Inaugural SWAIA Native Fashion Show Set For May 2-5, 2024, In Santa Fe, New Mexico

Arts & Celebrities

Anyone who’s ever looked up close at a Plains Indian shirt–the beading, the quillwork, the leatherwork, the intricate, eye-blurring details, the patterning, the form, the function, the beauty–knows the rest of the fashion world plays for second place. Nothing ever strutted down a runway in New York, Paris or Milan compares.

Descendants of Indigenous fashion designers across North America are making waves of their own, so much so that for the first time, the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts will be hosting a Native Fashion week May 2 through 5, 2024, in Santa Fe, NM showcasing the diversity of Indigenous designers across the United States and Canada. The event features runway shows, symposium sessions, industry parties, and the newest, boldest looks from some of the most exciting Native and Indigenous Fashion Designers.

“I consider Indigenous design and Indigenous fashion as the original design language of North America,” Amber-Dawn Bear Robe (Siksika Nation), Fashion Show Program Director for the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, told “We are the original peoples of this land, and we use the words ‘couture’ and ‘fashion’ because that’s what people understand. You don’t get more couture than hunting a walrus, cleaning the intestines to a pristine beautiful material, creating not only a lifesaving garment, but a one-of-a-kind, beautiful, stunning garment. That is native North American couture.”

Bear Robe launched SWAIA’s fashion show program in 2014 as a novelty to the organization’s signature annual event, Santa Fe Indian Market, the largest, oldest, and most prestigious Indigenous art show in the world.

“In the second year, the audience like tripled,” Bear Robe remembers. “It absolutely surprised me and every year I just kept getting blown away. When the (SWAIA) director one year said, ‘we need to start charging,’ I’m like, ‘are you crazy? No one’s gonna’ pay!’”

Now, not only do hundreds pay to attend, more are turned away because it’s sold out. In less than a decade, the Indian Market fashion show has become the event’s highlight and spun off this separate Indigenous fashion week.

“Fashion reflects our society,” Bear Robe said.

From actress Lilly Gladstone (Siksikaitsitapii (Blackfeet) and Nimíipuu (Nez Perce)) on the awards circuit for “Killers of the Flower Moon” to Secretary of the Interior Deb Halaand (Pueblo of Laguna) wearing a ribbon skirt to her swearing in, the “Reservation Dogs,” Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s (citizen of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation) retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Joy Harjo’s (Muscogee (Creek) Nation) three terms as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2019-2022, and Jeffery Gibson (Mississippi Choctaw-Cherokee) becoming the first Indigenous artist to solely represent the U.S. at the Venice Biennale this year, representation of Indigenous people in America and, by extension, the presence of Indigenous fashion, is achieving new heights.

“We don’t have to look outside to other cultures for inspiration,” Bear Robe said. “We just look inside to our cultures, to our family, to our history, to our land, but it’s expressed in a very contemporary, exciting way.”

SWAIA Native Fashion Week will provide a showcase for Indigenous designers, models, and artists. In promoting and honoring the vibrant cultural expression of Native North American communities through the artistry of fashion, the event offers a crucial platform for breaking down stereotypes, challenging misconceptions, and fostering a more inclusive fashion and beauty landscape.

Timing Is Everything

Bear Robe began mulling the possibility of an Indigenous fashion week shortly after seeing the Indian Market fashion show take off. She’s been planning the debut event for roughly 18 months.

For timing, she wanted the show to occur before Toronto and Vancouver hold their Indigenous fashion weeks. Having been inspired by Bear Robe’s Indian Market fashion program, the two Canadian cities beat her to the punch.

“Canada is so much more generous in funding the arts, and also in representation of Indigenous arts and fashion,” Bear Robe admitted. “There’s a much different platform for support in Canada than there is for this type of programming in America.”

SWAIA collaborated with the City of Santa Fe on dates. Summer and fall in “The City Different” are chalk full of longstanding, highly anticipated cultural events. An opening existed in early May, a shoulder season in the tourist hotspot.

Bear Robe’s preference was for the second week in May to avoid The Met Gala, but the city begged for the first week and she relented. In subsequent years, Bear Robe hopes the event moves back.

“The long-term goal is that this is going to be the place where the fashion industry comes to work with, partner with, brand with, experience Indigenous fashion in all of its different facets,” Bear Robe said. “Yes, we can go to New York Fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week and have a presence, but I’m really wanting this to be the place where everybody comes. I want this to be bringing Paris and New York, and all of these major fashion cities, I want them to be coming here to experience this from our Indigenous perspective in our land of New Mexico.”

Contemporary Indigenous Fashion

Twenty Indigenous designers from the United States and Canada will take part in the inaugural SWAIA Native Fashion Week. Most of the models will be Indigenous, but the event welcomes all to attend as an opportunity to be reminded of–or made aware–of the contemporaneity of Native people and cultures.

“People still have a hard time wrapping their heads around what contemporary Indigenous fashion is; it’s not buckskin, beads, and regalia–and nothing’s wrong with that–but this is contemporary design and fashion,” Bear Robe said.

Connecting Native America and Indigenous people exclusively to 19th century dress traps them in the past. SWAIA Native Fashion Week is decidedly present. Rooted in the customary, but as innovative and forward thinking as any Paris fashion atelier.

Diverse, too.

Another common stereotype of Indigenous people perceives them as a monolith.

“North America is a huge continent,” Bear Robe reminds. “You have people who grow up and their culture is based in Alaska compared to another designer who’s based in the sandy beaches and ocean of California, compared to another designer who’s in the Woodlands in the East Coast, in the New York area. You have all of these different designers that have completely different aesthetics, perspectives, and worldviews based on the land where they come from. There is no one neat answer, one tidy answer of what Native fashion is.”

SWAIA Native Fashion Week 2024 Schedule of Public Events

Friday, May 3: “All About Indigenous Fashion” symposium at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture from 1:00 PM to 5:00 PM

Saturday, May 4: Fashion shows with fashion pop shops and activation spaces at Santa Fe Convention Center from noon to 8:00 PM. Fashion trunk shops and activation spaces open at noon with fashion shows starting at 3:00 PM.

Sunday, May 5: Fashion shows with fashion pop shops and activation spaces at Santa Fe Convention Center from 11:00 AM to 7:00 PM. Fashion trunk shops and activation spaces open at 11:00 AM with fashion shows starting at 2:00 PM.


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