Portland's Most Couture Fashion Right Now Is at the Art Museum

PAM's Native Fashion Now is a stunning display of modern fashion from Native American designers.

Aside from its Project Runway designers and normcore, Portland isn't exactly known for high fashion. Right now, our haute-est fashion is at the Portland Art Museum, and you should see it.

Related: Q&A with Project Runway winner and Portlander Michelle Lesniak.

A dress of woven red cedar bark and a magenta kimono that Betty Ford wore to a White House Christmas party are part of the traveling Native Fashion Now exhibit that opened last Saturday at PAM. It rounds up stunning and unexpected landmarks in twentieth and twenty-first century fashion, all made by Native American designers from North America.

The exhibit is broken up into four main categories—Pathbreakers, Revisitors, Activators, Provocateurs—each of which is allocated one room, along with a Portland-specific add on called Motivators.

Pathbreakers honors Native American designers who have broken into mainstream high fashion. Revisitors showcases works that re-imagine traditional Native American motifs and images. Jamie Okuma, for example, used a pair of vintage Christian Louboutin boots as the canvas for her Luiseño-style beaded artwork, covering all but the red soles in images of birds and flowers.

Activators is the most overtly political display, paying homage to street style and the influence of social media on Native fashion in the twenty-first century. Graphic Tees read "Native Americans Discovered Columbus," and "Ceci n'est pas un conciliateur," or "this is not a peacemaker" below an image of a gun.

Provocateurs features the avante-garde—the kind of designs you probably couldn't wear or take off. There are dresses of woven tree bark with no zippers or buttons, caps made of animal skulls and a red stainless steel "boa" that circles the wearer's neck, face and shoulders like postmodern head gear but has few actual feathers. Kristen Dorsey's larimar and stingray leather breastplate and Lloyd Kiva New's screen-printed "squaw" dresses are extraordinary to behold.

The Motivators section doesn't have its own room; it's really just a corner tacked on to the very end of the exhibit. Though it only has two designers, the concept might be the show's most relevant. It highlights Nike's N7, a Native-designed sportswear line, and Louie Gong, whose Eighth Generation wool blankets are breaking into a market previously dominated by Pendleton.

While the exhibit is beautiful, it packs a heavy political punch too. An oil-soaked buffalo skin dress by Wendy Red Star is an unsubtle nod to industrialization. The exhibit also challenges the current trend in fashion of fetishizing and appropriating Native American symbols.

The main triumph of Native Fashion Now—the show is a triumph—is that it informs an audience that may know nothing about Native fashion that these designers are active, that there are ways to appreciate their culture without being appropriative and that the pool of talent is so much deeper and more varied than many non-Natives realize.

As Project Runway's Patricia Michaels said at a recent press screening for the exhibit: "This is the tip of the iceberg of Native talent."