The fashion industry. It is a fast-paced world with complex inner workings that few of us get to witness, and even fewer of us get to shape it. Who decides the latest trends? Who creates the garments that show up on clothing racks in malls and department stores? Who are the faces behind the labels?
Whoever these "taste-makers" may be, one thing is certain: Few Native Americans have played a major role in the international fashion industry, especially considering the recent Tribal Trend that places tacky American Indian stereotypes at its core (and next to zero profits go back to Native artists or communities who supposedly "inspire" the trend).
But one young Native fashion designer hopes to change all that.
Bethany Yellowtail is a proud member of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Tribes, and she recently accepted a new position at a major fashion company, Kellwood, whose clothing fills the racks at department stores such as Nordstrom, Bloomingdales, Dillards, and Macy’s. Yellowtail was hired as the first patternmaker with the Baby Phat division on the design team. Most of us are familiar with this urban-inspired women's fashion line that uses a sleek cat as the brand logo -- and now they’ve got a young, hip, hardworking, creative Native to add to their team.
So how does a small-town girl, born and raised in southern Montana, end up breaking into the fashion industry and helping to make big decisions for Baby Phat?
The story begins before Yellowtail even hit high school.
Like many other designers, she expressed interest in clothing-making at an early age. Her grandmother and auntie first taught her basic sewing skills and how to make shawls, and by the time she reached eighth grade she already knew how to sew. Those requisite Home Economics classes students have to take in high school were Yellowtail’s favorite classes. By the time she was a high school senior, she was the lone student still taking them, giving her valuable one-on-one time with a teacher who by then had also grown to be an important mentor.
In fact, it was the teacher, Patricia Mischke, who would get Yellowtail to California for school and give her a shot at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising when the other college she applied to closed suddenly. But, as the saying goes, when one door closes, another one opens. Mischke went to FIDM and told them about Yellowtail. And with that, Yellowtail rearranged her plans to attend the Orange County Campus of FIDM for her first year.
Yellowtail experienced massive culture shock on the small campus -- which, she says, was entirely painted pink and "looked like a Barbie Sorority house." She was homesick. It was different than the rural Montana environment where she grew up. There were so many people. It was overwhelming, and moreover, the curriculum was intense.
But her hard work paid off, and in her final semester she was selected for a coveted position in a special class called Brand. Only 8 out of 2000 grads were chosen to learn the basics of putting together a full brand. A member of Phi Theta Kappa, the President’s List, and a nomination for FIDM’s prestigious “fashion designers award,” Yellowtail graduated Summa Cum Laude.
After graduating in 2009, she began an internship with RaggStar. She went on to work with BCBG Max Azria as an assistant patternmaker. This hands-on experience was a crucial learning experience for her. She worked with Azria’s wife, who was the company’s chief creative officer, on a daily basis measuring and fitting, and developing an eye for the design process.
"It was hard and stressful," she says, "but an extremely valuable learning experience and a big time gut check. It really made me realize how badly I wanted to be in this industry, and that I could stick it out. Even if I was scrapping for sleep and money, eventually it opened a door to where I am now."
Now she holds the official title of First Patternmaker at Baby Phat, and she works on the design team creating the line for each season. This position usually goes to someone with at least ten years of experience under their belt, but Yellowtail is only 23, and she has no intentions of stopping here. She also works as a freelance designer and makes custom apparel on the side under the label B.Yellowtail. Instead of working with a team of designers and sewers, Yellowtail does everything from concept to final details herself.
She said, "I know I don’t want to be a patternmaker my whole life, or just work for a corporate company and that’s it. I’m only 23 and I’ve managed to get into a senior level position in a matter of a few years. But to keep me on track for my ultimate goal, freelance and doing custom apparel keeps my focus on my dream job, to have my own brand."
For her own collection, Yellowtail gets her inspiration from many sources including the red carpet, music, and photos, but she explains, “The most powerful inspiration I have is my Native American heritage. I grew up on an Indian reservation in rural Montana, and when I design, even if it is for a glamorous red carpet gown, I always pull some sort of inspiration from my culture. Whether it’s a print, a texture, or simply an emotion I evoke through my design process, that’s my main source of inspiration and what keeps me motivated.”
Her designs seamlessly fuse Native American culture with European haute couture and high-end women’s wear. She uses skilled construction techniques and tailoring, and fine fabrics in limited runs, to ensure the quality and uniqueness that is expected of couture. Her dresses are classy and sophisticated while still being edgy and sexy. Some pieces draw on classic silhouettes and are highly structured and tailored, while others play on alluring femininity with loose lightweight fabrics, and still others combine these two extremes into dynamic statement dresses.
I have been following Yellowtail’s work for the past couple years and I’m always surprised at how much she’s accomplished at such a young age. When I interviewed her for this story, she ended with this:
Listen to Yellowtail talk about her professional ambition and cultural awareness, and it's easy to see why she has come so far so fast. “Basically for me, the whole purpose of why I decided to take the route I'm on and why I'm so passionate about being here in the fashion industry has a lot to do with wanting to be a major league contender in the fashion industry," she says. "I want to pave the way and change the perception of Native fashion. As Native people, we get so upset and frustrated over the perception non-Natives have of our lifestyle and our culture, especially in fashion. But no one is a major player in the industry trying to change it.”
“Where are the Native American senior designers and heads of fashion houses?” she continues. “It's tacky and ridiculous to see some of the ways our culture is perceived in fashion, it’s embarrassing to see some of the garbage that walks the runway, but realistically the only way we can make steps to change that is by learning the real fashion industry from the inside, and then making the leap to take over and run the show! Well at least that’s my game plan.”
Yellowtail currently resides in Los Angeles, where she works with Baby Phat and is developing her own label and working as a freelance fashion designer. She specializes in custom designs, and women’s wear including, bridal, cocktail, and evening dresses, but also hopes to expand to menswear in the future.
Bethany Yellowtail's collection is available at Jessica Metcalfe's Beyond Buckskin Boutique.