There’s a huge discrepancy between a lot of bling and the real thing, and Dr. Jessica Metcalfe (Turtle Mountain Chippewa from North Dakota) believes it's time to clarify that difference. “You see the inspiration and influence of Native America in the fashion industry, splattered all over magazines and catalogues," Metcalfe says. "I think it’s time we start giving diversity a chance by including actual Native American artists in this movement."
Her method of accomplishing that comes via her May 7 launch of Beyond Buckskin Boutique (BBB), billed as “the first-ever Native American-operated online gallery store specializing in Native-made fashion, jewelry and accessories.”
First day response was, in her words, “awesome.” Much of the initial traffic came from a non-native audience, according to Metcalfe, who made her determination by observing incoming hits—from whom and from where. In the first day alone, 3,600 visited BBB, prompting the site owner to note: “Thousands of people are checking in to see what Native America had to say about fashion. While there were a lot of 'lookie-loos' satisfying their curiosity about our overall site contents, there were a lot of buyers too, and we made sales in all categories.”
In announcing her new business, Metcalfe wrote in a blog post titled Support Native Made, Not Native Knock-Offs: “The world of fashion is a hard-knock life involving long hours, irregular schedules, high costs, unique creative ideas and, in addition to mastery of diverse couture skills, you also have to wear the hats of agent, publicist and sales rep. That’s where BBB steps in to alleviate these additional tasks so designers can focus on the creative side.”
All items sold through the boutique will be hand-selected by Metcalfe herself and will represent a variety of styles, regions and price ranges as a one-stop site to discover new designers, learn of historical evolution of Native American clothing, and discuss issues in the field of fashion—"especially pertaining to cultural misappropriation by the mainstream fashion industry,” adds Metcalfe, who earned her masters in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona. The current Tempe, Arizona resident is working on her dissertation on Native American designers of high fashion, which she plans to turn into a book, states her BBB blog profile. Supporters can also become a fan of BBB's Facebook page.
“I’m particularly excited about the Featured Designer spot where we celebrate one particular artist and get to appreciate the cool things they do,” she blogged. While over a dozen different designers are slated to represent the first batch of artists on the site, the initial Featured Artist is Virgil Ortiz, whose creations fuse traditional Cochiti art and history with contemporary elements in limited-edition silk scarves. “Over time, I’m going to build quite a badass Native fashion collection,” she says. "...[I]t’s about time to #buynativemade.”
With a dozen different artists and more than 80 products initially displayed, more are being added rapidly. The current artist list is representative mostly of statewide talent, but two of the very newest additions are First Nations artists from Canada. Discussions about future affiliations are on-going with Maori fashion designers and other indigenous groups.
“What’s cool about this is there is something for everybody,” Metcalf says. “The idea is to create a platform for Native American designers and jewelers to use as a launch pad if they’re new or to pump up their businesses and careers if they’re already established.”
Through her site, Metcalfe hopes to create a new definition of what "Native fashion" and "Native style" are as defined by Native American artists. “Ideas and labels have been misused and misappropriated. Artists represented on Beyond Buckskin will get to reclaim Native America’s right to determine what is ‘Native,’ ‘authentic’, and ‘traditional’ when it comes to fashion.”
She says that while some major companies were profiting off the use of Native American terms—“Navajo is a catchy word right now,” she says—that shops owned by Native American artists either couldn’t be found or were being drowned out by the major, commercialized companies. “Native clothing is all hand-made, it doesn’t come off a mass-manufacturing clone machine to meet low-end price expectations. I’m looking to reclaim the term ‘Native’ when it comes to fashion.
“For me, this site isn’t just about making a living, it’s a new business model, a method of promoting Native American artists and designers in their production of authentic works.”