“In the world of fashion, elements of indigenous culture are reduced to the latest misappropriated trend called ‘tribal’. N. D. Henry, ICT
“Growing up on the Navajo reservation, television was my only resource to the outside, American world… Today, if you walk into any tribally-owned casino, in the midst of all that beautiful, modern architecture, there is always a section dedicated to cultural artifacts from the past. Similarly, if you are traveling in the Southwest, and you stop by a jewelry shop or dine-in at a local restaurant, you will see a mish-mash of indigenous culture on full display like some curated collection. Attend any Coachella or Burning Man festival, and you will see this trend run amok via makeshift headdresses, leather fringes, and faux-feathered accessories –
Fortunately, a group of emerging indigenous designers is changing the way indigenous culture is represented on the runways of fashion week. Still, a bulk of their work is reserved for the vacant display case in some newly commissioned project.
In 2017, notable designers such as Project Runway alum Patricia Michaels (Taos), Bethany Yellowtail (Crow & Northern Cheyenne), Jared Yazzie (Diné), Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock) and Orlando Dugi (Diné), were part of a travelling exhibition called Native Fashion Now, which took up residence in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian – New York. The exhibition featured contemporary works by indigenous designers ‘making their mark in today’s world of fashion.’ As groundbreaking as the exhibit was, it still encapsulated Native Fashion as relics.
This past summer, and fresh off his 2018 Designer of the Year win at Phoenix Fashion Week, Acoma designer Loren Aragon of the couture fashion brand ACONAV, was handpicked by the imagineers of Walt Disney World to design a Disney princess-inspired gown based off an Acoma olla pot pulled from the Smithsonian. The finished product was nothing short of breathtaking.
‘This project made me realize that there is support behind what I’ve been trying to push for, as far as representing Native Art, Native Fashion, and Native Culture by Native People. It gave me the confidence to speak to the ideas of us Natives being able to represent ourselves outside of our communities and outside of the usual Native-themed museums, galleries, casinos, et cetera,’ said Aragon. Still, Aragon had some reservations about the inadvertent limitations of museum-based projects. I strongly agree that we can’t let this be our limiting factor. The more people see our work in the modern world, the more visible and existent we are to the world.”