Come On, Vogue

As the first-ever Native Fashion Week kicks off, an interview with historian, scholar, curator and fashionista Amber-Dawn Bear Robe

Believe it or not, this week’s Native Fashion Week from the folks at the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts—the very same org behind the yearly Indian Market event—marks the first-ever instance of an Indigenous fashion week in the United States. And much of the credit goes to SWAIA Fashion Coordinator Amber-Dawn Bear Robe (Siksika Nation), an arts and fashion historian and curator who also teaches at the Institute of American Indian Arts when she’s not busy creating fashion-forward events.

Bear Robe’s vision began in Santa Fe’s Cathedral Park in 2014 with just 20 models, fewer than 200 attendees and four designers. By the following year, the show had garnered enough interest to move the fashion show to the decidedly larger Santa Fe Community Convention Center, and it has grown every year since.

Ten years on, its list of participating designers is staggering, from Canadians Ayimach Lodge by Angela DeMontigny, Maria Hupfield, Dehmin Cleland and more; plus Americans such as Carrie Wood, Peshawn Bread , Loren Aragon, Patricia Michael, Randy Leigh Barton and so many others. But how did little ol’ Santa Fe become an epicenter for the future of Indigenous fashion? We caught up with Bear Robe to find out. This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

It’s surprising to learn this is the first-ever Native Fashion Week in the US. Did a full week seem possible in the beginning? Was that always the goal?

No. And I’ll tell you why: The representation of Indigenous people in the US barely exists, let alone in Indigenous fashion. Contemporary Indigenous art is just now gaining international fame. Something like Jeffrey Gibson being the first Indigenous person to represent the US at the Venice Biennale took until now.

We’ve seen Indigenous culture enter the mainstream in the past, but something about the last few years feels different. Would you say this has had any impact on Native Fashion Week’s ability to garner attention?

I think that where you’re referring to is the larger social awareness of things. Fashion and art are a mirror for society, and when you look at things like Black Lives Matter or even diversity, equity and inclusion, you see this movement to increase diversified representation across the board in many trajectories. And it’s not as if this is unique to Native North Americans; it’s just always a little slower here when it comes to representation.

I can tell you what my vision is, and that is for Santa Fe to become the place where the fashion industry comes globally, where the global fashion industry comes to work and see Indigenous fashion from brands and models; fashion arts; accessory makers; couture designers; ready-to-wear, whatever it may be. I want the fashion industry to come from Paris, Milan, New York—because yes, we can go to New York or Paris, but this is inviting the fashion world to see what we do in our own house.

What makes Santa Fe the right location for Native Fashion Week as opposed to a larger, perhaps more fashion-forward, city?

It’s more than just location; it’s the history of this location. Santa Fe…we’re the last frontier, the last of the Wild West, the last ‘untouched’ land that wasn’t overrun with industry. I’m talking historically here, like when there was a rebellion against living in the city and people wanted to get away from the industrialization of city living; flocks of New Yorkers and easterners came here. There’s a whole history to Santa Fe that is complicated. It’s complex, it’s beautiful, it’s wonderful and all of it leads to why it’s one of the most heavily condensed areas for Indigenous artists to live, work and sell art. Yes, there are a lot of things happening in other places in America, but this is where we see why Indian Market is the largest outdoor Indigenous arts show in the country. It’s the history of this region, this land.

Part of the offerings at Native Fashion Week are what you’re calling ‘pop-shops.’ Can you explain?

You can look at them as kind of like a trunk show, but I’m saying ‘pop-shops’ because they’re more than a trunk show. This isn’t a replication of Indian Market booths. We have, for example, accessory makers like Huckleberry Woman and Copper Canoe Woman and local designers like Cody Sanderson and Kenneth Johnson. We have beadwork artists, designers and ready-to-wear shops. We’ll have a photo installation—a place where we’re actively going around and looking for who’s wearing the most interesting fashion and we’ll bring them to a photo booth for that. We plan on having live models during the pop-shops, too, so it’s much more than selling work; it’s trying to engage people as a curated space.

So this is a good way for people who maybe don’t know much about fashion but would like to learn more?

Which leads me to activation spaces, which are inspired by Fashion Art Toronto, at which they use the term ‘fashion playground.’ I mean, there’s a revenue part—because fashion shows are extremely expensive and for any inaugural event to break even is a success—but the idea was for activation, for people to engage, take selfies and have fun. The other component is that it leaves room for creatives to become involved, to do fashion-inspired artistic installations—and you’ll be able to see a couple of those. For example, we have a communal weaving installation by Rhiannon Griego, and there’s also a film looking at different aspects of Santa Fe fashion and streetwear. We also have a 20-foot runway sponsored by Urban Native Era; they couldn’t be here but still wanted to participate. Native Max Magazine will be scheduling that runway, possibly for emerging designers or those who only have a capsule collection.

And if somebody is just walking in the activation space and the runway isn’t being used and they want to see what it’s like to be a model for a day, they can hop up and walk or take selfies. Pranzo will be serving SWAIA margaritas, and Boxcar, who have been hugely supportive, are gonna be there offering samples of their higher-end cuisine. It’s only $15, and you could stay there all day if you wanted to. And you’ll get a chance to shop the runway, so you can literally buy collections straight from the runway, and also from artists who have never been to Santa Fe before.

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