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Indigenous designers successfully build brands

From Milan Fashion Week to the Rocky Boy Reservation in Montana, these artists have garnered international attention for their work

Carina Dominguez
Indian Country Today

Four designers who share a love for culture are creating art that has meaning beyond fashion.

Louie Gong, Nooksack, is the founder and CEO of 8th Generation, the first Native-owned company to produce wool blankets.

“We work 100 percent of the time with Native artists who are paid for their work. And we also provide business capacity building for artists that we work with if they need it,” Gong said.

8th Generation is one of the fastest growing Native-owned companies, but Gong is most proud of the unique merger of art, activism and business that the company has struck.

“I set out to create my own system to develop a new status quo for how companies might work with cultural artists,” he said.

Gong said the artists 8th Generation have partnered with haven't left the company.

“More and more people are recognizing what we bring to the table, the things we inherited from our grandmas and grandpas, whether it's our art or the way we look at the world, is not just valuable beyond the boundaries of our reservations and our communities, it’s needed,” Gong said. 

Indigenous designers successfully build their brands

On the other side of the world, Murri Quu Couture was featured during Milan Fashion Week.

Cheryl Creed is the designer for the label from Queensland, Australia.

She said the name pays homage to her heritage. She’s from the Gungarri, Pitta Pitta, Bindal and Quandamooka communities.

Her first collection made it on a runway less than five years ago and last month her latest collection reached Italy.

“A bunch of my girlfriends were up at 2 a.m. all glammed up watching the show,” Creed said.

Murri Quu Couture debuted on the Emerging Talents Milan runway in the Palazzo Visconti.

She was the first Indigenous designer to appear on that runway and she envisioned it before it happened.

“I dreamed of that building. If i ever go over there - I didn’t know where ‘there’ was, I just saw this building - I would grab one of the local ladies and ask to put the dress on so I can take a photo and say that I’ve been...Then I found out that was the venue it was happening in. It was like I was drawn there,” Creed said.

Another Aboriginal designer in Australia is Tea Devow, who’s only 14 years old.

Her line, Tea and Belle, features Indigenous-themed clothing.

“I feel like a lot of people usually just overlook Indigenous businesses, so for me to be where I am is just crazy, and I think it’s really good because I’m also spreading a lot of valuable information about Indigenous people,” Devow said.

She says the brand is about representing culture and since it’s conception a few years ago it’s expanded into homeware and accessories.

The teen entrepreneur has some advice for those thinking about starting a new venture.

“I think really anything is achievable no matter who you are, what age, what gender, you can do it,” Devow said.

Rebekah Jarvey agrees that anything is achievable, after her brand successfully took off amid the pandemic.

“I describe myself as a fourth generation beader and sewer... that generational knowledge is passed down in our family through the matriarch side. I take pride in sharing that story,” Jarvey said.

After sewing for friends and family, Jarvey started sewing regularly last year because she felt obligated to sew as many masks as she could.

Her most famous mask creation went viral on social media and that helped her gain exposure.

Jarvey also created a mask that raises awareness for violence against women.

The Emerson Center for Arts and Culture in Montana displayed her work last month in the “We Are Still Here and This Is Our Story” exhibit, which was her first and carried a deeper meaning for her.

It honored missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, which hit close to home because Jarvey has a relative who has been missing since 2013.

The meaningfulness of her art is reflected in her work and she notes that every artist has their own rules on how non-Natives can wear or buy products.

“My personal rule is as long as you’re wearing it with integrity and respect and you’re buying it from a Native then I think that it’s a good thing,” Jarvey said.

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