“An Athabascan designer’s fish-skin garments push fashion forward in Alaska. Plus a mask carver designs fashion-statement pieces and another artist creates sealskin slippers, jackets and skirts.” J.B. Begaye,Native Peoples Magazine
Excerpt: Fashion Finds in Alaska… By J.B-Begaye Native Peoples
“Before Joel Isaak (Athabascan) learned to sew fish skin at an Anchorage Museum workshop, he grew up skinning the scaly creatures beginning at age 5. Usually the fish skin went to the dogs. Over time, Isaak realized the beauty of the fish scales, however, and felt they could be of better use. “What can I make out of it?” he recalls wondering back then.
Fish-skin sewing, a traditional art form, survives through exquisite garments like the ones Isaak makes, and it pushes Alaskan Native fashion forward. A jacket from a recent collection, for example, is made of halibut skin, which—like other fish dermis—makes for a thin leather-like material, the artist says.
And upon close inspection, it’s clear that high heels show off salmon scales. Working with fish skin is a craft that may have been on the brink of being lost, until something of a small revival emerged in recent years.
Even now, there may be fewer than 10 people in Alaska who know how to work with fish skin. That’s according to Trina Landlord, executive director of the Anchorage-based Alaska Native Arts Foundation. She says most artists who have taken up the art form, like Isaak, are self-taught. Throughout the past year, Isaak has kept the art alive through workshops.
Commercial industries for readily available fish skin exist around the world, but they do not exist in Alaska. Instead of having the luxury to buy the material from the store, Isaak gets the raw skin by catching the fish himself.
From skinning to tanning, preparing one fish for garment-making can take anywhere from 10 to 15 hours. The process includes removing the fat and meat, washing the skin well enough to get rid of the oils, drying it to a point where it does not smell like fish, and, if needed, tanning the skin.
At the 2013 Clare to Clare Fashion Show in Anchorage, 10 designers created wearable art for the “Water Collection,” showcasing their vision of water. For the show, Isaak created a unique line of garments including a halibut-skin jacket, an ombré (graduated shades of color) couture salmon-skin dress, a corset, heels and a vest. His pieces also were shown at the “Wear Art, Thou?” fashion show, part of the Alaska Native Visionary Awards, held in November 2013.
Though these garments were specifically made for a fashion show, Isaak says they can function as everyday wear. He wears the vest to formal events when he wants to be in Native regalia, and the halibut jacket functions well on chilly days.”
“I strove to work with others and understand the cultural significance of fish and learn about the traditional forms of fish-skin making for all kinds of stuff. I think as a collective Native populace, if we want to keep our materials alive, we need to maintain historical information of the material.” ~ Joel Isaak (Athabascan)~