Indigenous art. Indigenous perspectives.

Reflections on the 2018 SWAIA Couture Fashion Show


In France, haute couture has a legal definition involving standards of both quality and business practices, but for the rest of the world, the term has come to indicate one-of-a-kind, custom-fitted fashion pieces constructed by hand using rare and/or high-quality materials. Indigenous people walk around in “couture” all the time at powwows and ceremonial events, wearing clothing and jewelry made by hand using rare materials often sourced and prepared by the designer. For example, at this year’s SWAIA Indian Market Native American Clothing Contest, Christy Ruby presented a capelet of sea otter fur, Taboo Love Birds, which she had hunted, tanned, dyed, and hand-sewn herself. (The cape won an honorable mention in the art show.) Leah Mata Fragua’s Chumash dress, which won second place in the SWAIA Indian Market Art Show, involved the sourcing and preparation of birch, abalone, olive shell, pine nuts, feathers, sinew, and hides before she even began the intricate processes of design that resulted in the finished product.

Leah Mata Fragua’s Chumash dress at the SWAIA Indian Market Art Show. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Five years ago, SWAIA presented the first SWAIA Indian Market “Haute Couture” Fashion Show to highlight designers whose work incorporates the precision and rarity of Indigenous custom design into high-end fashion. The 2018 runway show, organized by Amber-Dawn Bear Robe (Siksika), reflected the increasingly global reach of Indigenous design as well as a continued emphasis on collaboration and experimentation.

The highly anticipated collaboration between Jamie Okuma (Shoshone-Bannock/Luiseño) and Keri Ataumbi (Kiowa) of Ataumbi Metals resulted in a collection featuring dramatic shapes, rich colors, and accessories that combined Ataumbi’s stunning metalwork with the fine beadwork that Okuma is known for. This is the latest collaboration between the artists, who first worked together on a jewelry set inspired by the historical Pocahontas which was bought by the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 2014. Ataumbi said the 2018 collaboration is meaningful both in its design and materials.

“What I’m doing in my work is I’m preparing things that are valuable to us as native people, and things that are valuable in a larger context of jewelry,” said Ataumbi. “We, as human beings, put [value]on ourselves because of our cultures, and things may be of equal value even though one thing is maybe thorn and the other thing is a diamond. They both come from this earth, and they both come from our resources, and together they create a beauty and a continuity and a wholeness that I think, at this time, politically speaking and otherwise, is important for us as artists and as human beings to create more cohesiveness, together, in order for us to move forward in a healthy way.”

Dress and jewelry collaboration by Jamie Okuma and Ataumbi Metals. (Photo by Nina Sanders)

Ataumbi said the jewelry is meant to evoke the power of beauty.

“Beauty is very interesting to me, and I don’t mean beauty in terms of, ‘Oh, this is really super pretty,” she said. “[I mean] beauty as in the power of beauty that is that breathtaking moment, or that part of you that is inspired. So the intaglio rings is another series that I put out this summer [that was]really inspired by the Me Too Movement…I’ve heard a lot of clients tell me that they wear their jewelry for protective reasons. I have a lot of very powerful female clients who go into board meetings that are predominantly male, and they put their jewelry on as armor. So I’m interested in making jewelry that lets these women feel like they’re in their full power standing in front of a room full of people, but also embracing beauty. So the intaglio rings have that for me, that feeling. There are snakes and there are elephants, and there’s caribou, and there are eagles and these different animals that are in these intaglio ring, so that was sort of inspired by the Me Too Movement. So that’s kind of what I’m doing right now in my jewelry.”

For the collaboration, Okuma and Ataumbi worked with an image important to both their nations.

“It was our first time in two years that we’ve done another collaboration,” said Ataumbi. “I’m very, very proud of it. It was all about buffalo, as we both come from tribes that historically relied on buffalo for our food, for our clothing, for our houses. It was part of our spirituality. It was so much part of who we are, and because we both come from that, those plains lineages, we have some sort of connection with each other.”

Maya Stewart designs. Photo by Stacy Pratt.

Designers Cody Sanderson (Navajo) and Maya Stewart (Chickasaw/Mvskoke) presented family collaborations. Sanderson’s iconic silver stars were set off by his sons’ edgy jackets and sportswear modeled by famous Indigenous personalities including actor Wes Studi (Cherokee Nation) and WNBA player Shoni Schimmel (Umatilla). Stewart’s collaboration with her mother and aunts’ design company, The Fife Collection, showcased shapes and fabrics reminiscent of her world travels, particularly her recent work in Japan.

Wes Studi modeling for Cody Sanderson. Photo by Stacy Pratt.

This year’s Decontie & Brown collection showcased the avant garde style the brand is known for. Their runway show began with a long plaid coat with vibrant pink lining and continued with looks whose shapes, colors, and textures recalled both city sidewalks and natural settings, such as the dramatic long-fringed dress whose movement simultaneously recalled prairie grasses and Gatsby-era glamour. The brand is the work of husband and wife team Donna Decontie-Brown and Jason Brown, both of the Penobscot nation.

Decontie & Brown design. Photo by Stacy Pratt.

Newcomer to the SWAIA show Yolanda Skelton (Gitxsan) called Pamela Baker (Kwaguilth/Suquamish) “an inspiration.” Both designers incorporate stylized symbols from their respective nations. This year, Skelton used an unexpected palette of mustard yellow, turquoise, and tan with fur accents and Baker incorporated an earth-toned palette of patchwork combined with woven hats and straight lines that highlighted the mathematical precision of natural elements.

Baker said after the show that her collection this year was inspired by her family, particularly her mother, who passed away in January.

“My collection this year is a balance between Coast Salish, my father, and Kwakiutl and Tlingit, my mother’s side,” she said. “We have the basket woven dresses and then we have the Chilkat gold and white. Then in between we have the more high end fashion with just a touch of culture.”

Pamela Baker design. Photo by Stacy Pratt.

Baker pointed out that, like many designers in the show, her collection includes both regular evening wear as well as couture, for which she is trained. She said she expects to include more couture in next year’s collection.

Skelton has been designing for around twenty years, having begun as a maker of regalia for a dance group, but she has only been showing fashion for around three years. She said there is a story behind each piece in her collection, mostly from her nation but also from the Haida Nation, where she taught for many years. (Skelton continues to teach special education in Victoria, B.C.)

“When I create a piece for myself or for somebody else, it has a traditional story attached to it. When the girls wear it, they learn the story before they walk, and I get them to connect with what the story is and then connect to a piece of their own heritage,” she said.

Her designs include killer whales (her crest) and fireweed (her clan), salmon, salmon eggs, an octopus, and other water images important to the nations of her region. Skelton said each piece she makes is not only custom-fitted but designed to take into account the person’s own heritage and story. She learned the stories from her grandmother, and she said wearing representations of them can impart strength.

“I went from creating cultural regalia to creating clothing because I was going, ‘I live in the city. How do we connect our regalia to the environment we’re living in?’ which for me was the city, an urban environment,” she said. “That’s why I created Urban Regalia, which is the name of my line. It allows us to represent who we are to each other and to the world and it helps us stay grounded and connected to our culture even when we’re living in the city. I love it because when I wear my pieces out at different functions, people come up to me from all different nations and all different walks of life and ask me about it. It opens up this conversation about who I am, where I come from, and it teaches…You know, I’m an educator. It’s all about educating people.”

Detail from Yolanda Skelton design. Photo by Stacy Pratt.

Other newcomers to the SWAIA show were Shayne Watson (Diné), whose collection of Pendleton-accented evening wear brought some audience members to their feet, and Adrian Standing Elk Pinnecoose (Diné-Southern Ute), whose digital painting won the Bernard Ewell Innovation Award in the SWAIA Indian Market Art Show. Standing Elk Pinnecoose, a trained architect, brought the same precise layering of sharp edges to his 2018 collection, which featured dresses adorned with his 3D-printed accents.

“My collection is based on the ideology of traditional, non-modern textiles fused with modern technology, such as 3D printing through a digital fabrication methods,” he said. “I wanted to combine traditional design with modern design through digital fabrication methods. And so I wanted to fuse these ideas harmoniously.”

Adrian Standing Elk Pinnecoose design. Photo by Stacy Pratt

Shayne Watson design. Photo by Nina Sanders

The designer  said his academic background in architecture helped him “conceptualize my thought process in order to take [things]apart and begin to diagram and layer.” Pinnecoose is among several Indigenous artists taking advantage of the possibilities of 3D printing and other technology to bring their visions to life.

Earlier in the week, the IM:Edge Show preview featured designs by I Am Anishinaabe, a family of designers headed by Delina White, whose works responded to this year’s theme, “Activism & Identity.” Designs on their skirts commented on the ongoing work of water protectors as well as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, among other issues. Across town, ACONAV presented clothing that included social commentary at the We Are SEEDS show in the Railyard, while Indigenous Goddess Gang presented woman-centered fashion in a show at the OXDX-sponsored pop-up OXDX: Off Market, which featured several artists.

In the couture show, designer Sho Sho Esquiro’s collection No Apology Necessary, also used the medium of fashion to make a direct statement, in this case against the Roman Catholic Church’s refusal to issue an apology for abusive Canadian residential schools. A leather jacket of the same title was featured in her runway collection and won best of division in the art show.

“The collection I brought is called No Apology Necessary, and it’s a direct message to Pope Francis, at the Catholic church,” she said. “Recently he denied Canadian First Nations an apology for residential schools….For me, [the title]means that we’re taking our power back. And I want us to be accountable for our own healing. I don’t want to have to wait around for a church that may or may not give us an apology, or even an acknowledgment. So that’s my whole inspiration for this collection. The Catholic church ran two-thirds of the residential schools in Canada. The Anglican Church, the Presbyterian Church, the United Church, have all issued apologies. So the Catholic church is the one that hasn’t.”

She said she has been surprised by the positive response she has gotten to both the collection and the jacket that has come to symbolize it.

“I was very happy and actually quite shocked that it one bet in division and first place,” she said. “A lot of times with my collections, I’m working things out, whether it’s personal or whether it’s political. I feel like as an artist, it’s our medicine and also our responsibility to be a reflection of the times and what’s happening in the world. The  jacket has the picture of Pope Francis upside down. You know when you put a flag upside down, it’s a sign of distress. So for me, it’s more of a sign of distress than disrespect. And our people are distressed, and we do need a healing.”

Sho Sho Esquiro design backstage after the fashion show. Photo by Stacy Pratt

Esquiro said it is unusual for her to make statements so directly with her designs, but she believes that doing so is part of what makes fashion an artistic medium.

“I think art definitely has a purpose, and ways that it can heal, “ she said. “In the same breath, I like my fashion to be viewed as art. So it’s really important for me for that to happen. It’s a fine line that you walk when you’re doing fashion, because not everybody views fashion as art. So opportunities like this, to be included in such a prestigious art market, is amazing. And I’ve had so many incredible opportunities come from this. I was able to be a part Native Fashion Now last year, that toured the Portland Art Museum, the Philbrook Art Museum, the Smithsonian, the National Museum of the American Indian pGeorge Gustav Heye Center] in New York. And so just I think really amazing things have come out of being involved with SWAIA Indian Market.”

Like other 2018 designers, Esquiro pointed out that this year’s collection had more ready-to-wear designs rather than the intricate couture work that is her usual focus.

“A lot of this collection is the closest to ready-to-wear to that I’ve ever done,” Esquiro said. “Usually everything is more intricate and more hours put into everything. But I’m listening. People want to own my clothes, other than collectors and museums, so I’m trying to work with a lower price point, but also be able to not kind of stray away too far from my original vision.”

As the SWAIA “Haute Couture” Fashion Show continues to grow in popularity and importance, the nature of the show will continue to be defined and shaped by the designers and organizers whose vision brought it to the historical SWAIA Indian Market. Future generations of artists will no doubt be inspired by this event which places Indigenous fashion among some of the most important Indigenous art of our time.



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