After making her mark in 2015, clothing designer and creator Bethany Yellowtail (Northern Cheyenne and Crow) returns in 2016 with her new Capsule Collection. Inspired by the natural beauty she found at home on the Cheyenne and Crow reservations this past summer, Bethany incorporated into the new designs some of her tribes’ symbols of the natural world. The intricate beadwork and thread embroidery of wild roses, various floral patterning, and mountain and river designs are stunning. Tomorrow, Saturday January 16th, b.yellowtail will have a pop-up shop featuring the new collection at the Los Angeles Pop-Up Shop @ Artist And Fleas, so if you are in the area definitely check it out. We spoke with Bethany by phone about her new collection.
Q: What were your initial thoughts about a new line after your 2015 collection went over so well?
Yellowtail: Initially I analyzed our previous collections to see what was selling well, and who our clientele is. Unfortunately, running a fashion brand you can’t just create anything you want. You have to do a lot of research to see what your customers are interested in and be smart about incorporating that knowledge into the new designs. I had been living in Los Angeles for eight years, and this summer I had the opportunity to move home to Montana for three months. I haven’t been home since I left, right out of high school. Most of my family is on the Crow Reservation and the remainder of my family lives on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. They’re all in southeastern Montana. I had never been home that long. I had always been working. This past year was the first year I had been doing my own thing, having my own line, running my own business. At home in Montana I was able to work, and run my business online and out of Los Angels with my team.
Q: What was your inspiration for the new fashion line?
Yellowtail: At home, for the first time I was really able to be still, was able to be present. I took time to enroll at Chief Dull Knife College, which is our tribal college on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. I’m actually enrolled Northern Cheyenne, but I grew up on the Crow Reservation. At the college I started taking language classes and Cheyenne history. I also took beading classes, and I was able to learn what the designs of the beads mean, their history, firsthand, from people at the college. At the time I was thinking, “I’m going to go home to find the inspiration for my next collection, and I want to have it ready by this fall.” When I got home I realized you can’t rush these things. So I spent a lot of time just listening and studying.
(Yellowtail cont’d): It was the first time I was home for the whole summer, which is when our family is together. This collection, I felt really strongly, more than anything previously, more than I can put into words. It was about connectedness. I realized that what my collection is and how it comes to be is influenced by my personal life. Not to be too personal but this was the first time I fell madly, madly, in love with an incredible Native man, and I was home at the same time, so there was this overwhelming feeling of connectedness. There’s not a lot on our reservation, especially the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, where I spent most of my time this summer. Previously I had spent most of my time on the Crow Reservation, and I know all the ins and outs. But while growing up, I hadn’t spent a lot of time on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. So this summer, I spent most of my time there, and I was without cell phone service, or wi-fi. And going from living in Los Angeles, it was like culture shock. The first week I got there, I was like, “I can’t do this. I’ve gotta go!” Because I didn’t realize how used to city life I was. One of my early struggles was that I didn’t have good coffee! There was no Starbucks or anything, not like Starbucks is great coffee, but it’s not like LA where there is one on every corner. And here they just drink Folgers. So I was having a really hard time dealing with that! All those things caused me to just say to myself “Cool it,” and to appreciate the calmness of everything, and realize that I didn’t have to have all these extraneous things. When I came to terms with that, I saw the most beautiful country. I was really inspired by our homelands. So that emotional realization translated into the new collection. Everything about this collection, I was trying to have great simplicity, yet the intricate detail is what makes them very special. What inspired me was the natural beauty of where I was, the simplicity of living, and the connectedness of the people. All that, I tried to put into the collection. And there was a lot of love there too. I was able to be around my nephews and nieces for a long time, not just for a quick holiday break. I was really able to participate in family living for the first time in a long time.
Q: How does that spirit translate into the design?
Yellowtail: I think you can see these ideas in the collection’s designs, as in the florals. I really wanted to pick out unique design elements that when people looked at them, they wouldn’t necessarily think, that’s specifically Crow, or that’s specifically Cheyenne, but I still think a lot of the tribes can relate to it because we’re inspired by what’s around us, and very connected to nature and the land. The mountain design was built around some of my collars, such as on the silk top with black dress. It’s my Cheyenne mountain design and has the Cheyenne river design in the star, but if you look closer at the beadwork in the florals you see those design elements in Crow and Shoshone designs with roses. So I hope the design elements speaks to a lot of different tribes. For this collection I didn’t want to be so particular to Crow, or Cheyenne, I wanted people to be able to translate it however they want to. I was trying to capture the essence of these designs, which I think are beautiful. In comparison to my last collection, which I thought had a spirit of resiliency and a bit of a fighter’s attitude about it, a bit edgy. It was very much about “This is who I am.” I had that attitude at the time because of what was going on. I felt like I had to defend myself, and stick up for who I am. For this new collection I wanted to break away from that feeling. I want this to be about the beauty of the designs and try to put forth these ideas of love, and connectedness. With the last collection, it happened at a time when there was a lot of cultural appropriation going on in the fashion world, like KTZ knocking off one of my designs, so at that time I was really on the defensive.
Q: Did being with family inspire any of the design elements?
Yellowtail: This collection is all about pure love, pure beauty, and pure connectedness. For the rose design I involved a few family members. The design is from some of their work, but I rearranged it and we colored everything a bit differently. But the original design comes from three of my really good friends and relatives. And they were all Miss Crow Nation at one point in their lives. They are all incredibly strong women and it was such a pleasure and honor for me to include them in this project.
Q: What were you thinking in terms of the fabrics for this collection?
Yellowtail: I wanted really beautiful, luxurious fabrics. When you see them up close and feel them, they are absolutely incredible. They glow. For example, the suede dress with the crow roses on them, I was inspired by old photos of Pow Wow dancers, and even some recent Pow Wow dancers, when they perform some of the older dances they wear simple buckskin mocks, with beaded roses on them. It’s very simple, but elegant and contemporary. I was aiming for that style. Also, I had a great picture of Robert Yellowtail, who is very important in our community for the work he did in the 1970s. In the picture, he’s wearing a beautiful solid buckskin vest with beaded floral designs. And that inspired me too.
For a lot of the bead work, I was inspired by the Cheyenne mountains, the Cheyenne river, and the Cheyenne Star, which are very much present in contemporary and old-style Cheyenne beadwork. When I was home, relatives told me about them, and showed me what details are specific to Cheyenne artwork, so I wanted to include that in my own way in the design. I chose not to use traditional colors for this collection, and these beads are not the traditional beads that are found on contemporary artwork or beadwork of the Cheyenne. I’m not a beader myself, and I didn’t want to pretend like I was. So this is my own interpretation, in an artistic way, a wearable way. On some of the dresses the beadwork is complemented with intricate thread embroidery.
Q: Can you speak about the video you made to promote the new collection?
Yellowtail: The video was a major collaboration with the models that are featured in it, Petra Reyes & Kahara Hodges (Diné). I was hoping to have Ashley Callingbull model the collection, but then I saw a video of Kahara singing this beautiful Diné song, and I changed directions. Changed my mind. I thought I’d love to have Kahara for the photo shoot and video promoting the collection because of her beautiful singing voice. Also, with the last collection, we used Jade Willoughby and Martin Sensmeier, who have very striking indigenous features. Kahara is multiracial, but she is very connected to her culture, she identifies with Navajo. Petra and Kahara don’t look typically Native, and I think that might be true of many of our people. It’s true of myself, I don’t look typically Cheyenne or typically Crow. So I can identify with that situation. And they are stunning human beings, with an incredible connection to each other. Petra is an amazing, supportive mother, and Kahara is beginning her music career and developing her beautiful voice, so I was lucky to have them participate in the video and photo shoot.
2016 Capsule Collection: www.byellowtail.com/shop-online