Social Media Gives Indigenous Fashion a Much-Needed Push

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Indigenous fashion is a concept that predates America itself, after all, Native Americans were the first ones here. Native Americans developed their own processes for textiles, fabrications, and had their own fashion history, some of which are still a major part of the cultures of various Native American tribes. Although indigenous fashion was once very localized to the individual communities, cultures, and tribes, more recently indigenous fashion has started to gain more visibility and popularity.

Navajo stylist and influencer Shondina Lee recently collaborated with fashion brand Wrangler for a series of images exploring her Navajo roots and personal relationship with the denim company. Native American brands, including streetwear brand OXDX and handbag line Maya Stewart, are also finding new fans that extend far beyond their own indigenous communities. Many indigenous designs are also rooted in sustainability, and with sustainability currently as one of fashion industry’s main thrusts, the rise of indigenous fashion had perfect timing.

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Lee’s collaboration with Wrangler was truly a game changer. For an affordable mainstream American brand with the ability to reach a massive consumer base to collaborate with a prominent indigenous model, stylist, and photographer was monumental in terms of representation. Lee, who grew up on a Navajo reservation, told Vogue she had a very personal relationship with Wrangler’s denim pieces as that was all her late grandfather, who was a rancher, wore. Lee, who founded her own fashion blog that focuses on her personal style, She and Turquoise, has become a micro-influencer and fashion inspiration in her own right.

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While indigenous fashion designs and trends were once kept within their communities, the advancements of social media have made it more possible for indigenous fashion to reach a broader audience. In Lee’s case, the photographs she was posting on Instagram led to independent fashion brands sending her products to take photos in, including indigenous-owned brands like Ginew, an Ojibwe-made denim line, and pieces from Orenda Tribe, a brand owned by Navajo artist Amy Yeung. Whereas Indigenous brands once had a hard time making it past the gatekeepers of the fashion industry, platforms like Instagram have made it easier for them to grow and connect with an entirely new audience.

Molina Jo Parker, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe based in Red Shirt, South Dakota, has become well known for her beaded jewelry. Her pieces include a beautiful rainbow array of colors from bubblegum pink to lime green, and she’s even made beaded pieces in the image of traditional Lakota dancer Aunties. Her products can be purchased on e-commerce site, B. Yellowtail, a Native American owned and operated retailer. While she says that social media has made it possible for her to reach broader audiences, she also says there are still obstacles for indigenous designers.

“We are vulnerable to people with more capital appropriating our work,” Parker said. “Another challenge is that most of us can’t afford to hire help, so people, including me, do everything ourselves including prep work, making the item, photography, marketing, packaging, and shipping. We wear many hats, which is why small releases are what work best for me so as not to get burned out.”

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Parkers says her work is “a continuum of what my ancestors did. We’ve always adorned ourselves with jewelry, hair pieces, and fashion. What I do is not only personal expression, but also has a very ‘Lakota’ vibe. It comes out in my designs and color palette.”

The majority of Parker’s customer base is in California, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Canada. While these are communities who have supported her work from the beginning, she has noticed an increase in sales from these states over the past few years, and she attributes the increased interest in Indigenous fashion to social media. However, for indigenous fashion to continue building its future, Parker believes that it needs to start with the educational institutions.“ I would love to see more and more Indigenous fashion designers and I believe a good way for that to happen would be to offer fashion courses at our tribal schools,” she said. “I remember attending the Institute of American Indian Arts and was so upset to find out that the fashion and cultural arts classes were gone.”

Pueblo artist Virgil Ortiz also notes the advantages of social media, and contends that he has been able to find support in the fashion industry, “through message and meaning behind my fashion—all of my art has a story behind it. The viewer can gain insight and knowledge of our history if you dig deep enough behind the significance of the prints and design elements I incorporate into my garments. Also, because the current political, social, and cultural climate has been (and still is) quite contentious and antagonistic, I’ve become of an ally to Amnesty International. My designs are intended to make a statement: fashion x equality.”

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Ortiz has managed to grow his customer base worldwide. His products can be purchased on his website, Ortiz’s designs feature boldly patterned textiles based on the graphics of his decorative painting. He believes that the reason more consumers have taken such an interest in Indigenous fashion designs is because prominent and established non-indigenous designers scour the internet for sources of inspiration and end up applying Native-inspired designs and motifs on their collections. In some instances, it’s created backlash because of misappropriation and copyright infringement, but ultimately it has catapulted Native-owned designs aesthetics into the spotlight.

Many within the indigenous community have helped build platforms to give Indigenous designers the credit they so rightly deserved. Jared Yazzie, founder of OXDX, a Diné-owned fashion label that operates out of Tempe, Arizona, has dedicated OXDX clothing to preserving the cultural heritage of indigenous people through art and fashion. OXDX’s clothing specializes in graphic art, screen printed apparel, and cut’n’sew clothing.

Yazzie says he has been able to successfully grow his brand because, “OXDX has always had a goal to constantly create content and properly represent indigenous people, specifically my Diné heritage. Representation was a valuable commodity when I started, as many brands and larger companies were always releasing native ‘tribute’ products that tried too hard to be native design but lacked the authenticity and were very often offensive. I found my work being shared and reposted through social media, and when I finally created my work in a format that could be purchased and worn, like on a [tee] shirt, the interest for my product grew. I could unload hundreds of tees weeks at a time until eventually I was able to create my first fall line. Our fall release line then became an annual tradition complete with a fashion show and pop-up shops that people continue to look forward to.”

While Yazzie and OXDX have always had a great following around the southwest, around 2015 when he was added to online Indigenous boutique Beyond Buckskin, his work became amplified throughout the entire Native American community and helped further establish his presence in the Northeast and Midwest. This led to features in major national publications including Huffington Post, WWD, Refinery29, CNN, Rolling Stone, and The Wall Street Journal. OXDX was also featured in a major travel exhibit called “Native Fashion Now” that showed at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, the Portland Art Museum, the Philbrook Art Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in New York City. Today, OXDX ships their products all throughout the United States and Canada in addition to Australia, Japan, France, Germany, and Brazil.

Yazzie doesn’t deny the challenges that come with being both an independent designer and racial minority in the fashion industry. “Owning and managing a small business is very difficult, and the fashion industry especially is super competitive, so to add to the many challenges that already exist we, as minority designers, also spend a large amount of our time educating people about indigenous culture and the many issues affecting our communities,” he said. “We become the one voice customers know that talk and care about native issues and in turn we become the one voice that is supposed to represent hundreds of tribes. It is great to ask questions and learn, but indigenous people should be compensated for their time and sharing of knowledge.”

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Dusty LeGrande, a member of the Woodland Cree tribe and founder of streetwear brand Mobilize, has used streetwear to tell a story through his perspective of indigenous ancestry and color. His pieces are a mix of customized, remixed vintage and can incorporate furs, scarves, and fabrics that have been used by Native Americans for decades. LeGrande never had any interest in being a major corporate brand because he felt that staying small would make it easier to stay true to his roots, and he originally started out as an Instagram page selling products before he even had a website.

While the fashion industry is known for being elitist and selective, LeGrande says he has been able to find support because of his “Concept of authenticity.  Even when I do fashion shows I don’t do them like everyone else with the traditional models. I’ve had Bboys walking on the runway, I’ve had runway shows where people painted their own faces and took selfies on a runway. The fashion world can be pretty boring in how much they push outside of that box, so what I try and do is challenge them. I don’t like the rules of all this structure. I like to show people they can do this however they want.”

LeGrande says that although he continues to see growing success, his designs can also be polarizing. “Most of our designs speak on issues and display a call of action,” he stated. “That always results in a spectrum of reactions from admiration and interest to disdain and anger. Either way this creates conversations and we count that as a win for the movement.”

Polarizing or not, people are still shopping his products in a major way. LeGrande will be launching a new store this month, and his line will also be carried in Zumiez across North America, making him the first Indigenous brand to be carried by Zumiez, one of the largest streetwear retailers in North America. “I do streetwear because that’s what the youth rock, that’s what they wear, and that’s what they represent,” LeGrande said. “I wanted to be able to tell this story, and Zumiez was always a space I wanted to be in. For me, being at Zumiez was always the goal for the brand. Spring 2021 is going to be a dream come true, and I can’t wait to connect with customers through Zumiez 700 stores across North America.”

Erik and Amanda Brandt of Ojibwe, Oneida, and Mohican heritage are the co-founders and co-owners of Ginew, the only Native American denim brand in the United States. Many of their contemporary American denim styles, which they sell through their own e-commerce channel,, are infused with Native American heritage, such as pockets with hunted deer skin patches to honor the heritage of the designers original clothing. Erik says that the mainstream fashion ecosystem has long been enamored with Indigenous creation and design, but that has mostly resulted in appropriation in the past.

“Indigenous designers haven’t been able to achieve the same level of success and access the same opportunities as other folks,” Erik said. “Indigenous political activism is potentially leaning toward an ‘Indigenous moment’ that would lead to Indigenous designers no longer being tokenized for our creativity, but we will be thrust into a position where we will be recognized and valued for our work, and it won’t be a novelty.”

Erik notes one of the challenges Indigenous designers face in this country is that Indigenous culture is often treated as invisible. The public-school system seems to forget that there is Indigenous history after 1890 and the Battle of Wounded Knee.

Erik says that in the decade since he’s had the brand, he’s encountered people who have no idea how to react when they see a Native American person in a contemporary context. “We’ve had the brand since 2010, and when we go to market people are confused,” he said. “Most people think Native Americans are Oglala, Lakota or Navajo. They don’t realize there are hundreds of different tribes with different languages, customs, and beliefs. It shocks people. It took us almost a decade to get traction, and during that time people were just confused by why we didn’t look like Native Americans from Western movies. Combating this notion of invisibility and confronting people’s preconceived context of what an Indigenous person actually is has been the biggest challenge for us.”

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The platform for indigenous designers has only continued to grow, particularly thanks to organizations dedicated to indigenous fashion. The need for representation became a focal point of the work of Sage Paul, the founder and artistic director, of indigenous Fashion Week Toronto. According to Paul, the increased interest in indigenous fashion is because, “The internet has provided visibility to make people a lot more aware of indigenous fashion. It is beautiful work, above all else. There’s also a shift toward local made and more sustainable pieces. Those two aspects are very strong within the indigenous community and the values and traditions that have been handed down through these cultures.”

Throughout the year, Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto does projects to help bring attention to indigenous designers and collaborate on projects with retailers. They also present workshops on economic and professional development for Indigenous designers to help have a positive impact on the community.

“As a Pueblo potter, we utilize traditional methods and materials, meaning we dig our clay, use natural clay slips, and pit-fire using aspen wood and cow manure,” Ortiz said. “We honor and respect the clay and materials the earth provides, so we make every effort to prevent waste. That same practice carries over into my fashion designs. I try to use fabrics sourced from verifiable companies that use less water and adequately dispose of dyes and inks used for printing.”

“We come from the mindset that we only take what we need and are not wasteful,” Park said. “As it is, most indigenous designers come out with small, sustainable collections. I believe that we already do that.”

Keri Ataumbi jewelry image courtesy of vogue

While one of the popular terms in the indigenous fashion community has become “decolonize the fashion industry”, but Kiowa artist and jewelry designer Keri Ataumbi says that rather than “decolonize” the fashion industry, the industry needs to “indigenize.”

“We can’t decolonize, it’s not like we can we go back hundreds of years in race history and start over,” she said. “But, what we can do is ‘indigenize’. We can indigenize our thoughts, our designs, and institutions and we need to do this as a planet. We need to listen to the indigenous voices of this planet because that’s the only we can survive. There is knowledge there for preservation of the environment, how to treat the planet, and how to treat other human beings.”

Ataumbi also takes a sustainable approach to her design by using only conflict free diamonds and recycled metals. “Gold mining is a hugely destructive thing, it ravishes whole mountainsides,” Ataumbi said. “There’s so much gold in the world already, and all of that can be recycled. In my studio I have vacuum systems. Every surface I wipe down with my paper towels, I put it in a garbage bag, and send it back to a mill, and it all gets refined down. All those tiny bits of dusts in the air gets recycled back and turned into gold grain which I can use again.”

While indigenous designers still face their share of challenges in the industry, with consumers growing passion for local brands and sustainability, the Indigenous fashion movement is only poised to ascend. The fashion industry is on its way to being more ‘indigenized,’ and the diversity is welcome.

Kristopher Fraser

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