Virgil Ortiz is a potter and fashion designer whose work blends historic events with sci-fi and fantasy, yielding imagery that is both ultramodern and futuristic. Raised in a creative environment filled with storytelling, collecting clay, gathering wild plants, and producing figurative pottery, he is influenced by his grandmother, Laurencita Herrera, and his mother, Seferina Ortiz, both renowned Cochiti Pueblo potters. Ortiz’s art has been exhibited in museums worldwide, including the Stedelijk Museum-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands; Fondation Cartier pour I’art Contemporain, Paris; the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian; and the Denver Art Museum.
More than two decades ago, a Parisian newspaper described my work in clay—and, indirectly, fashion—as sauvage primitif. To me, that term evokes a stereotypical narrative of how Natives are seen in art and fashion. We’re cast as the savage, the mystic, or the naïf. We get stereotyped into particular styles, genres, or designs and then are perceived as so “primitive” that we need to be rescued.
Designers or fashion houses often pay little respect to taking Native designs and using them in their clothing lines. We are so in need of their generosity, it would seem, that they don’t need to reach out to Native artists or communities for input into the process. What’s even more egregious is that this isn’t a one-time occurrence but one that’s repeated year after year by designer after designer across the globe. These cosmopolitan non-Native designers seem so defined by the loss of their own authentic culture that, not surprisingly, the Native world glows bright as a beacon of creativity and inspiration. They take indigenous designs, market them, and rarely apply even the most subtle attribution to their appropriate cultural origins. At the same time they present themselves as the arbiters of what should be considered truly Native. This backfires on actual Native designers, who are then billed as “not native enough” when they create something original or truly culturally inspired with respect and adherence to tribal or community standards and norms.
So how do we indigenize fashion? A bigger additional question might be: how can we protect our culture without making the Native world so toxic to the fashion industry that it completely ignores opportunities to collaborate with or hire Native designers to develop their own lines and back them with robust marketing, branding, and investment. For Native designers, it is imperative that we understand the importance of ownership of our cultures, tribes, art, and designs. Not ownership in a financial sense but in the sense that we can speak out with an authentic and authoritative voice to those who take designs without recognition or recompense. We know our own cultural boundaries around what is ceremonial or religious and what is meant for public consumption. It is incumbent upon each of us to know our own histories and speak with Elders if there are designs or symbols we should not be using, lest we end up following the pathway we are trying to correct. For me, that means researching traditional Cochiti Pueblo pottery designs on historic vessels and figures, but modifying them for fashion and not just copying them. I remain sensitive to my Pueblo culture but aspire to advance our art as my ancestors did as they reacted to the changing world around them.
As Native designers we should also create personal ownership over our individually created designs. It’s not a sell- out to copyright a design or style you have created. I’ve seen that Native artists have long been discouraged from using copyright protection labeling it as making their work “less authentic.” Protect yourself! Find ways to make your label personal and distinctive. When I first started as an artist in the early 1990s I began using a turkey track, or “x,” on all my art. The design was personally inspired from seeing it on Pueblo dance skirts and having talks with my father. Over the years it has become a signature design and a visual cue to my art, culture, family, and values.
As we move to Indigenize fashion, non-Native allies are important. My fashion has evolved since I first worked with Donna Karan. When she approached me to design a line for her, I knew she had invaluable experience, knowledge, and connections in the fashion industry. I also respected that her intent was not just to collaborate with me as a way to give my designs a voice in her clothing; she wanted to let me learn from her about the fashion industry from her perspective. In addition to the couture line I created, she also ended up giving me a show for my clay work in New York City. When approached in a positive manner, fashion, art, and culture move together in synchronicity. The Indigenizing of fashion is really about us doing it on our own terms—setting boundaries, knowing our culture, finding allies, and protecting ourselves as artists.