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Museum exhibit explores culture, style through work of indigenous designers

COURTESY: UNEK FRANCIS - The 'Desert Heat' collection, by Orlando Dugi is part of the 'Native Fashion Now' exhibit at Portland Art Museum.Indigenous people finally are being recognized among the contemporary, as the “Native Fashion Now” exhibit, a large-scale traveling exhibition, will show at the Portland Art Museum starting June 4.

There are dozens of Native American fashion designers working at the highest levels these days, not just a couple of them plugging along in the mainstream as something unique. Whether it’s streetwear, runway or haute couture, jewelry and accessories, clothing, footwear and more from Native Americans command attention on their own merit.

“Native American designs have become so popular that the general public is starting to ask, ‘Where are the Native American designers?’,” says Deana Dartt, curator of Native American Art at the museum.

There will be 102 works from 71 artists displayed from the past 50-plus years, a really big exhibit by fashion standards, with visual range, creative expression and political nuance.

“We’re providing the public that is hungry for an authentic representation with the real deal. These are some dazzling representations of real Native American fashion,” Dartt says.

For too long, fashion and design by Native Americans have been used and not attributed, she adds, and it’s time for the artists to be recognized.

“There are designers working with mainstream designers like Donna Karan, Neiman Marcus and Volcom,” Dartt says.

“There was some incredible work from the 1950s, but there were only a couple of designers working at the time. Today there are over 100. Native American fashion has broken into the mainstream in a much bigger way than in the past ... with the collaborations that are occurring with many artists.”

Many people will be interested in “Native Fashion Now,” Dartt says.

There’ll be people admiring the fashion or Native American art or Native American history or “culture enthusiasts who have an expectation of what Native American fashion is, and we’re going to blow their minds,” Dartt says.

“This is an eye-popping contemporary twist on Native American art. We’re coming at several different education levels and audiences.”

The traveling exhibition stops in Portland, organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. It examines four themes among designers — Pathbreakers, Revisitors, Activators and Provocateurs — and addresses Native concepts of dress, beauty and use of materials. There’ll be displays, as well as runway footage, artists interviews and fashion photography.

Some highlighted designers:

• Cherokee designer Lloyd “Kiva” New’s creation of a high-fashion brand in the 1950s, as he sold customized clothing and accessories to a specialized clientele from New York to Los Angeles through Neiman Marcus. Many have fed off his entrepreneurial spirit and his blend of cultural iconography and mainstream design.

• Jeweler and metalsmith Pat Pruitt (Laguna Pueblo), who trained as a mechanical engineer and worked in machine shops and body piercing before making his own products in the 1990s, using nontraditional titanium, stainless steel and zirconium, all while using computer-aided technology, along with classic tools.

• Recent finale ensembles from Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo) from the reality television series “Project Runway.”

COURTESY: WALTER SILVER - It's Jamie Okuma's Christian Louboutin beaded boots.• Precisely beaded Christian Louboutin boots with Western tribal motifs by Jamie Okuma (Luiseno/Shoshone-Bannock). Only the boots’ red soles remained exposed.

• Donna Karan started working with Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo), who makes ceramics in the style of his ancestors with sinuous geometric patterns in black set against ivory backgrounds, on her spring/summer 2003 line. Ortiz has since launched his own fashion line, VO, producing everything from laser-cut leather jackets, pants and handbags to cotton T-shirts and scarves — with “Made in Native America” as the tagline.

• Among streetwear, Jared Yazzie (Dine Navajo) boldly reclaims America as indigenous country in his “Native Americans Discovered Columbus” T-shirt, using words to encourage people to think hard about historical truths.

COURTESY: THOSH COLLINS - It's Alano Edzerza's 'Chilkat' tunic.• Among Northwest artists, there is: Dorothy Grant (Haida), from Hydaburg, Alaska, a pioneer in branding and selling clothing inspired by tribes’ ceremonial garments, as well as ready-to-wear and couture clothing for 25 years; Alano Edzerza (Tahltan), from Vancouver, British Columbia, using the formline style of Northwest Coast indigenous art in works such as his “Chilkat” tunic; Seattle’s Louie Gong (Nooksack, Squamish Chinese, French, Scottish) merges art and activism in his customized, hand-decorated sneakers.

• There’ll also be featured work, including a 2013 “Motor Oil Buffalo Dress,” by Portland multidisciplinary artist Wendy Red Star (Crow), and a video installation by Tlingit/Aleut Nicholas Galanin, two of the artists whose work will be part of permanent displays at the Portland Art Museum.

• There’ll be 15 contemporary Native American artists coming to Portland as part of the exhibit’s showing, Dartt says.

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