When Trina Landlord was 7 years old she moved to Anchorage from Mountain Village, a small Central Yup'ik community founded by her great-grandfather. It was the late 1980s, and she learned a cruel lesson fast: In Alaska's biggest city, it wasn't cool to be Native.
"I figured out very quickly that if I didn't want to be ridiculed, I needed to get rid of anything that identified me as Native," says Landlord. "That meant not speaking with a village accent, and not wearing any clothes that looked Native in any way."
Twenty-five years later, Landlord, 35, is the executive director of the Alaska Native Arts Foundation that promotes the work of established and emerging Alaska Native artists from around the state. This includes a growing number of fashion designers who are demonstrating cultural pride by putting contemporary spins on timeless materials, garments and symbols.
"Polar bear fur pants. Cedar bark fedoras. Moose hide dinner jackets. Sealskin halter-top dresses," says Landlord, detailing a few of the fashion items that have been on display at the foundation's downtown Anchorage gallery. "There was also a really sleek seal intestine raincoat, and my personal favorite – a sealskin power suit."
The success of the gallery event led foundation to organize its upcoming first-ever Alaska Native "wearable art" fashion show, "Wear Art Thou?," scheduled for this fall in Anchorage.
"We'll have a 60-foot runway, awesome lighting, indigenous music, and a sort of lounge-y seating array of half-circle tables," says Landlord. "Basically, I've gone from not wanting to wear Native clothes as a kid to organizing a major fashion show of clothing by Native designers. A lot's changed. The tone of how cool it is to be Native is shifting in the right direction, especially among the youth."
The new wave of indigenous fashion in Alaska, Landlord says, "both represents that shift and helps drive it."
Similar fashion movements have been vibrantly evident in Denmark, Greenland and northern Canada for about a decade, with indigenous designers utilizing sealskin, often dyed funky colors, to create alluring evening gowns, as well as handbags and overcoats, boots and other forms of beautiful, distinctly modern outerwear suitable for life in the Arctic.
"Ten years ago, I saw a fantastic sealskin dress on the runway during fashion week in Copenhagen, and I thought, 'Wow. We need to bring that kind of sensibility to market in Alaska,'" says Landlord. "It's been a slow infiltration, but it's finally trending here."
Alaska Native designers have come on strong at high-profile fashion events in Anchorage during the past two years. Examples include the mid-winter 2011 and 2012 Object Runway events organized by the International Gallery of Contemporary Art, which sold out the Bear Tooth Theatrepub, and the 2011 and 2012 Clare to Clare summer benefit shows. The latter spotlighted works by Alaska Native designers – selected by ANAF and the Alaska Native Heritage Center – alongside clothing by non-Native designers that edgy local boutiques submitted.
"The standard concept of Alaska Native fashion used to be mukluks and parkas and kuspuks, which are beautiful, but very traditional," says Teeka Ballas, editor and publisher of Anchorage-based F Magazine, which covers art, culture, and fashion in Alaska. "These (Alaska Native) designers are clearly moving beyond that standard concept, but they're doing so with flairs of originality that reference traditions rather than reject them."
Ballas cites one tradition in Alaska Native clothing design as key to the rising popularity of contemporary Native fashion among Natives and non-Natives alike. It's one that's been essential to Alaska Native clothing since time immemorial: recycled and locally sourced materials.
"Locally produced Alaska Native fashions are about as far from 'Made in China,' as you can get," she says.
David Holthouse is a freelance writer who lives in Anchorage.
The preceding report was first published in First Alaskans Magazine, a publication of First Alaskans Institute. Used with permission.