for his designs, which is what makes them ‘Kiva’” (Lotan 1954:16). These “odd accessory touches,” became the hallmarks of New’s work. The details were subtle enough that non-Native people could proudly wear them without feeling ‘odd’ themselves.

In the winter of 1954 and 1955 New built the Kiva Craft Center, also known as the Craftsmen Court where Charles and Otellie Loloma, Andrew Tsinhajinnie, and several other artists occupied studios and retail shops. In 1956, People and Places magazine wrote an article about the Craftsman Court and Lloyd Kiva New, describing him as the owner of a most notable shop (N.A. 1956: 5). Within ten years New went from selling a singular style of leather purse to owning his own arts complex.

In 1957 Miss Arizona, Lynn Freyse, wore a Kiva creation at the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, introducing New’s garments to the beauty pageant world. New’s shop at the time included a limited wholesale business dealing with stores like Nieman-Marcus in Dallas, Lord and Taylor in New York, and Neusteter in Denver (Fisher 1958: n.p.). By 1959, New’s business had grown so much that he employed fifteen Native assistants who helped New with the printing of fabrics he designed and used for women’s dresses, coats, and capes and men’s coats, shirts, and robes (Wright 1959: 3).

New firmly believed that Native people were an integral part of the life and identity of the United States. In the post World War II environment of American national pride, New advocated that there wasn’t much more “American” than the “Native American,” and he encouraged people to express this pride in their clothing selections.

Some of the key elements of New’s success were his handbags, which were high priced yet affordable and desirable to a segment of the population who valued them as status symbols. In addition, New was receptive to his clients and omitted any elements that deterred them from buying his handbags and garments. One reporter called New’s aesthetic and marketing strategy “shunting off some of the traditional shapes, taboos and religious symbols” (MacKenzie 1948: 8). New understood Anglo-American tastes and incorporated certain elements of Native design motifs and translated them into marketable items but avoided ‘taboos’ by not using ceremonial or sacred shapes, designs, or symbols.

New created limited edition garments that were recognizably ‘Kiva’ but which were individually unique. He turned his fashion shows into luxurious experiences that were staged poolside with cocktails and he was able to talk about each piece; offering a contextual history of each of the Native design elements that he incorporated. He tapped into the national and international fashion markets through publications and fashion shows, and he employed talented assistants to help him execute his designs.

Lloyd Kiva New played an important role in revolutionizing Native clothing design in the mid-1900s. He worked in textile arts, leatherwork, and fashion design with his own boutique and design center, and was active in the development of Scottsdale as an arts center. New’s business prospered when opportunities for Native individuals were limited and bounded. Upper-class Anglo women wore his garments made with Native designs in a time when Native cultures were being smothered out and dissolved into American cities through government policies of relocation and termination. He expressed the importance and relevance of Native cultures and Indian educational programs while at the same time promoting his business by emceeing fashion shows by resort pools, doing interviews for national articles, and hosting art or cultural events.  Throughout his career as a fashion and accessories designer, New incorporated Native design concepts including symbols, materials, silhouettes, cuts, and color palettes from various tribes; sometimes combining them, to create items that would work within Anglo American paradigms of gender, class, and ethnicity. New acknowledged social limitations and cultural expectations and worked within these frameworks to create new possibilities for Native people.

As the 1950s came to a close, New was quoted in three separate newspaper articles about his ideas for a school that would provide new opportunities for Native youth. New stated:

My next project will be the establishment of some kind of a design laboratory. We’ll teach Indian boys and girls, just out of school, how to make a living with their own native craft-work. I’d like to put the bead work of the Yuma Indians and the native fabrics of the Navajo, Hopi, and Sioux into high fashion too (Fisher 1958: n.p.)!

New’s early ideas for what would later become IAIA were to build a design laboratory that included instruction in high fashion. New’s suggestions for Indian art education focused on experimentation with new materials and new means, such as fashion, and provided valuable information on marketing and business know-how that would enable students to prosper as artists in the competitive markets of the world. These ideas for a ‘design laboratory’ led to the opening of IAIA in 1962.

 In the beginning years, IAIA offered a variety of courses within the clothing design curriculum that included textile arts, silk-screening, sewing, and weaving. In addition to home economics and weaving, students could enroll in Josephine Wapp’s Traditional Techniques course. In the early IAIA course catalogues, the Traditional Techniques course description explained:

This course is planned to provide knowledge and skills in traditional crafts with opportunities for modern adaptations. Through the making of dance costumes, clothing, shawls, through leather and beadwork as well as techniques with shells and feathers, the student develops an appreciation of the beauty and skilled craftsmanship that went into the traditional handwork of his people. Continued work beyond the first unit leads to the ability to adapt Indian techniques to contemporary materials, styles and forms (Institute of American Indian Arts, n.d.).

Through experiential learning, students acquired background information and learned how to continue age-old practices and techniques related to a number of tribal traditions. Specifically, dance regalia, weaving, leather craft, and accessorizing techniques were taught, with a focus on incorporating natural materials. One goal of this class was to expand aesthetic appreciation for Native clothing, as well as to develop a deeper understanding pertaining to the various techniques of creating Native tribal garments and accessories. After the introductory course, students could follow up with another course that allowed more freedom to include contemporary materials, designs, and styles. Students participated in fashion shows of their garments as part of this course.

Fashion shows had been conducted by faculty and students since IAIA’s beginning years. Just three years after the opening of the Institute, students hosted a “style show” and IAIA’s fashion shows went out of state for the first time in 1968 hosted by the Tucson Woman’s Club Indian Affairs Committee. In 1970, Wapp’s Traditional Techniques students hosted a fashion show on campus. The presentation was narrated by Lloyd Kiva New and included traditional and contemporary examples of Native garments, jewelry, and an intermission dance performance by three IAIA students. This general fashion show format of exhibiting both traditional and contemporary garments with a cultural performance was replicated by several designers and fashion collectives in the following years and continues to be a format used for Native fashion shows (Drumbeats 1966a, Drumbeats 1968, Drumbeats 1970a).

This format demonstrated that traditional attire was still being made, but also suggested a narrative of change and adaptation. Two of the goals of the show were to highlight the complexity and validity of Native fashions and to create an awareness and pride in this aspect of Native cultures (Drumbeats 1970b: 8). For example, the garments pictured in an IAIA school paper article on fashion included a contemporary Indian shirt, traditional Seminole outfit, contemporary Indian dress, traditional Navajo dress, and a traditional Winnebago outfit with beadwork. Interestingly, the garments labeled as traditional were ascribed a tribe, while the modern or contemporary garments were simply labeled “Indian,” suggesting a pan-Indian influence on fashion at the Institute as well as at other Indian boarding schools. While individual tribalism was supported, pride in a broader sense of “Indianness” was also being encouraged.

 Wapp’s Traditional Techniques class traveled to New York in December of 1972 to showcase designs created during the fall semester. The trip to New York City proved to be a valuable experience. The students were applauded for their designs and asked to participate in a contest to create contemporary Native fashions for the Phillips Fiber Corporation in New York. Two of the purposes of the competition were to promote their fabrics and to provide opportunities for IAIA students in fashion design. Two students, Denise Ellis and Bonnie Osuna and Traditional Techniques teaching assistant Imogene Goodshot were selected as winners. Ellis created a shirt of print material with ribbon-work edging, a pair of pants, and long wrap-around skirt. Osuna designed a floor length dress with a wide concho belt. Goodshot produced a long cape with frontal patch-work designs. The three winners received a $300 cash prize and acknowledgement at the National Knitted Outerwear Fashion Show in front of a thousand representatives from the fashion industry (Cajune 1973: 1).

Within 10 years of the school’s opening, IAIA fashion shows of both traditional and adapted garments were held in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and New York. The students and the school were developing a national reputation in regional attire. Students realized that by enrolling in Wapp’s courses, they could travel and experience new places and make contacts by creating garments and participating in the fashion shows. Through these shows Wapp created opportunities for her students to expand their professional and personal goals.

After Wapp retired, a new instructor Sandy Wilson (Muscogee Creek) taught the Traditional Techniques courses in the late 1970s. She taught a progressive set of courses that included Decorative Techniques, Weaving and Basket-making, Traditional and Contemporary Fashion Design, and Traditional Techniques. The students studied the history of Native clothing and applied this knowledge in creating garments reflecting traditional wear or contemporary designs with traditional elements added.

The fashion shows presented by Wilson’s students were intended for wealthy non-Native women and for cultural awareness programs and education in public schools. In 1977, Wilson’s class hosted a show for the women’s division of the Chamber of Commerce of Santa Fe (Montgomery 1977). The show featured traditional and contemporary garments inspired by at least eight tribal clothing traditions. One student explained that “…such events are important in building the image of the IAIA in this community. The fashion show helped the community to know more of the Institute and to accept the students as part of the community” (Red Owl 1977: 10). The shows were seen as cultural presentations, celebrations, and forms of cross-cultural education. Wilson taught at IAIA for three years before taking a position in Oklahoma. One of Wilson’s students, Wendy Ponca, would become a major force in the field of fashion design education at IAIA.

While Traditional Techniques began as an introductory course in 1962, it quickly became one of the most popular classes on campus. Male students were enthusiastic about the course as well, resulting in increased enrollment and participation in fashion shows. The students came from a variety of tribal backgrounds and this diversity was expressed in the garments they produced, displayed, and donated to the Institute.

At IAIA, as opposed to other art institutions, students could learn and incorporate the traditional techniques of their people while learning and experimenting with contemporary methods. Instead of creating garments with no tribal cultural influence, students were encouraged to extend Native clothing traditions into the contemporary realm and push them in new directions. The students could both modernize and indigenize their designs. Students were recognized as playing an important role in creating new fashions from traditional styles.

Kimberly ‘Wendy’ Ponca, an Osage from Oklahoma, was born in 1960 and attended IAIA from 1976 to 1978 as a high school student. She studied under Sandy Wilson and learned a variety of techniques including ribbonwork that she added to her shirt and shawl creations. After graduating from IAIA, Ponca studied art and weaving in New York and Greece and attended the Kansas City Art Institute where she graduated as a Fiber Arts major earning a B.F.A. in 1982. She returned to Santa Fe and worked at the Santa Fe Opera in the costume department. After the Opera season was over, she joined the IAIA staff as the new Traditional Techniques instructor and worked there for ten years until 1993 (Ponca 2009).

Ponca stated that: “Many people do art for money. Others do art for arts sake. I do art for history’s sake. I want to preserve my traditional culture, while reflecting the signs of contemporary America” (Ponca 1994b). Ponca’s perspective pertaining to the role of art in perpetuating cultural customs emerged in her own art as well as in her teaching practices. As the new Traditional Techniques and Clothing instructor, Ponca expanded the clothing curriculum at IAIA, increased and improved the student fashion shows, and changed the face of Native fashion.

Throughout her career, Ponca encouraged her students to develop their strengths, but also to try new techniques. She allowed her students to determine the extent to which their pieces drew on traditional or contemporary influences. Her teaching philosophy was to show the students the methods and medium of the art form. Then she would tell them the history of the art form and let them decide how to create from this experience (Ponca 1994a: 5). Ponca believed that once the groundwork was laid and the traditional techniques for art creation were learned, new methods could be introduced. Instead of assigning specific projects, Ponca gave her students deadlines for fashion shows, and required that they complete a garment or accessory for the event. Throughout the 1980s, Ponca and her students hosted an hour-long fashion show every year during the IAIA Arts Festival which highlighted the work of graduating students. These shows were important in providing unique and invaluable experience in fashion show preparation that was integral to professional development in the field.

She said that her classes, “transcend the normal art school curriculum in that, as Indians, we are furthering tradition. As we evolve culturally within a multi-cultured environment, we are doing and creating as we have for hundreds, even thousands of years; utilizing that which surrounds us symbolically, economically, and fashionably” (Native Uprising n.d.: n.p.).

Ponca was labeled “Osage avant-garde” but she was also described as perpetuating the legacy of the Osage traditional figure Spider Woman; according to tribal stories Spider Woman taught weaving to the people. Ponca became known for creating garments in unique combinations, such as using age-old Osage design motifs and combining them with contemporary materials or symbols. For example, she designed appliqué Osage blankets featuring motorcycles, hand grenades, or watermelons cut from colorful silk. She also re-created old blankets or garments, replacing horse symbols with iconic jet planes of taffeta trimmed with sparkling antique trade beads. In 1988, she explained to a reporter: “I’m tired of acting like America’s stereotypical Indian. I am Indian. When I do art, its Indian art. It doesn’t have to have a buffalo with a longhaired woman looking up at the stars. I’m tired of that kind of stuff” (Knoll 1988: 40). To create art, Ponca drew on her experiences as a contemporary Osage person and this is evident in her juxtaposition of the time-honored with the entirely-new. Her garment collections were described as both a reflection and a re-definition of a culture.

As a designer, Ponca used innovative new materials in her fashions to tell traditional Osage stories. She was particularly fond of Mylar, a synthetic, silver, reflective material used on space shuttles. She appreciated the idea of using a material that was connected with the sky and stars, especially since traditional Osage stories described the people’s connection with the sky world. In fact, Osage people believed that their ancestors came from the sky (Dollarhide 2003). To Ponca, the use of Mylar accentuated that relationship.

Ponca also used body paint on her models and feathers in her models’ hair for photographs and fashion shows. When asked about her use of feathers and body paint, Ponca explained that she used feathers in the models hair for multiple reasons. One was for aesthetics and balance: the Mylar dresses had full bottoms, and the feathers balanced out the model’s head. By adding to the top, Ponca was able to off set the design below. Also, she explained, she used the feathers because of the strength that it gives the wearer. She stated that “when you put an eagle feather in your hair, it gives you a sense of power, strength. When I wear a feather, I feel the power from it” (Ponca 2009). This way of thinking directly related to her philosophy on garments and adornment: what you wear should make you feel confident and beautiful. Ponca said that the body paint and feathers “changes you on the inside, your intellect, being. It’s a powerful thing, it changes you emotionally” (Ponca 2009).

One of Ponca’s most exciting ventures included the co-founding of a collective of Native designers, artists, and models in the mid-1980s with designers Marcus Amerman (Choctaw), Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo), and others. The group was first known as Native Influx then later as Native Uprising. They were the first all-Native fashion clothing design cooperative effort of its kind and comprised of alumni of IAIA’s Fiber Arts Department. They created the group in an effort to profit from their shows and they wanted the models and designers who participated to be paid; especially since they were gaining more exposure at this time. Ponca stated that the group supported emerging Native artists, designers, and models, and they wanted to “make a living off of their art.” They were able to accomplish this in a variety of ways. Sometimes the fashion show venue would charge admission and Native Uprising would earn a portion. Other times the group would draw up a contract with an institution or organization and charge a designer fee. The designers also sold their garments at these events; sometimes held at Indian Casinos. Some were sold “right off of the model,” others were purchased as commissioned alterations of the pieces in the show (Ponca 2009).

The group focused on producing exciting fashion shows, sometimes creating huge painted backdrops. The powwow club also participated, showing off their garments and performing intermission dances. When asked if she ever felt confined by the Santa Fe market or if she ever felt pressure to reproduce the iconic Santa Fe Style, Ponca said, “No. We were the hottest ticket in town” (Ponca 2009). People wanted to see what new ideas these Native designers had for fashion. About the significance of this group, one reporter said: “The Santa Fe area has long been the fashion trend-setter for the Southwest and now is fast becoming the heart of Indian fashion as well” (Gonzales 1989).

The Native Uprising fashion shows featured traditional, contemporary, and leading edge clothing, jewelry, and accessories designed, produced, and modeled by over twenty individuals. Representing various tribal backgrounds, the collective viewed their art as a continuation of the age-old tradition of personal adornment. Native Uprising was dedicated to the development of a full-fledged contemporary costume and fashion design movement that would enable future IAIA graduates to assume leadership roles in the field, a role exercised by their ancestors for thousands of years. According to Lloyd Kiva New, who supported the group, “fashion represents one of the most basic and compelling of artistic impulses… the art of personal adornment” (Native Uprising n.d.). New believed that fashion was the oldest form of design and artistic expression for all mankind.

By 1990, Ponca was at the height of her career as a fashion designer and one of her students was managing her new store Ponca Design. The early 1990s were a time of expansion for the fashion curriculum at IAIA as well but this expansion did not last long. Ponca left IAIA in 1993 due to family obligations and within 2 years of her leaving the fashion program was dropped from the course offerings.

Ponca continued to be featured in events and publications in the late 1990s and Native high fashion gained momentum on the national scene. The fashion shows at IAIA, however, turned from a student focus to a focus on alumni designers. In 2004 IAIA hosted The Power of Fashion and featured the recent work of IAIA alumni. At this event Lloyd Kiva New’s wife Aysen New was a guest speaker. She held up a popular fashion magazine: the latest trend featured Navajo-inspired garments and accessories. New had always advocated fashion design as a way of promoting positive careers for Native people. He was concerned that non-Native designers would capitalize on Native inspired designs, selling replicas of borrowed authenticity while Native designers went unrecognized. When asked what she thought of non-Native designers creating “Indian Style” lines of clothing, Ponca stated that the “tribal trend” comes and goes. Native designers should be able to profit from the current Native-inspired fashion trend, but she explained that in order to do that, it was necessary to go to New York or Paris and make connections that get Native-made fashion international exposure (Ponca 2009).

Of course, a lot has happened in the world of Native high fashion out side of New Mexico’s Institute of American Indian Arts. Navajo/Seminole designer Margaret Wood began designing and making clothing for herself when she was young because she could not find clothing that adequately expressed her identity as a Native person. In the 1970s she began sketching clothing ideas that would later become the basis of her book Native American Fashion: Modern Adaptations of Traditional Designs. While the book was intended to be educational and instructional, readers began requesting commissioned dresses from Wood. In 1981 she founded Native American Fashions, Inc. Wood created modern adaptations of traditional garments from the 1800s such as the Pueblo manta. She also drew inspiration from contemporary fashion design and effectively “Indianized” high fashion styles such as Halston’s 1976 shirtwaist dress. By “broomstick-pleating” the dress, Wood created a cotton knee-length Navajo-style skirt. Margaret Wood’s innovative and unique work in the world of Native fashion in the 1970s and 1980s offers a stylistic bridge between the traditional and the contemporary.

Haida designer Dorothy Grant was born and raised in Alaska. In 1983 she began sketching Haida art onto clothing. As the idea developed, she was motivated by non-Native designers who were incorporating Northwest coast native art into their clothing. She felt that they had provided a poor representation of a beautiful art form and in 1994 Grant opened her first retail store in Vancouver where she stated: “For the past 20 years I have been researching Haida designs in my local communities and transforming this knowledge into garments” (Grant 2006).

Taos, New Mexico designer Patricia Michaels starts each garment as though it is a “blank canvas.” Indeed the majority of her designs begin with plain white fabric. She then “paints” on each piece, having learned the art of textile design and silk-screening at IAIA. After creating her one-of-a-kind printed fabric, Michaels then creates the garments. She blends images from her Pueblo heritage with inspiration drawn from the ever-changing world around her, including elements from the natural environment, such as feathers and aspects from city life, such as architectural features and designs. Her work is elegant, fluid, sophisticated, and organic. Recently she has ventured into using eco-friendly materials such as soy-based and bamboo fabrics. Her latest New York collection of garments artistically depicts tall buildings and manholes reflected in water. She believes that tradition and modernity can combine to maintain the dynamic and creative cultures of not just Native people but all people.

Pilar Agoyo’s work is difficult to categorize and her talents in couture are diverse. She has designed costumes for various films and completed commission work for a diverse client base. Through her fashion, she pushes the boundaries of contemporary Native clothing design. In the past few years she has participated in the Santa Fe Indian Market and the Heard Museum Indian Market and has submitted her unconventional designs to their juried events. Her creative garments force patrons and judges to rethink their understanding and expectations of Native fashion. For example, Agoyo designed a bikini made of Pendleton material bordered with rhinestones and accessorized with a fur wrap. She has created a black and silver vinyl dress with traditional Pueblo designs and has used the arduous and intricate reverse appliqué process, demonstrating her skill as a couturier. She has also used dimes for buttons, a practice used by many Native people in the 1800s and prior. Agoyo has found a creative way to revive age-old practices in new ways.

Navajo designer Penny Singer began sewing at a young age but did not get serious about creating clothing until college. While at IAIA she made dance regalia and ribbon shirts for a friend and then later decided to sell her ribbon shirts at Indian markets. Since that time she has expanded her repertoire to men’s and women’s shirts, jackets, vests, capes, and accessories. Utilizing Native iconography, her designs range from the relatively simple to the highly complex. To some degree her use of corn, turtles, rivers, dragonflies, butterflies and horses in her designs are universal across many tribal affiliations but she also uses symbols that are specific to her Diné heritage. Singer says that the “finished products are not simply clothes and handbags; they are true works of wearable fine art of the highest caliber, reflecting traditional Native designs in contemporary form.” The fabric that she uses is her canvas, the thread is her color palette, and the sewing machine and needle are her brush. Originally trained as a photographer and videographer, Singer incorporates photographs to tell stories through her wearable art (Singer 2009). Selling her work mostly at Indian markets and events, Singer has slowly earned significant recognition and a loyal following.

The work of Cochiti designer Virgil Ortiz is celebrated in magazines, included in museum exhibitions, honored at juried events, and featured in Fashion Week shows. Ortiz’s highly publicized 2002 collaboration with Donna Karan helped to incorporate his work into the mainstream of fashion design increasing demand for his clothes. In 2005, Ortiz was the Heard Indian Fair & Market Signature Artist and his work, which included pottery, high fashion, storyteller figures, and a life-size leather and metal bedecked horse, were featured in the Heard Museum’s Crossroads Gallery. In Ortiz’s exhibition catalog, curator Joe Baker stated:

"Museums of art have largely relegated the so-called ‘cultural’ arts to only a subsidiary role: as object, adornment, a stage for topical discussions centered on cultural significance and meaning. In Virgil Ortiz we find a Native artist who is breaking down that stage, utilizing his traditions as inspiration for new work that moves well beyond the expected, therefore redefining any notions we may hold of ‘traditional’." (Baker 2004)

Ortiz’s Indigene and Le Sauvage Primitif lines critique high fashion consumerism, celebrate Indianness, express Native pride, and open dialogues pertaining to issues of resistance and acts of subversion – especially in those garments covered with words in his secret language. By infusing contemporary clothing design with Pueblo design elements, Ortiz successfully “Indianizes” fashion.

In February, three Native designers showed during one of the most important events in the fashion world: New York Fashion Week. Designers Dorothy Grant, Patricia Michaels, and Virgil Ortiz made history; the first time that Native designers had participated in a fashion event in Manhattan during New York Fashion Week.

New York Fashion Week began in 1943 as Press Week; an attempt to highlight American fashion to the press who would then hopefully write about American designers in magazines such as Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and Harper’s Bazaar. The first New York Fashion Week was a success and American styles were praised as modern and flattering and American designers were finally gaining the respect previously reserved only for European designers. At first, the shows were held at Hotels but during the ‘70s and ‘80s American designers began to stage their own shows in lofts, clubs, and restaurants. In 1994 the events were ‘consolidated’ to one location: Bryant Park. One of the main concerns of centralizing the event was that designers did not want their creativity stifled. Fashion Week in fact helped American designers reach a larger audience by allowing editors and buyers to see the country's best work at a single venue all at one time. Centralization however did not come without a cost.  The event became exclusive with limited audience seating reserved for elite buyers, celebrities, and select members of the press, making it difficult for new designers to get in and get noticed.

The Native fashion event was held at Ramscale Penthouse Studio and was hosted by Gail and Murray Bruce and Michael Chapman. Ramscale offered the space and opportunity for Native designers to network throughout the week with various individuals in the New York fashion world: It was a foot in the door but it was not Bryant Park. Geographically Ramscale is located at the outer limits of the Fashion Week events, on West Street, several blocks away from Bryant Park. The high ticket price of a slot in Bryant Park ensures that they remain reserved for recognizable names like Ralph Lauren and Marc Jacobs. Gail Bruce and others who have worked to promote Native designers hope that the big names in American design such as Lauren and Anna Sui will work collaboratively with Native designers and not simply appropriate Native designs. Grant, Michaels, and Ortiz plan to show again at New York Fashion Week and are committed to build a Native New York Fashion Week movement. Michaels explained that it was difficult to find a market for leading-edge Native-made fashion, but was hopeful that times were changing. She stated: “When people see something so different and new it’s kind of hard to take but now it’s finally happening” (Billingsley 2006).

Lloyd Kiva New, Wendy Ponca, Dorothy Grant, Patricia Michaels, Virgil Ortiz, and many other Native designers transfer traditional designs to a new medium and through their stories we can learn how Native artists have worked both successfully and unsuccessfully in the fashion design industry and how individual artists have negotiated creativity and conservation of tradition simultaneously in their work for an artworld that is based on rapid cyclical change and fads.

Native high fashion has made huge strides in the 1990s and is thriving in the twenty first century. Native designers work in their own culturally specific terms and have been successful at selling their art, participating in fashion shows and art exhibitions, and winning prestigious awards. Through their clothing they preserve old traditions and create new ones. By creatively adapting and updating traditional garments they modernize traditional designs and make them relevant to our contemporary lives. By Indianizing contemporary fashion, these designers promote pride in Native identity and educate audiences about the diversity and vitality of contemporary Native cultures.

 
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