At Salt Lake City’s inaugural Indigenous Fashion Week, designers displayed fashion that aimed to bridge the reservation and the runway.
“Native fashion, it’s not just the runway,” said Sahar Khadjenoury, a designer of Diné and Persian heritage who showed her collection, which she called “res-Barbie core,” at Saturday’s fashion show at The Leonardo in downtown Salt Lake City.
“When you go to a powwow, feast day or conference, anywhere and everywhere you go, you’ll explore colors and textures and fabrics and styles that reflect a person’s home community,” Khadjenoury said.
Saturday’s event was the first such fashion week in Salt Lake City, designer Michael Haswood (Navajo Diné) said, but dressing up and fashion are nothing new to Navajo people — because it shows their culture.
“It’s been going on for quite a long time. We’re just bringing it to Salt Lake,” Haswood said. They were displaying a collection called “Monster Slayer,” which refers to the protective beings from the creation story of Diné culture. The collection features warrior designs on leather and denim jackets.
“With Indigenous clothing, there’s a story behind every designer, every article of clothing,” Haswood said.
Jessica Wiarda (Hopi/Tewa), the main organizer of the show, called it a chance to “present ourselves as we want.”
Wiarda displayed her “Butterfly Collection,” which features her trademark scarves, as well as blankets, tops and other items. Some are naturally dyed, and one features dye from Hopi sunflower seeds, of which she is proud because they are particularly hard to find.
The fashion week and show is Wiarda’s final work as part of her artist residency with the Utah nonprofit Diné Bikéyah.
“What I’ve gained through the residency is all these connections with all these amazing people doing the work,” Wiarda said. Later on, her mother walked in one of her designs.
Those involved in Saturday’s runway show — the designers, models and makeup/hair team — were all Indigenous. The show featured clothing and accessory collections from 12 different designers and artists, representing such tribes as Hopi, Diné, Ute, Apache and Anishinaabe Ojibwe.
The show, Wiarda said, defies the idea that Indigenous culture only happens on reservations, while bridging connections between younger generations of Indigenous people. For a long time, he said, Indigenous elders, especially, have been afraid to showcase their culture outside of designated safe spaces.
“There are people from the reservations, especially, [who] feel really marginalized because they don’t know how to express themselves often in those [city] spaces without people perceiving those prejudices,” she said.
Before the show, Wiarda walked around the space on the top floor of The Leonardo, checking on the sound system and seeing that the area was being transformed into a respectable runway. As the show started, music from a DJ from San Juan County, Neon Nativez, played — pumping up the excitement level for the estimated 200 people in attendance.
The fashions in the runway show were split into three categories: The Elder Promenade, Powwow Regalia and contemporary styles. The first two sections highlighted traditional wear, such as ribbon skirts (used for powows, with each ribbon and color having its own special significance). Traditional hairstyles were also on display, including the Tsiyéel, a Navajo/Diné hair bun, and the Hopi butterfly hairstyle.
Khadjenoury, who was among the contemporary designers, said she started designing and sewing when she was young, with guidance from her grandmother. She also works as a TV and film producer.
In Indigenous circles, he said, it’s like a fashion show wherever you go — and Saturday’s show was a way to circulate some of those styles outward. “[It’s a] a kaleidoscope of looks that reflect different communities,” he said, especially in the Four Corners region.
Models, dressed all in black, were scattered around the staging area — getting fitted for their outfits, sitting for hair and makeup, and sharing excitement for the night ahead. The models, men and women, from young people to elders, represented a wider range of ages and body types than the stereotypical runway models.
That’s one of the things Julee Groves (Southern Ute and half Mexican) — the first person Wiarda asked to be in the show — was most excited about. Groves, who grew up in Magna, said he didn’t connect with his Indigenous culture until after his father’s death. For her, being a model in Indigenous wear is a dream come true.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always been fascinated with fashion,” she said. Groves said he would casually watch runway shows, but he felt he could never be one of them, because the models had a particular look that she didn’t mirror.
Being able to represent her culture and herself so openly is everything she’s ever wanted, she said.
Outside the runway space, Indigenous vendors lined the walls at The Leonardo. Among them was Shayna Toledo (Diné), who had three pieces in the show, and has been creating clothing and beaded jewelry with women in her family for 18 years. Her sister designs bags, which are also on display.
“It’s Navajo — everything that I do is for Navajo,” Toledo said. “When I make my clothes and sewing, I pray a little prayer and talk [so] that the next person who’s going to buy my clothing is going to be blessed in their own way.”
Jennie and Serena Whitehorse (Shoshone-Bannock and Navajo) traveled two hours to the event from Fort Hall, Idaho. They had contemporary stickers and beadwork from their families on sale.
Shoshone-Bannocks, they said, are known for their beadwork, floral and geometric designs. The Whitehorses display theirs on coin and card holders made by their mother, and the sisters help design stickers and other items. The sisters pitch in on the Etsy and Venmo accounts for the family business, Whitehorse and Family.
“This is an amazing opportunity, because it allows us to meet other natives in Salt Lake City — it’s just a vast area, you don’t really run into them,” Jennie said.
Haswood said they hope the fashion show will become an annual event, and will be even bigger next year. Proceeds from the event went to pay the Indigenous models and benefit the Hopi Education Endowment Fund.
“All the Native Americans were taught to uphold each other, to help each other to remember our ancestors,” Haswood said. “I always like to say our ancestors wrote songs about us. They knew we were coming. This is who we are and so it had to happen. … They’re behind us.”