PEM Organizes First Large-scale Traveling Exhibition of Native American Fashion




Photo by Nate Francis

The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) presents the first large-scale traveling exhibition of contemporary Native American fashion, celebrating indigenous designers from across the United States and Canada, from the 1950s to today. Native Fashion Now explores the exciting and complex realms where fashion meets art, cultural identity, politics and commerce. As lead organizer, PEM hosts Native Fashion Now from November 21, 2015 through March 6, 2016. The exhibition then travels throughout 2016 and 2017 to the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Oregon; the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian in New York City.

Peabody Essex Museum is home to one of the world’s oldest and best public collections of Native art and culture of the Americas. The museum also owns one of the country’s most extensive and global collections of historic clothing and textiles and a growing collection of global contemporary fashion. This traveling exhibition is the first to emphasize the longstanding, evolving and increasingly prominent relationship between fashion and creativity in Native culture.

Through nearly 100 works, Native Fashion Now explores the vitality of Native fashion designers and artists -- from pioneering Native style-makers to today’s maverick designers. The exhibition also includes select Native-influenced pieces by non-Native designers such as Isaac Mizrahi and Ralph Lauren. Native Fashion Now immerses the viewer in all aspects of contemporary Native fashion -- its concerns, modes of expression and efforts to create meaning through fashion.

Why now?

Creative expression has long been an important means of Native American cultural survival, with specialized artists creating hand-made, one-of-a-kind garments and accoutrements. Today’s Native designers are expanding on this tradition, breaking creative boundaries with clothing and accessories that go beyond expectations of buckskin, fringe and feathers.

“Native American art and culture are often perceived as phenomena of the past -- or just mere replicas,” said Karen Kramer, PEM’s Curator of Native American Art and Culture. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Contemporary Native fashion designers are dismantling and upending familiar motifs, adopting new forms of expression and materials, and sharing their vision of Native culture and design with a global audience.”

Increasingly, Native fashion designers’ work can be seen at fashion shows, in stores, in skate parks and online. Native fashion designers have dressed presidents’ wives and been finalists on Project Runway, while museums and private collectors around the world have acquired their works. They’re decking out the T-shirts, handbags, sneakers and jewelry of Native and non-Native people alike.

60 Years of Native Fashion

The exhibition’s four themes -- Pathbreakers, Revisitors, Activators, and Provocateurs -- reflect how designers respond to ideas and trends in the world of Native fashion. Pathbreakers are groundbreaking designers, while Revisitors refresh, renew and expand on tradition. Activators embrace an everyday, personal style that engages with today’s trends and politics, while Provocateurs depart from conventional fashion to make works that are conceptually driven and experimental. All of these designers have something important in common: through their work, they express artistic agency, cultural identity and their unique personal perspective. Native Fashion Now invites the public into a dynamic, contemporary fashion scene and offers the opportunity to explore both its roots and its cutting-edge, new paths. Runway footage, artist interviews and fashion photography communicate its immediacy throughout the exhibition.

In the middle of the 20th century, Native artists began to reach beyond their own communities, and entered the world of mainstream fashion. The Cherokee designer Lloyd “Kiva” New was the first to create a successful high-fashion brand. In the 1950s, he sold his customized clothing and accessories to a specialized clientele across the nation, from boutiques on Fifth Avenue to Beverly Hills, and distributed his line through Neiman Marcus. Since New’s days as a pioneering Native designer, many others have brought his entrepreneurial, innovative spirit into fashion design and Native aesthetics. They source their fabrics globally and bring their designs to wide markets, achieve recognition far beyond their home communities and create fashion that blends cultural iconography and knowledge with mainstream design.

About a decade ago, New York fashion powerhouse Donna Karan met Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo) at Santa Fe’s Indian Market. She fell in love with Ortiz’ ceramics, made in the style developed by his ancestors centuries ago: sinuous geometric patterns in black set against ivory backgrounds. An internship with Donna Karan led Ortiz to collaborate on the Donna Karan Spring/Summer 2003 line, marrying her signature silhouettes and fabrics with Pueblo patterns. Since then, Ortiz has launched his own fashion line, VO, producing everything from lasercut leather jackets, pants and handbags, to cotton T-shirts and silk scarves, all “Made in Native America,” as his tagline proclaims.

Jeweler and metalsmith Pat Pruitt (Laguna Pueblo) trained as a mechanical engineer. He worked in machine shops and in the body piercing industry before starting to make jewelry in the mid 1990s. His materials are radically different from the familiar turquoise and silver of the Native American Southwest. Employing non-precious metals like titanium, stainless steel and zirconium, Pruitt uses computer-aided technology alongside classic jeweler’s tools. Driven by his passion for personal adornment, and deeply involved in his Pueblo community, Pruitt is an active agent of change in a market where objects are too often valued primarily for their conformity with the expected aesthetics of the Southwest.

Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock) began beading at the age of 5, and at 22 became the youngest winner of Santa Fe Indian Market’s prestigious grand prize. For her recent work Okuma spent hundreds of hours hand-stitching antique 1880s beads onto a pair of Christian Louboutin boots, repurposing them to make something beautiful that is her own. By the time she was finished, only the boots’ famous red soles remained exposed — the rest of the surfaces were covered with her stylized and bold beadwork designs inspired by motifs common to Western tribal communities.

Although fashion as a means of self-representation is a recurring theme in Native Fashion Now, it’s perhaps most obvious in streetwear. Jared Yazzie (Diné [Navajo]) boldly re-claims America as indigenous country in his “Native Americans Discovered Columbus” T-shirt, reminding us that the so-called New World had a population in the millions when the explorer “discovered” it in 1492. For Yazzie, words are weapons that can encourage people to think harder about the truths of history, and T-shirts are an affordable, bold outlet for expressing opinions and flaunting individuality. pem.org

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