November is Native American Heritage Month. To celebrate, we’re taking you down the catwalk and into the heart of contemporary Native fashion. From seal skin corsets to gowns fringed like Eagle feathers, today’s designers are finding new silhouettes for traditional art. And their customers love it.
Dodging hairspray and safety pins, KCAW went backstage at Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Native Fashion show to talk with two of the sewers on the cutting edge of indigenous design.
Dorothy Grant has arrived. She’s one of those women who is always glamorous – dressed in black, eyes bright. Grant is an icon within the Native fashion world. From opera coats to ball gowns, she wants her clothing to instill the person wearing it with self-respect, a Haida principle known as Yaangudang.
“When I wake up in the morning, I know that I make people feel good in my clothes no matter where they’re going – whether it’s a black tie or they’re getting an award or they’re graduating or they’re getting married in it,” Grant said.
Or going to the Oscars. In 2015, the Oscars ceremony was heavily criticized for lack of diversity. All the nominees were white. And Duane Howard, the First Nations actor who starred in the film the Revenant, didn’t get an invitation. He spoke with actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who was also in the film, and locked down an invitation just a week before the ceremony.
Grant had little time to build him the tux of his dreams, but as she’s done for the past 30 years, she made it work. “You must deliver. You must never not deliver. That’s what makes a really good reputation, so even if you have to go in the hole for it, honor your customer,” she said.
And as far as fashion statements go, the tuxedo speaks volumes. The lapel is adorned with Raven and Eagle embroidery, that catches the light. “The red carpet was two and a half hours long and [Howard] got a lot of questions about the tuxedo,” Grant said.
In her blog, Grant wrote that during the third fitting, they both cried. “I realized,” she wrote, “it was about us all…about the native youth who would see him, the ones having self image issue, the ones feeling like giving up. It was like a long journey we both came to at once [at a crossroad], like reaching a mountain top.”
Tonight, the suit will be worn by Conrad Frank. The make-up artist furiously pounded his nose with powder, while I put a microphone to his chin. “I’m so nervous because it’s so gorgeous,” Frank said, grinning in the suit.
Though Frank isn’t a real model by training – when I ask him how he’s going to walk, he says ‘carefully’ – he does plan to stand tall. “Our works all over the place in totem poles, house screens design, it’s great to see it on a different level,” he said.
(Drumming by Zak Dylan Wass and singing by Maka Jinaatlaa Monture)
The fashion show is underway. Every seat in the cedar clan house of the Walter Soboleff Building is full. X’unei Lance Twitchell, the emcee, announces, “Next is the men’s tuxedo, modeled by Conrad Frank.” The audience lets out a big cheer, as Frank steps into the spotlight. Though he looks a bit nervous, he gains his footing as he walks. And when he hits the mark, he stands nice and tall. Just as Grant hoped he would.
After the fashion show, I find Grant and Frank backstage.
Grant: You were so sweet and everybody loved it.
Frank: Yeah, thanks for letting me wear the suit!
Grant tucks the tuxedo back into the garment bag. While this piece is one of a kind, she has something similar listed on her online retail store for $2,1000. Because for a designer, just as important as making work is selling it.
Customers: These are gorgeous! These are pretty!
One of the new designers finding retail success is Heather Dickson, of Dickson Designs. We’re at the Northwest Coast Art Market, the day after the fashion show. Dickson has covered the drab plastic table with a bright floral cloth. Stacked upon it is her signature product: grannie hankie headbands.
“Well, growing up in the North, a lot of first nation elders wore these beautiful colored hankies. I tried to wear it. It wouldn’t stay on, it would slip off, so I decided to cut it up and make my own headband,” Dickson explained.
She made another for her friend, but added ornate beadwork to the fabric. “She posted a selfie after I sent it to her and it just blew up,” Dickson said. A year later, Dickson has a booming online business. At one North American Market, she sold out in four minutes.
Some of the people approaching the table follow Dickson online, like Elizabeth Childs from Massachusetts.
Childs: I want one so bad. I have a really big head though, so should I be looking in this bin? (laughs)
Dickson: I have measuring tape here and then some sizing charts.
Dickson is a pro and a hard worker. At her kitchen table in White Horse, she sometimes sews until 2 a.m. Childs picks up a headband with buttons, as an homage to the borders button blankets.
Childs: I’m a professional clown and my clown name is “Buttons.’
KCAW: You’re a professional what?
Childs: Clown. (Chuckles)
Dickson: That’s so awesome.
Childs: I do face painting and balloons. Okay. Maybe this one is the one. Let’s try it out.
After inspecting the fit in the mirror, Childs said, “Okay, yes. This is the one.” Dickson takes her cash.
The sun is setting. Dickson and I start talking about Dorothy Grant, who’s a big inspiration for her. “I think [Grant] kind of paved the way for people viewing West Coast art as being really elegant and formal and feeling like royalty when you wear it,” Dickson said.
Which is kind of fitting, as we watch her newest customer walk away with a headband fit for a queen.
Sealaska Heritage Institute’s inaugural fashion show took place during Celebration on Friday, June 10th, 2016. To see more fashion from the night, visit KTOO’s slideshow here: http://www.ktoo.org/