In an era of fast fashion — and even faster technology — it seems every day brings a new instance of cultural appropriation with some of the most egregious examples having to do with “borrowing” elements and imagery from Native American culture without fully understanding their significance or context.
Model Karlie Kloss wearing a Native American war bonnet during a 2012 Victoria’s Secret fashion show is one high-profile example; the too-cool-for-school Coachella crowd (pick a year, any year) is another.
Los Angeles-based designer Bethany Yellowtail, 28, is out to flip the script by creating clothing that expertly weaves together a traditional Native American perspective with contemporary silhouettes, and as a result it does something that’s rare on today’s fashion landscape: It carves out a space for truly authentic Native American representation that all walks of life can wear and enjoy.
Launched just three years ago, the designer’s B.Yellowtail label has amassed more than 36,500 Instagram followers and a strong celebrity following that includes America Ferrera, Shailene Woodley and John Legend. Yellowtail’s designs and artistic collaborations have also caught the attention of fashion’s ultimate arbiter of taste, Vogue magazine Editor in Chief Anna Wintour.
“I realized there is so much [cultural appropriation] going on that I decided I am not even going to get mad anymore, but I decided I was going to do something about it,” Yellowtail said in a recent interview with The Times. “Ultimately, I want to let my work become a learning opportunity and design pieces with cultural integrity.”
Yellowtail, who hails from the Crow Nation and Northern Cheyenne Indian reservations in southeastern Montana, moved to Los Angeles in 2007 to study fashion design. She graduated from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in 2009.
In 2014 she started her fashion label in L.A. The brand celebrates her heritage and ancestral tradition through the creation of dresses, tops, skirts, pants and accessories that bear patterns and motifs such as the elk tooth and Crow rose prints that are adaptations from the Northern Plains tribe’s original prints. The re-imagined fabrics are then paired with modern silhouettes such as off-the-shoulder tops, wrap dresses and flare pants. B.Yellowtail releases new items about every month with prices ranging from $50 to $1,500. Yellowtail’s line is available online at www.byellowtail.com.
The clothing for B.Yellowtail is manufactured in downtown Los Angeles, but in the future, the designer said she hopes to bring manufacturing back home to her community and to the reservation.
“The poverty rate is over 40% on the reservation, and many people are in serious need of work opportunities,” Yellowtail said.
She’s also working to support and empower native artists through a second label called the B.Yellowtail Collective that features products from Native American artists across the Great Plains tribal regions. All artisanal pieces are handmade using time-honored methods passed down from generation to generation. These heirloom-quality goods are made in an effort to stimulate the economy and create mobility within reservation communities.
Yellowtail takes a holistic approach to designing and believes that producing quality work goes hand-in-hand with leading a healthy and balanced life. Furthermore, Yellowtail is fully committed to her craft and regularly takes language and history classes about her native people to constantly learn and be aware and inspired by her indigenous background. Old family photographs and heirlooms inspire her designs, she said. A photo of her great aunt and her sister at a tribal ceremony was a direct influence for her Women Warrior scarf.
That scarf influenced a limited-edition turquoise silk scarf by Yellowtail that was given to participants in the Women’s March on Washington in January. It was a collaboration between Yellowtail and artist John Isaiah Pepion and reflects the traditional women’s war bonnet dance — in Crow culture called the Shoshone War Bonnet Dance — part of a larger ceremony that celebrates young leaders from indigenous nations.
“I am so grateful to be able to experience this in my lifetime. Who knows when [Native American activism] will have this much fire under it. The shift is happening, and it is going to be monumental,” she said.
After participating in two events, the Standing Rock protest in North Dakota last winter and the Women’s March as part of the Indigenous Women Rise group, Yellowtail said she felt compelled to design products aimed at “dressing the resistance.”
She designed T-shirts, sweatshirts, scarves and water bottles that support Native American activism. Yellowtail said she hopes that her work gives people the courage to “warrior up” and stand up for what they believe in. “Water Is Life” and “Protectors” are just some of the messages that are written on her products. The “dressing the resistance” apparel and products demonstrate her eagerness to take a stand during a tumultuous political climate.
Yellowtail serves as a leader and role model to others in the Native American community. She said she encourages indigenous people to be proud of their identity and fight for positive change. And she leads by example.
At a New York fashion event in February, Yellowtail was selected by Wintour to attend a panel discussion on diversity within the fashion industry. Yellowtail embraced the opportunity to speak on behalf of Native Americans.
“I hope the momentum sticks around and inspires people to take action in their communities and realize that we cannot rely on the government to handle it for us,” Yellowtail said. “We have to be the change we desire to see.”
Selections from the Yellowtail’s summer 2017 women’s collection will be available at a three-day celebration and pop-up shop during her Art, Fashion & Resilience event taking place at World of Wonder Storefront Gallery, 6650 Hollywood Blvd., starting June 16. Hours and additional event information can be found at byellowtail.com.