Source: Valentino
Valentino's design is based on Christi Belcourt's painting. Source: Valentino

High Fashion Uses Native Artist's Work -- the Right Way!

Alex Jacobs

“What happens when a major Fashion House actually collaborates with an Indigenous Artist? - Beautiful creations!” That’s what Amber Gauthier posted on social media about the new collaboration between Metis Artist Christi Belcourt and big Italian design house Valentino. They released their 2016 Resort collection 4 weeks ago and these designs are a breath of fresh air, and indeed beautiful creations. Gauthier is Taos Pueblo designer Patricia Michaels’ longtime assistant and was enthusiastic about the collaboration. Said Amber, "When I first saw the images, I thought this is what a collaboration between a Native artist and a design house should look like. I think it’s an excellent start, and the proper way to showcase and celebrate Native elements of culture and design in fashion. There should be an exchange of ideas that can produce garments that are authentic and thoroughly thought through in order to avoid the common pitfalls of contributing to offensive stereotypes that already exists in the marketplace."

Source: Valentino

Quite a few Native artists and fashionistas agree with these assessments, but some think that there’s apprehension from the big fashion houses or major labels actually working with Native Designers or Artists with the current social media climate regarding Indian-Native-Indigenous motifs and designs. Others think this is exactly what they should be doing, that reaching out to these Indigenous Artists and Designers is a crucial step in the right direction. Many voiced an opinion that a respectful collaboration was absolutely necessary at this juncture to counter distasteful media images of bikini-clad models with feather head-dresses and that word “respect” came up a lot, and kudos to Valentino for demonstrating the kind of behavior this industry needs.

In previous interviews, Belcourt has stated, “The designers, whether they’re small or major fashion houses, need to stop appropriating the cultures of Indigenous peoples worldwide. It’s not up to non-Indigenous people to decide what is appropriate and what isn’t.”

'Water Song,' by Christi Belcourt

Christi Belcourt’s art is intertwined with the community work she’s involved in, Walking With Our Sisters/MMIW, the Onaman Collective, the Gabriel Dumont Institute, Survivors of Indian Residential Schools/Truth and Reconciliation Campaign; she’s received awards for her art and social activism; she has represented her Metis heritage and is now recognized as one of Canada’s leading Artists. That’s how Valentino creative directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli found her artwork, specifically the piece, Water Song, on permanent display at the National Gallery of Canada.

One issue to completing the deal was Belcourt’s own research into the design house’s environmental record which turned out positive as Valentino has made commitments to eliminate hazardous substances from its materials by 2020, and to its policies on the procurement of leather, pulp and paper. The connection with clean, safe water and Belcourt’s Water Song was made and secured. “I think we all have an obligation and responsibility to protect the waters of the earth. If they can set that standard and still manage to produce beautiful works and be a viable business, then I think others should follow suit,” said Belcourt.

Christi Belcourt

This collaboration has been big news in Canada and in the fashion industry, which has taken continual criticisms for ill-conceived and disrespectful cultural appropriations. Belcourt’s Walking With Our Sisters travelling exhibit (a very emotional and ceremonial installation on a 32 stop, 6 years tour honoring #MMIW) is an indicator of her awareness, activism and advocacy. So it would be obvious that Belcourt would take the task seriously; the designs in her paintings are medicine plants and animals speaking to our shared relationships within our immediate environment and the greater universe. As she said in an APTN interview, “There’s a correlation between the environment and the way that Indigenous people are treated and how the aggression to our lands parallels to our bodies as Indigenous women. So, it’s all linked together,” she said. “For me it’s certainly not about a high profile or any type of career. I don’t see it as that…only if we can produce beautiful things that remind people of our responsibilities as human beings to the environment and to each other.”

So it must be a novel concept but it seems to work, simply ask permission, treat Native Artists with respect, their designs with integrity, actually work with them, compensate them and take it all to a big design show. Voila!

Alex Jacobs
Santa Fe NM

'Artist Statement,' by Christi Belcourt

'The Wisdom of the Universe,' by Christi Belcourt

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Alice's picture
Submitted by Alice on
WOW! these are beautiful and unbelievably breath taking. Christi is an awe inspiring artist of our times. Congratulations.