Just a few years ago, it was hard for most people in the United States to find clothing, jewelry and accessories made by Native American designers. A creative director at a big label might work with a Native for a season or two, and department stores would sometimes carry a Native designer line, but it was never consistent.
Today, however, a growing number of Native designers are using the power of the Internet to distribute their work themselves. They’re displaying their creations on platforms like Instagram, expanding their audiences not only in the U.S., but worldwide. There are also sites like Beyond Buckskin, a fashion blog curated by University of Arizona professor Jessica R. Metcalfe that has its own online shop. Here, five Native creators to watch:
Nanibaa Beck (Navajo)
Nanibaa Beck is a jewelry designer from Piñon in the Navajo Nation, Arizona. The name of her website, NotAbove.com, is derived from one of the many times someone misheard her name. “A friend of a friend in Phoenix met me and asked, ‘Your name is ‘Not Above?’”
The 32-year-old, who mostly works with sterling silver, uses Navajo and other indigenous languages in her jewelry. “I don’t speak Navajo very well, and this is an opportunity for me to speak the language more,” says Beck.
Although most of Beck’s work is available at annual art markets mostly centered in the Southwest in the $75 to $100 range, her clients include non-Natives. “I had a woman buy a necklace of mine and she requested the name ‘Bilagáana,’ which means ‘white person’ in Navajo,” says Beck, with a chuckle.
Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo)
Back in 2002, Donna Karan contacted Virgil Ortiz and asked if he’d be interested in working on a fashion line together. “Next thing I know I was in New York City,” he says. His career as a fashion designer and artist has taken him around the world ever since.
Ortiz, 45, was born in Santa Fe and grew up in Cochiti Pueblo; he keeps his studio in the Pueblo, although he does work in metro cities like Los Angeles and New York. The high prices of his work–a gorgeous leather tote bag runs for $1,500–reflect the high quality of his materials. “Our manufacturer is in Los Angeles and all of the buckles, the zippers, the leather, everything is made in the states under the ‘Made in Native America’ label,” explains Ortiz.
Cochiti Pueblo is probably best known for its storytelling, social commentary-filled pottery. Ortiz’s mother’s side of the family were all potters; his father’s side were all drum makers and says he was essentially born into art. But it took him a while to get that. “I had no idea that it was artwork at all until I was 15, I had no idea that people were going to galleries, having shows and selling their artwork,” says Ortiz.
For Ortiz, fashion is just part of his larger work as an artist, which all incorporates the story of the Pueblo Revolt of 1880–in which Pueblo Indians, led by Popé, successfully revolted against Spanish colonizers and occupiers, driving them out of their land. Ortiz has interpreted his own family’s designs to convey the message of this crucial part of his people’s history.
Bethany Yellowtail (Crow and Northern Cheyenne)
The corporate fashion world can be rough for a budding designer–but long, thankless hours can also translate into acquiring the knowledge needed to launch one’s own brand. And that’s a big part of Bethany Yellowtail’s story, whose piece range between $170 and $700 and largely cater to Native young professionals.
Yellowtail grew up on the Crow Nation and is tribally enrolled in the Northern Cheyenne Nation; she now lives and works in Los Angeles. She’s been designing clothing since she was a child. “I started when I was in eighth grade–I had a home ec teacher who taught me how to sew and create my own patterns,” says Yellowtail.
When Yellowtail, who’s now 26, was in high school, she was invited to join Girls State, a leadership program that included a trip to the state capital where participants were expected to wear business attire. “I saw Beyoncé’s ‘Check on It,’ music video when she wore all pink so I made myself a business suit from the video–and I rocked that,” she says. “That was me in a nutshell, growing up on the rez.”
Yellowtail graduated from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in 2009 and briefly worked in corporate fashion, including for BCBG Max Azria. She launched her own brand this January. “[Corporate fashion houses] put an image of some fringe and some ethnic stuff up on a mood board for inspiration, but to us, as indigenous peoples, we know that these things have a much deeper meaning,” says Yellowtail.
Jared Yazzie (Navajo)
Not every designer starts out at fashion school. Take Jared Yazzie, who was an engineering student first. He spent a lot of time in classes drawing what he wanted to see on T-shirts. Eventually he switched majors to focus on what he loves to do.
Yazzie, 25, grew up in Holbroke, Ariz., right outside the Navajo Nation. He lives in Phoenix, where he works at a local screen-printing shop, takes design classes, and spends a good amount of time working on his products. “I think about designs all the time–especially at times when I’m supposed to be doing something else,” says Yazzie, who says he mostly sketches late at night.
T-shirts run for $20, long sleeves are $25, and, when he produces them, Yazzie’s hoodies are $60. His business is up and down, he says, because he doesn’t have a big amount of capital to drop all at once. “Keeping up with stock is hard,” says Yazzie. He prints up to 75 of one print at a time, making about a dozen of each size.
Yazzie hopes to open his own studio and office in Phoenix, which has developed a strong art scene. “I want a spot to call my own, a design headquarters with screen-printing equipment to offer services to anyone, including tribes, and space to hold workshops.”
Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo)
Two years ago, Patricia Michaels was the first Native American to ever compete in “Project Runway.” She made it to the season finale, earning second place. The Lifetime Reality TV show made Michaels a household name–but she’s been designing clothes since the second grade.
She would change her classic Barbie dolls’ skin color, hair color and clothing. “I took food coloring and mixed all the colors together in lotion so it would stick,” explains Michaels, who says she wanted to see and feel soft brown skin to counter the leathery Indian dolls and images she saw growing up. She also made beadwork, buckskin dresses, mantas and fringe clothing for all of her dolls, work that won her a creativity prize in a forth-grade science fair.
Santa Fe, New Mexico was Michaels’ first home. “I grew up on Canyon Road, where all the gallery owners were Anglo and the local community was majority Spanish,” says Michaels. “I really had to fight for my identity.” Michaels, who’s 48, now maintains a studio and home in Taos Pueblo, but says it’s never been easy for her because she’s a Native American woman.
Michaels’ work is available at a wide range of prices and she says her clients include people ages 6 to 102. She does the fashion week circuit as well as the Santa Fe Indian Market. The new home and studio she’s building in her Pueblo includes space for workshops. Her work is often featured in art galleries and museums, and she’s proud to be a trendsetter in her field. “I was contemporary before contemporary was cool,” says Michaels.