Since 2020, the fashion industry has been making a broader attempt at rectifying its diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. However, one voice is still missing as part of that conversation: Indigenous Americans.
Indigenous designers have been continuously appropriated for decades, and you would think with all that appropriation they would be seen everywhere from the catwalks to the department store clothing racks. But it wasn’t until 2013 that an Indigenous designer even had their own show at New York Fashion Week.
The I in BIPOC is going ignored, and Indigenous designers have been treated by the broader fashion industry as a threshold above invisible. Despite adversity, many Indigenous designers still have found ways to make a name for themselves among not only their fellow Indigenous communities but nationally as well. Still, there is no question that there is work to be done for Indigenous designers to see reputable representation in the industry.
Amy Denet Deal, a member of the Diné tribe and founder of 4Kinship, has committed both her brand and plenty of her spare time to fighting for Indigenous representation in the fashion industry. She’s worked in fashion for 38 years and says during that time, she’s yet to see one Indigenous designer gain membership to America’s governing fashion body, the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
“As we watched 2021 turn to 2022, another year has gone by that we don’t have representation on the CFDA,” Denet Deal said. “Another opportunity has gone by to have a more inclusive fashion industry on that level. Last year I spoke on a panel for CFDA on Native American and Indigenous Fashion, and my hope was they would’ve offered one or two Indigenous brands memberships and waive the entrance fee. The fee can be a large obstacle for brands. There are so many ways in which the CFDA is working on being more inclusive, but Indigenous designers don’t seem to be a part of that.”
Denet Deal says that one major issue in fashion when it comes to the Indigenous community is non-Indigenous designers using terms like “Native inspired” when they appropriate things from Indigenous communities because that just means they took a community’s creativity and sold their ideas for profit without giving back.
One of the biggest events that happen for Indigenous fashion and creative representation is the SWAIA festival that only recently began receiving more coverage thanks to Vogue editor Christian Allaire, who is Ojibwe. Denet Deal points out that there has been very little Indigenous representation at New York Fashion Week, with just several Indigenous designers showing at New York Fashion Week over the past decade.
“As a very small brand, I always invest back into my community.”
— Amy Denet Deal
“Indigenous design is often treated as the sidebar,” Denet Deal said. “Meanwhile you have countries like Canada and Australia, which both have their own dedicated Indigenous Fashion Weeks. Why can’t we have something similar here? There must be a way the support can be created. A lot of the reason it hasn’t yet is related to finance. It often takes a lot of monetary privilege to get into fashion.”
Denet Deal added, “Many major brands have Southwestern and Native American-inspired designs. Those are the brands that can be allocating money to invest back into Indigenous communities. As a very small brand, I always invest back into my community. As of 2021, my brand has invested $250,000 back into the Indigenous communities between stylists, models, photographers, and vendors. If I can do that much as a tiny brand, what can these billion-dollar brands do? There needs to be an organization leading that momentum, and that should be the CFDA because that’s the council the whole American fashion industry looks up to.”
IMG, the organizers of NYFW: The Shows, told The Daily Beast they have “taken [steps] towards BIPOC representation.” They have launched a virtual training program to diversify the fashion industry, and are hosting talks on representation and identity.
The CFDA did not respond to the Daily Beast’s request for comment on their diversity initiatives for Indigenous designers. The organization did recently launch an interim membership tier where membership dues would be waived for the first year, alleviating the general financial burden for young and independent designers, especially designers of color.
“These big brands can hold Indigenous designers up and tell their story”
Pottery maker and fashion designer Virgil Ortiz says you see a lot of Native American-inspired design, but you don’t see a lot of actual Native Americans having their hand in creation. He considers himself very lucky that in 2002 he got to collaborate with Donna Karan, and he gives her credit for being one of the few designers to directly reach out to an Indigenous person when she wanted something from that culture incorporated into her designs, but he says more fashion designers need to do the same and not just create things “Native inspired.”
“Instead of just being inspired by Indigenous designers, look at these up-and-coming Indigenous designers and reach out to them for collaboration,” Ortiz said. “Some of these brands are doing better. The first step is to just acknowledge there are Indigenous designers, and these big brands can hold them up and tell their story.”
“It would be awesome for big fashion institutions, like FIT, to have campus visits to schools in Indigenous communities,” Ortiz added. “A lot of Indigenous designers don’t know about these schools. While the internet helped make it possible for more Indigenous designers to succeed, the proper guidance and how-to of the fashion industry often come from schools.”
Ortiz has also taught fashion at Arizona State University, and works with Indigenous students interested in fashion. One thing he always tries to teach his Indigenous students is to not put any sacred cultural designs on garments because they will likely be appropriated by someone else once the pieces hit market.
“Fashion is a serious business that will eat you up and spit you out if you aren’t ready for it.”
— Virgil Ortiz
He also educates his students on trademarks so they can protect their designs. “The big point I stress to young Indigenous designers is learning as much as possible and figuring out how to pool and save money because it can be discouraging once people realize how much it takes to stage a fashion show. Fashion is a serious business that will eat you up and spit you out if you aren’t ready for it.”
Institutions, like FIT in New York City, have slowly begun making efforts to recruit more BIPOC students.
“Just two months ago, FIT and its founding corporate partners announced the launch of the Social Justice Center (SJC) at FIT to address the challenges faced by BIPOC youth and professionals in preparing for and developing sustainable career paths in the creative industries,” FIT said in an e-mail to The Daily Beast, adding it was committed to developing career opportunities for BIPOC students.
Parsons School of Design also said they are currently working on updating their curriculum with a cluster of courses on Indigenous fashion that are being developed by Professor Sariah Park, an Indigenous designer and artist. The first course will be taught this coming spring semester.
Parsons is also continuing to focus on scholarships to help aid more students from underrepresented communities, as well develop more Indigenous-focused courses and recruiting diverse staff.
Jai Al-Attas, co-founder and CEO of Creative Futures Collective, runs a 12-week program that teaches financial literacy, networking and offers mentorships. At the end of the program, they are offered “Futureships”, guaranteed paid internships, and companies ranging from Netflix to Amazon Music.
Al-Attas says that companies need to start realizing that they don’t know everything, and for them to learn and do better on the diversity, equity, and inclusion front they must start bringing in people with different lived experiences.
“The world has so many cultures. The world is multicultural, and that’s where these companies need to be going.”
— Jai Al-Attas
“The world has so many cultures. The world is multicultural, and that’s where these companies need to be going,” Al-Attas said. “For the longest to get into any of these companies before more diversity initiatives and programs were popping up after the George Floyd protests of 2020, you almost had to come from a place of privilege. Many of these internships required you to be in college, which is an exclusive thing. Not everyone has the means for college. There are talented people from low-income communities who aren’t at top universities. 99 percent of these jobs don’t even really need a college degree, you learn everything you need to know on the job whether it’s marketing, social media, or design.”
In 2021, he was able to connect Diné creative Naiomi Glasses with fashion designer Gabriela Hearst to intern with her leading up to Hearst’s spring 2022 collection. Glasses’ work was so impressive that two of her pieces ended up living as part of Hearst’s collection.
“I met Naiomi because I was speaking on a panel about DEI issues with Amy Denet Deal,” Al-Attas said. “Amy recommended Naiomi Glasses to our program when I was working to bring in more Indigenous talent. Naiomi told me she wanted to work in the fashion industry, and her goal was to create her own line, but she wanted to learn the industry by working at a big fashion brand first. I reached out to my friend who is well connected in the fashion industry, and then a couple of days later Gabriela Hearst’s studio was e-mailing me to say they would love to have Naiomi at their company.”
Glasses, who has no formal fashion training, learned traditional Navajo weaving from her paternal grandmother. After her experience interning at Gabriela Hearst, she said that it was a game-changer for Native American representation and led to Gabriela Hearst calling in more Native American artists to collaborate with.
“I was the second Native American artist Gabriela Hearst worked with,” Glasses said. “I’m so looking forward to seeing who the brand will be working with in the future. Gabriela had been wanting to work with Native American weavers from her home country of Uruguay, and now that she was in North America, she wanted to work with Native American weavers from the U.S.A. as well. The whole experience working with the brand was so serendipitous and everything worked out so beautifully.”
Glasses has ambitions of starting her own fashion line, but, in the meantime, she’s focusing on collaborating with more fashion brands to get her name out there and fine-tune her fashion senses. Her dream is to eventually show at New York Fashion Week someday.
One brand that made a splash during New York Fashion Week last September as part of the hiTechMODA showcase was Remmi Grace Couture, an emerging brand designed by three generations of Afro-Indigenous women.
The garments are both seasonless and made-to-order with “no fast-fashion here” as led by designer and family matriarch Angeline Labbe-Auzenne puts it. Angeline designs the line alongside her young granddaughter, child designer Remmi Grace, who is of both Native American and Creole ancestry.
Both Labbe-Auzenne and Grace felt called to incorporate more Indigenous designs into their clothing when they began learning more about Grace’s Native American ancestry. Grace, who is on the autism spectrum, is also sensory sensitive, so the entire idea behind the designs is, “if it can feel good on her, it should feel good on anyone,” Labbe-Auzenne said.
“It got the point across that Indigenous people are still here. We are not wiped out.”
— Angeline Labbe-Auzenne
Labbe-Auzenne said showing at New York Fashion Week was a surreal experience because “It was such a beautiful experience getting to see all these models on the runway. We also really stood out as a brand and got our point across. We made a splash in my opinion, and I don’t mean that in an egotistical sense, but it got the point across that Indigenous people are still here. We are not wiped out.”
Remi also founded an organization called Belle on the Spectrum to help give young women and girls on the autism spectrum, many of whom are Indigenous, opportunities to partner with the brand and even tries to encourage those who want to get involved in New York Fashion Week.
Labbe-Auzenne says that to start correcting the dearth of Indigenous designers in the industry, it must start with educating people on when clothes are inspired by Indigenous designers. That could be as simple as Instagram posts. She believes that people who appropriate Native American design don’t intend to be offensive, they just need the education on how and why they are taking from Indigenous culture to do better.
Labbe-Auzenne has been doing charity work for over 11 years because as she puts it, “We are nothing if we aren’t helping other people. I don’t even know why we’re here if we’re not helping. Remi opened the door and she asked where the other children are.”