On Tuesday, February 17, Crow/Northern Cheyenne designer Bethany Yellowtail saw a dress based on traditional Crow aesthetics on the runway at Fashion Week in New York City. Unfortunately, despite a clear similarity, it wasn't a B.Yellowtail design—it was a creation of the London-based label Kokon to Zai (KTZ), whose creative director is Macedonian designer Marjan Pejoski.
For Yellowtail, it was deeply unsettling to see a design that bears so much resemblance to Crow artwork and, specifically, her own Apsaalooke Nights dress, which she based on beadwork from her great-grandmother's collection. "It’s one thing for designers to find inspiration or knock off other designers," Yellowtail says. "But this is something else." She shared her thoughts on the headline-grabbing incident with ICTMN.
How did you learn of this dress and what was your reaction the first time you saw it?
I found out as soon as it walked down the runway at New York Fashion Week. The broadcasts are live via the internet and social media and I’ve been following them all week long. My friend, fellow artisan and world-renowned beader Jamie Okuma saw it on Instagram and brought it to my attention. The resemblance was undeniably eerie. In fact, as I looked further on the rest of the KTZ line, I could also clearly see designs taken from the sacred Navajo Yei as well as Lakota designs.
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To be candid with you, for a moment I felt gutted, I felt erased, as if my voice and my perspective of indigenous design disappeared. It was a really complex feeling to be honest. I've worked in corporate fashion for years and have seen brands debut “Native inspired” collections every single season. This is nothing new, it's not a revelation—however, this one was personal.
TV host Janet Mock (right) wearing B.Yellowtail's 'Apsaalooke Nights' dress on MSNBC.
It’s one thing for designers to find inspiration or knock off other designers each season—it’s fashion, it happens every single day—but this is something else. As Native people we put a lot into the design and artwork we do. It’s not robotic repetition or generic art to sell, simply to make a buck. Its thoughtful, it’s cared for, it carries our people forward with us. That textile design from my dress was inspired by my great grandmother Irene Yellowtail-NotAfraid’s personal collection of beadwork. To me that design holds and moves forward the love, strength, and integrity of my family in it. It’s deeply personal to me.
How is your design specific to the Apsaalooke people?
To a non-Native or unknowing eye, it may just look like geometric shapes. But Crow designs are unique to our people, just as Navajo, Lakota, Cheyenne, Ojibwe, Tlingit, Tohono O’odham, or Paiute designs are specific and unique to them.
The hourglass figure, as well as the blocked-line shapes in the arrangement of the textile is very tribally specific to the Crow people.
Pipebag from the beadwork collection of Bethany Yellowtail's great grandmother, Irene Not-Afriad Yellowtail.
As many Native folk can attest, Crow designs can be spotted a mile away, just from those tribal signifiers, and many more are clear. I take great pride in designing with authenticity and permission. I would never simply “take” another indigenous person’s design and claim it to be my own. It’s clear that KTZ does not know this, otherwise, I would hope, his “tribute to THE Native American” would have been a bit more thoughtful, and acknowledged the actual living persons he is tributing, other than what was displayed.
What is the problem with a Macedonian designer (Marjan Pejoski of KTZ) using the patterns?
I think many people may be confused as to what exactly I am upset about in regards to the similar “design.” To be clear, I am not referring to the similar silhouette of the dress, the similar neckline of the dress, or the similar hemline of the dress—although they are glaringly the same, I cannot claim them to be mine. I am referring to the geometric hourglass shape and figures that have strategically been placed and tribally identify as Crow designs and that of my Apsaalooke Nights dress. As I said, I put great thought, care, and admiration into how that design was utilized. It’s a problem, because its inclusion in the rest of the KTZ collection mashes and distorts the individual indigenous perspective, design, and voice.
Soul singer-songwriter Goapele (right) in B.Yellowtail's 'Apsaalooke Nights' dress.
It’s a wonder to me how this “tribute” to “the Native Americans” did not actually include our people, but contributed to “taking” and mashing our tribal and individual significant identifiers.
There are other items in the collection that show a Native -- to put it mildly -- influence. Do you see specific things that look obviously copied? Should designers from other Native cultures get involved here?
Absolutely, I immediately saw Lakota designs, color ways, and even the Navajo Sacred Yei. I can not speak for them, as they I am not a Lakota or Navajo person, however based on my own personal experience, I pointed it out the misuse and made a comparison of the two dresses for a reason. It was distasteful to me.
What sort of recourse do you have in this situation? What would you like to happen?
Honestly I do not want to play a victim, nor am I here to be hostile. Regardless of how this plays out I will move forward in the best way I know how, which is honorable and true to the people I belong to. I will keep moving and I look forward to releasing my new collection for Spring/Summer. However I do not want to see that KTZ dress being sold in stores this fall. With an adjustment of pattern placement & shape it can easily be changed.
On a grander scale I would like to see a larger call to action to support authentic Native arts, especially in fashion, and protect Indigenous designers. It is clear to me that there is a space and a want for authentic representation, especially in fashion. I hope to see monumental collaborations with gigantic brands & conscious designers. I also look forward to seeing my brand B.Yellowtail elevate along with the works of incredible Native designers like Patricia Michaels, Sho Sho Esquiro, Jamie Okuma, and Orlando Dugi to whom I am grateful to call my colleagues and friends. This is an incredible time to act and move forward. This does not mean we stop, shut down and hide because we are scared they will continue to take from us. It’s clear the fashion industry sees us. Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook were wild with support, and for that I am grateful. However, let’s move forward, let’s elevate and rise to the occasion. Keep creating, keep being inspired, keep moving our people forward.