Bethany Yellowtail Among Designers Featured in ‘Native Fashion Now’ Exhibit

Photo by Leeanne Root Jamie Okuma (Luiseño and Shoshone-Bannock) created this look. The jacket is holographic Italian lambskin. Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo) made the silk scarf depicting Kootz, a character in Evolution, a film he is writing that reimagines the 1680 Pueblo Revolt with a futuristic twist.

Leeanne Root

Exhibit’s last stop features 67 Native designers including Bethany Yellowtail, Virgil Ortiz and Louie Gong

From the wearable designs of Patricia Michaels, Orlando Dugi, Bethany Yellowtail and Louie Gong, to innovative designs made of cedar bark by Lisa Telford, Native Fashion Now has a little bit of everything 67 Native designers from across North America have to offer.

Visitors are immersed in all aspects of Native fashion as they walk through the exhibit on display at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City—“its concerns, modes of expression and efforts to create meaning through fashion,” notes a press release about the exhibit. “Native Fashion Now is the first show to emphasize the long-standing, evolving and increasingly prominent relationship between fashion and creativity in Native culture.”

The exhibition is organized into four themes—Pathbreakers, Revisitors, Activators, and Provocateurs—which reflect how Native designers respond to ideas and trends in the world of fashion.

Pathbreakers are designers who “marry the worldview and aesthetics of their communities with modern materials and silhouettes.” Revisitors “use contemporary and innovative approaches to strengthen and carry forward ancient understandings of the world that sustain their tribal communities.” Activators speak their piece, in other words, they “use fashion to express identity and political ideas.” Provocateurs create one-of-a-kind pieces that not only demonstrate remarkable craftsmanship but also “hurl familiar materials and forms into an entirely new dimension.” These pieces make you wonder if they could truly be worn.

After strolling by Orlando Dugi’s (Diné) mesmerizing dress of silk, organza, and feathers that opens the show, visitors can pause to watch a video of Patricia Michaels’ (Taos Pueblo) PM Waterlily runway show. Michaels garnered attention when she appeared in the reality-TV show Project Runway that aired in 2013. She integrates handmade and machine-made materials. Like in her Cityscape dress, which evokes Manhattan buildings reflected in water, but from a distance look like a pattern.

In that same room are two dresses by Lloyd “Kiva” New, known as the father of contemporary Native American fashion. He was the first Native designer to create a successful international high-fashion brand with Kiva.

Bethany Yellowtail (Apsáalooke/Northern Cheyenne) is exhibited with her Old Time Floral Elk Toothdress. It was inspired by family heirlooms like beaded garments and pictures of relatives wearing elk-tooth dresses. The line of elk teeth—symbolizing Apsáalooke wealth—running along the sleeves and chest of the dress, pop against the Italian lace and leather floral appliqués.

An entire inner room with white Converse sneakers—a blank canvas for Nooksack designer Louie Gong—on one side and T-shirts with designs by Jared Yazzie on the other, shows the street-style of some Native designers.

Some of the pieces make a strong political statement, like a collaboration between Apsáalooke designer Wendy Red Star and Terrance Houle (Blood). Red Star’s black dress stands in front of buffalo silhouettes designed by Houle. The collaboration draws attention to the depletion of natural resources on Native lands. Houle’s buffalo drip vinyl suggesting blood and oil, and the long, fringed dress—a traditional garment still worn by the Apsáalooke—and the breastplate invoke the strength of Native people.

A simple-looking muslin shirt by Mohawk designer Carla Hemlock is more than it seems. The garment recreates the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua between the U.S. government and the Iroquois Confederacy using 2009 treaty cloth.

The show is a hit with visitors. Tom Davies, who is of Mohawk descent, and his wife Marianne took a special trip from Connecticut to see the exhibit and were thrilled with it. Tom Davies used words like “breathtaking,” “stunning,” and “spectacular” to describe the exhibit, and Marianne Davies said it was important to see a contemporary exhibit for Natives in a place like New York City. “It’s important because we feel like the Native Americans are the forgotten people.”

“New York City is a fashion capital of the world and the works shown in this exhibition belong on this stage,” said Kevin Gover (Pawnee), director of the National Museum of the American Indian, in the press release. “Native voice is powerful and Native couture is a megaphone. These designers’ works demonstrate to visitors the contemporary strength of Native iconographies and sensibilities.”

New York City is the last stop for Native Fashion Now, which began at the Peabody Essex Museum in 2015. The first large-scale traveling exhibition of contemporary Native fashion runs through September 4 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York City. Admission is free.

This story was originally published on March 4, 2017.