As the biggest designers in the world gather in New York City for Fashion Week, another presentation from a lesser-known group of designers will arrive in Lower Manhattan. On February 17, the “Native Fashion Now” exhibit takes up residence at the National Museum of the American Indian. Featuring nearly 68 pieces from 67 Native American designers, the exhibit celebrates the depth and diversity of Native American fashion from couture to streetwear, while also examining how non-Native designers have incorporated Native motifs into their work—a fraught subject, considering the fashion establishment’s often troublesome appropriation of Native American design. See: Urban Outfitters slapping the term “Navajo” on everything from flasks to underwear and labels like Chanel and Victoria’s Secret sending models down the runway in feather headdresses.
“These things that have been appropriated don’t have a spirit,” says Navajo designer Orlando Dugi from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “They don’t have a life, so they don’t really hold a meaning.” For Dugi, whose work is included in “Native Fashion Now,” the hand-beading he incorporates into many of his haute couture gowns is inspired by childhood nights spent learning about constellations and singing traditional star songs with his grandparents.
Terri Greeves, a member of the Kiowa tribe and a Santa Fe–based beadworker who’s also included in “Native Fashion Now,” says the onus is on consumers to understand the origins of what they’re purchasing. “With just a small amount of due diligence, you don’t have to choose the appropriated crap—you can choose design that comes from a good place.”
That good place Greeves speaks of is apparently Santa Fe, the city at the center of Native American fashion, thanks in large part to the Santa Fe Indian Market, an annual Native American art show that draws roughly 100,000 visitors a year. In 2011, Tom Ford served as a guest judge for its Native American Clothing Contest.
“For Native artists, Santa Fe is our New York City,” says Greeves, whose career was jumpstarted when she won Best of Show at the 1999 Santa Fe Indian Market.
Still, the designers are excited to be recognized in New York at the “Native Fashion Now” exhibit, which recruited Patricia Michaels, a Taos Pueblo who became one of the most famous contemporary Native fashion designers after a stint on Bravo’s Project Runway, to serve as an advisor to ensure that the exhibit was conscious of the limitations and prejudices faced by Native American designers. “A lot of times I wasn’t allowed in shows because [my work] was too contemporary—they said it wasn’t ‘Native’ enough,” explains Michaels, of a fashion establishment that expected something explicity “Native” from her. “I mean, I speak my language, I go to ceremonies, I raise my children traditionally. But my stuff is not screaming ‘Native,’ you know?”
With the current moment, adds Michaels, “we’re in this beautiful time where we get to celebrate, in a deeper way, who we are.”