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Feature: KTZ Appropriates Bethany Yellowtail, Navajo Yei at New York Fashion Week


L-R: Yei Dress at KTZ/Photo credit: Vogue; KTZ Racism.By Santiago, photo of courtesy of Beyond Buckskin

L-R: Yei Dress at KTZ/Photo credit: Vogue; KTZ Racism.By Santiago, photo of courtesy of Beyond Buckskin



KTZ Appropriates Bethany Yellowtail, Navajo Yei at Mercedes-Benz  New York Fashion Week 


By: Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé

Toronto, Canada


It’s just not fashion week in New York or Milan without a brazen act of cultural banditry, stereotyping and hijacking that which is sacred.

Whether it’s Indigenous facial tattoos at Anna Sui during New York’s fashion week, glittery blackface at Claudio Cutugno (no, sparkles do not make it ok) in Milan, or DSquared2’s colonial mash-up of “the enchantment of Canadian Indian tribes” with the “confident attitude of the British aristocracy,” coupled with its use of “Squaw,” a racial slur used to disparage Indigenous women, it would seem that deliberate outrage and provocation continues to be de rigueur for couture’s elites.

Macedonian designer Marjan Pejoski, creative director for Kokon to Zai (KTZ), carried on the grand tradition when he presented his Fall/Winter 2015 collection inspired by a “bold, unapologetic,” and disparate array of Native American iconography.  A collection teeming with traditional — and even sacred — motifs from the Crow, Navajo and Lakota communities.   A “tribute to the primal woman indigenous to this land, who evolves into a sexualized, empowered being.”

‘Primal’. Read: ‘savage.’ And ‘unapologetic’ about it.

But beyond being the latest flagrant example of cultural theft that has long plagued Indigenous communities, it was also quickly apparent that a one garment of the collection was directly plagiarized from Northern Cheyenne and Crow designer Bethany Yellowtail’s Apsaalooke Nights dress.


Bethany Yellowtail/Photo credit: News Locker

Bethany Yellowtail/Photo credit: News Locker


“I felt gutted, I felt erased, as if my voice and my perspective of indigenous design disappeared,” Yellowtail told Indian Country.  “As Native people we put a lot into the design and artwork we do. It’s not robotic repetition or generic art to sell, simply to make a buck. Its thoughtful, it’s cared for, it carries our people forward with us.”

The controversy centred around beadwork designs created by Irene Yellowtail, Bethany Yellowtail’s great grandmother, to which she paid tribute in her Apsaalooke Nights dress.

“I started with beadwork that has been in my family for generations. This was actually my great grandmother’s, Irene Yellowtail,” Yellowtail told First Nations Experience in a March 2014 interview.  ”I remember when I was younger, I was told that this balance shape, this meant our spirit world and our physical world, and this is where the Crow live. So I started reflecting on those things, and this beadwork is really dear to me, so I realized that was what was going to start guiding me. That balance.”

On the theft of the patterns, Yellowtail told Indian Country, “I am referring to the geometric hourglass shape and figures that have strategically been placed and tribally identify as Crow designs and that of my Apsaalooke Nights dress. It’s a problem, because its inclusion in the rest of the KTZ collection mashes and distorts the individual indigenous perspective, design, and voice.”

Theft of Yellowtail’s design was made all the more egregious when experts identified that KTZ had not only lifted Lakota design, but also the Navajo’s sacred Yei symbol which represents deities sought to restore harmony, beauty and health back to the Navajo.  And to represent the Yei in weavings, a Navajo weaver must be anointed in a ceremony called the shásh báhnánóogáád.

“So far, this has happened at nearly every fashion week in the five years that I’ve been writing Native Appropriations,” writes Adrienne Keene, the Cherokee author of Native Appropriations, a platform for discussion of representations of Native peoples.

But these five years of cultural theft and stereotyping are only part and parcel of a wider historical phenomenon.

“For the past 500 plus years, Indigenous cultures have been tapped for consumption,” Beyond Buckskin‘s Jessica Metcalfe, who is Turtle Mountain Chippewa, told Ramp1885 when it covered Chanel’s iteration of the Plains headdress.  “It was: what can we extract from the New World and bring back here? So we’ve always been something to be consumed.”

Although there are signs that mainstream couture houses are catching on that certain symbols of Native iconography, such as the Plains headdress or the Yei symbol, should not be mined for consumption, dynamics of cultural power in the fashion industry remain largely unchanged.  From Europe’s fashion capitals to ‘Indian Country,’  the rapacious and exploitative forces of empire continue to flourish, with its emperors and empresses building their kingdoms on the backs of authentic Native designers and artisans that often struggle to succeed or make a living from their craft.

“Racism comes into play when we’re talking about power – who gets the right to represent whom?” writes Metcalfe.  “In this case, KTZ continues colonial and racist exploitive acts.”

KTZ’s chief apologist, Kelly Cutrone, told the BBC that the designer has drawn from myriad sources over the last 20 years, including the Cherokee, Apache, pagan witches and the Masai.

“Even if there is a similarity, these images have existed for hundreds of years,” says Cutrone.  “I understand if she [Yellowtail} said that it is her design and she has worn it, but so did thousands of people for thousands of years."

In rebuttal, consider Adrienne Keene's argument:

"So why is it that Indigenous intellectual property is not seen as “real” intellectual property? Yes, the boundaries are difficult to find and difficult to enforce–but if KTZ had directly ripped off images from, say Valentino, or Yves Saint Laurent, or, shoot, McDonalds or Apple or anyone else, there would be a major case to be made about violations of intellectual property rights, and people would scoff at his lack of creativity."

And the cornerstone of her argument: "But “primitive” or in his words, “primal” peoples are not ever given the same consideration. Our designs and cultural markers are used to “enhance” white culture, while white cultural artifacts are protected and policed."

For her part, Cutrone rejects the idea that Native design aesthetic belong to Native designers.

"Nobody is one race," she tells the BBC. "You can get DNA tested and have backgrounds that you didn't even know about."

Cutrone's remarks reflect the insidious nature of deeply rooted colonial thinking, further entrenched in Pejoski's lack of knowledge and inadequate 'research' of Native peoples and their cultures, as well as a deep-seated ignorance of Native women's lives in particular.

Had Pejoski, and by extension Cutrone, any genuine understanding of Indigenous design, culture and politics, he would understand the vast difference between shared DNA and lived experience.  Pejoski and Cutrone would have understood that by saying that the collection is a "tribute to the primal woman indigenous to this land, who evolves into a sexualized, empowered being,"  they were both negating any preexisting notion of these 'primal' women's sexuality, and also treading into the raw, painful loss of North America's 'Stolen Sisters,' the thousands of Indigenous women murdered and missing as a result of centuries of colonial devaluation of their lives and humanity.

"KTZ wanted honor Indigenous women, but instead they erased us," writes Keene of a recent conversation with Yellowtail.  "The other piece [Yellowtail] pointed out that resonated deeply with me are the layers of erasure, violation, and power that went into this situation. We talk so much about missing and murdered indigenous women, and this is yet another example of how we are systematically erased.”

But in the end, Yellowtail will not allow KTZ to erase her.

“I do not want to see that KTZ dress being sold in stores this fall. With an adjustment of pattern placement & shape it can easily be changed,” says Yellowtail.

“It’s clear the fashion industry sees us,” she continues.  “This is an incredible time to act and move forward. This does not mean we stop, shut down and hide because we are scared they will continue to take from us.  Let’s move forward, let’s elevate and rise to the occasion. Keep creating, keep being inspired, keep moving our people forward.”

Tweet your support for Bethany (@byellowtail), contact KTZ Official and ask that the dress be removed from the collection – INFO@K-T-Z.CO.UK.  And support Native designers by shopping the Beyond Buckskin Boutique.


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