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Native fashion debuts in New York and New Mexico

Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to ICT

SANTA FE, N.M. – Feathers, fur, embroidery and horsehair were flying at the May 4 debut of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts Native Fashion Week in Santa Fe, which preceded the Met Gala in New York, as the array of Native clothing and bold style was on display from east to southwest.

In New York on May 6, breakout model Quannah Chasinghorse, Han Gwich’in and Sicangu/Oglala Lakota, and Lily Gladstone, Siksikaitsitapii and Nimíipuu, glowed, wearing elaborate Native designs. Chasinghorse wore a lilac-colored dress to honor Alaska’s state flower with a “princess ethereal flower garden fairy” vibe, she told Fashionista. The gown’s tulle crinoline skirt mimics a flower in bloom. She had beaded rings and flowers in her hair.

Quannah Chasinghorse attends The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala celebrating the opening of the "Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion" exhibition on Monday, May 6, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Gladstone made her debut on the Met red carpet. She wore a black gown and cape by Gabriela Hearst with embellishments by Kiowa jeweler Keri Ataumbi who made 493 silver stars embroidered with antique glass beads like galaxies. Ataumbi created a custom hairpiece for the outfit as well.

In Santa Fe, actors, models and film directors arrived on the Denim Carpet – an Indigenous alternative – at the Santa Fe Convention Center with a full house of runway shows, pop up shops, exhibits and activation spaces.

The Native Fashion Show during the annual SWAIA Indian Market in August has sold out for years, so this long overdue offshoot event expanded what Native fashion and style encompasses.

Jhane Myers and Amber Dawn Bear Robe with her dog attend the May 4 debut of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts Native Fashion Week in Santa Fe, N.M. (Sandra Hale Schulman, ICT)

Fashion Week Director Amber Dawn Bear Robe, Blackfoot, started the original free show in 2014 working out of a rented truck in the Plaza, with a DJ and a mic. She hosted a swanky kickoff party at the Governor’s Mansion on Thursday, March 2, along with SWAIA Director Jamie Schulze, Northern Cheyenne. Guests included Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber and Oscar-winner Wes Studi.

Bear Robe said, “Why a Native Fashion Week? Indigenous designers are barely a footprint in the mainstream fashion world and fashion academia, yet Native artists are the original couturiers of North America. We don’t get more couture than hunting an animal, gutting, then cleaning the intestines to make an exquisitely beautiful, lifesaving, one-of-a-kind couture garment.

“We gather not just to witness history, but to honor the legacy of storytelling, Indigenous pride, and artistic innovation. Native Fashion Week is not just about clothing. It’s a powerful expression of Indigenous knowledge, language, identity and contemporary expression. Each garment, each design, carries layers of meaning, fashioned by innovative designers who, with their unique expression and techniques, push boundaries to create new narratives, and sometimes re-interpret time-honored narratives.

“Indigenous fashion week is a platform for dialogue, collaboration and empowerment. Appropriation of Indigenous Indian design is a billion-dollar industry, and Native peoples do not reap the benefits of this.”

And yet.

There were two full days of shows. Star models included Tantoo Cardinal of “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Kiowa Gordon and Jessica Matten of “Dark Winds,” and Dakota Beavers of “Prey.”

Actress Tantoo Cardinal walks the runway for Patricia Michaels at the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts Native Fashion Week in Santa Fe, N.M., on May 4, 2024. (Sandra Hale Schulman, ICT)

Award-winner Patricia Michaels brought out a gorgeous flow of hand-painted silk dresses. She used handcrafted moccasins made by Robert Mirabal of Mirabal Mocs, both of whom are from Taos Pueblo. Multicolored with fringe, laces and appliques, his high-end, down to earth designs elevated Michaels’ couture.

Michaels had a big week as she unveiled an exhibit at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture and spoke at a panel that told the story of her show-stopping Tantoo in Flight gown she made for Tantoo Cardinal when the actress appeared at the Cannes Film Festival last year.

While Michaels has been in business for decades, the buzzy debut show of House of Sutai by Peshawn Bread kicked off the event. She dazzled the crowd with brightly colored graphic caftans, leggings and dresses with intricate, beaded neckpieces made from pearls and dentalium shells worn by a rainbow of men and women.

A roller-skating girl danced down the U-shaped length of the runway to a roar of applause, a long-haired male model played air guitar to the music of “Electric Pow Wow Drum” by Halluci Nation. Bread has been busy in front of the cameras, too, as she recently modeled for the Naiomi Glasses X Ralph Lauren collection, and for Orlando Dugi.

Dugi presented a menswear show with knits, lace shirts and pleated trousers.

Randy Leigh Barton’s show was a theatrical dance performance as his inclusive models did breakdancing and gymnastics to show off the flexibility and real-world appeal of the clothes.

Star jeweler Kenneth Johnson, Seminole, had delicate designs in silver featuring turtles that graced earrings and pendants.

Flashy jeweler Cody Sanderson is known for his stars in silver- and diamond-encrusted gold. His flashy, large knuckle-to-knuckle rings were everywhere.

Native girls like big earrings and Indi City is now pushing the length of their lightweight acrylic dazzlers to more than two-feet-long in geometric and organic designs that glitter from earlobes to the waist.

Helen Oro showed a beaded gas mask in orange and silver.

Jason Baerg put horse hair extensions dyed in blue and pink into bags and earrings, his model’s hair, braids and, of course, ponytails. Amber Dawn Bear Robe wore a large Baerg gold chain necklace with red horse hair that dangled from the links.

Over in the popup and activation rooms, other Native products and businesses showed accessories, makeup, hair and skincare. A Product of My Environment had some wild punk street looks of shredded denim; N8iV Beauty had a bold booth in black and gold to show their skincare line. Boxcar fed the crowd with elk chili and roast turkey. A special exhibit of Jamie Okuma outfits was on display from the collection of Emmy-winning film producer Jhane Myers.

As a whole, the event showcased Natives helping Natives in a broad spectrum of design and business that filled the entire convention center. Media from all over the country, including the New York Times, were there to cover it. It’s sure to be an annual event and as Bear Robe said, “It’s not just about clothing, it’s storytelling, Indigenous pride, and artistic innovation.”

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