Native American Fashion Design Shines in a Landmark Exhibit

The Pacific Northwest has a strong presence in the traveling show, on at the Portland Art Museum.

By Eden Dawn May 19, 2016 Published in the June 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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Cape and dress by Orlando Dugi, a Diné (Navajo) designer based in Santa Fe

Pathbreakers. Revisitors. Activators. Provocateurs. Motivators. That’s how the exhibition Native Fashion Now describes the 69 designers behind 100 pieces of Native American fashion coming to Portland Art Museum June 4, in the country’s first traveling collection of its kind. Don’t expect a history lesson: each of the pieces on show was created within the past 50 years.

Items range from the Christian Louboutin stiletto boots Jamie Okuma embellished with thousands of vibrant, turquoise beads and pops of gold and coral to the embroidered pink silk gown Frankie Welch tailored for First Lady Betty Ford to wear to a White House Christmas bash. The designers featured explore their traditions—as with Nathalie Waldman’s deer hide bag with layers of fringe and abalone shell accents, or, in stark contrast, accessory designer Kristen Dorsey’s take on the Chickasaw deity Sky Serpent: a futuristic breastplate in sterling silver and textured stingray leather.

Though the exhibit came together in New England, the Pacific Northwest has a strong presence, with local multimedia artist Wendy Red Star’s fringed Motor Oil Buffalo dress alongside Nike’s N7 collection and Seattle artist Louie Gong’s Eighth Generation line. On top of the visual feast, the museum has a host of related events to flesh out the topic, including panel discussions with internationally acclaimed designer Dorothy Grant, Patricia Michaels of Project Runway fame, and Jessica Metcalfe, the founder of Native American empowerment website Beyond Buckskin.

Native Fashion Now is at the Portland Art Museum June 4–September 4.

Three Local Lines From Native Designers

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SMITH RIVER APPAREL Designer Rachel Rasmussen named her two-year-old line after Smith River, California, where her family’s tribe, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, is located. Her custom-made women’s wear pieces focus on a clean, tailored fit and vintage prints, plus a signature snazzy necktie.

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Image: Ginew

GINEW Founded in 2010 by Erik Brodt (Anishinaabe-Ojibwe) and Amanda Bruegl (Oneida and Stockbridge-Munsee) after the couple made belts as gifts for their bridal party using the buffalo hunted by Erik’s father, the line now includes a range of accessories and selvedge denim coats.

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Image: Kanaine

KANAINE Sydelle Harrison (Yakama Nation) grew up near Pendleton on the Umatilla Reservation, immersed in rodeo culture. Her line Kanaine—named for a ridge near her family’s home that honored Walla Walla Chief Jim Kanine—features bags and adorable children’s jackets with Pendleton’s signature jacquard prints.

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