Arts Thread

1) Niya DeGroat. 2-6) Indigene Fashion Magazine celebrating contemporary indigenous fashion. 7 & 8) Modern Indigeneity Stying.

We interview ARTSTHREAD member Niya DeGroat, a 2020 Fashion Journalism MA graduate from the Academy of Art University. We discuss his experience designing a magazine for contemporary Indigenous fashion for his thesis project, the hurdles indigenous designers face in the fashion industry and amazing designers to watch.

See Niya DeGroat ArtsThread Portfolio.

ArtsThread: Please tell us a little about how you came to study at Academy of Art University?

Niya DeGroat: For as long as I can remember, I knew that I wanted to get a master’s degree. The problem was: In what? I initially looked into fashion photography at a school in New York, but I soon realized, I really couldn’t afford it. Besides, I already had bachelor’s degrees in films studies and photography. It would have been redundant.

While I was doing my research, I stumbled upon an ad for advertising at the Academy of Art University. After looking over the curriculum, I was sold, ready to apply. But then, I was once again distracted by another digital ad this time for the school of fashion.

I almost didn’t click it, because I assumed it was only for fashion designers. To my surprise, I saw a number of online programs outside of design from marketing to styling to fashion journalism.

In my high school yearbook’s “Who’s Who of the Senior Class,” I remembered saying that I wanted to get a degree in fine arts or journalism. Well, here was my second chance. Better late than never. I didn’t waste any time and I applied immediately because scholarship and financial aid deadlines were just around the corner. I guess you can say it was meant to be.

ArtsThread: What was the focus of your MA final project (thesis work)?

Niya DeGroat: For thesis work, fashion journalists are required to create their own magazine from cover to cover. Early on, I knew I wanted to create a magazine for contemporary Indigenous fashion because, at the time, there was little to no coverage in the American industry with the exception of Native Max – a lifestyle magazine committed to featuring Indigenous culture and stories.

Even when I was working for Phoenix Fashion Week in Arizona, I made it a point to reach out to emerging Indigenous designers so that they could take part in our business of fashion bootcamp, as well as our runway competition. Ultimately, one of those selected Native designers, ACONAV, ended up winning Designer of the Year in 2018 – a first in Phoenix Fashion Week history.

Working with our Native designers, over the years, allowed me to have access to their new collections and behind-the-scenes work, so when it came to making my magazine, I had already gathered enough content to showcase.

ArtsThread: Your new magazine Indigene - can you tell us about it? The challenges? and highlights so far?

Niya DeGroat: Indigene is a fashion magazine that celebrates and highlights the ever-changing tapestry of Indigenous fashion by sharing and presenting Native stories and cultures authentically through forward-thinking perspectives and unique storytelling.

Essentially, I wanted my magazine to move beyond the archetypes everyone is used to seeing. I wanted to present Native people in contemporary designs in contemporary settings tackling modern issues. No nature backdrops; no feathers or leather fringes.

A highlight for me was that I was able to flex my multidisciplinary skills. As a self-taught graphic designer, with a background in photography and visual communication, including some styling experience, I was able to build each page with ease. Now, the biggest challenge for me, is creating the next issue. Native fashion moves slowly and unconventionally. It’s a young market with lots of very green designers who haven’t yet become sustainable brands. Just like mainstream fashion, I’m always looking for the next big thing. They’re out there, I just have to keep looking.

ArtsThread: Contemporary indigenous designers? What are the biggest hurdles they face? and who are the designers we should watch out for?

Niya DeGroat: The biggest misconception about Indigenous peoples is that we are a monolith. There is even a large segment of the American population who believe we no longer exist. An Indigenous writer I follow on social media, Simon Moya-Smith (@simonsaidtakeapic), said it best: “We are the visible invisible.”

People don’t realize that America is home to 574 federally-recognized tribes, as well as a number of other tribes who are not formally acknowledged. That means there are 574+ tribal nations in the U.S. who have their own unique culture, language, spirituality, and traditional clothing.

In the fashion industry, I feel like Indigenous designers have to meet two sets of standards in order to be taken seriously or to be considered “successful.” The fashion standard established by the Western fashion system and the Native standard set forth by Indian Art markets across the country. On the one hand, Indigenous designers are told repeatedly that their designs are not fashion forward. On the other hand, they’re told their designs aren’t Indigenous. Just like their everyday lives, Indigenous artists get stuck between not being Native enough and not being mainstream enough.

In the middle of all that confusion, non-Natives hesitate to wear Indigenous designs for fear of being accused of cultural appropriation or committing some kind of offense. It’s an endless cycle of uncertainty that leaves some Indigenous designers wanting to quit all together.

Still, they persevere. Designers like Loren Aragon (Acoma Pueblo), and his wife, Valentina (Navajo), of the fashion label, ACONAV, continue to have career defining moments including dressing Arizona’s only Tony Award voter, Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, who walked the 2018 red carpet wearing a custom, pottery-inspired gown. Every season, Orlando Dugi, a Diné designer in Santa Fe, New Mexico, creates mesmerizing couture pieces that are known for his intricate beading technique. Dugi’s designs are quite modern, yet very much indigenous. There’s also, Bethany Yellowtail (Northern Cheyenne/Crow), who infuses her ready-to-wear line, B. Yellowtail, with Indigenous social justice awareness.

Finally, from a historical perspective, Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee), is known in the Native American community as the father of contemporary Native fashion. His groundbreaking work in the 1950s and 60s contributed greatly to the advancement of contemporary design culminating in the development of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico for which he was a co-founder and admired professor.

ArtsThread: How can more young people from indigenous backgrounds be encouraged to study design? What are the barriers? and do you have suggestions to overcome this?

Niya DeGroat: A major barrier for some aspiring designers is that academic advisors and scholarship foundations tend to overlook the arts, including fashion design, as a viable career option. Instead, we are encouraged to become lawyers, doctors, nurses, or teachers, so that we can return to our respective reservations and come up with solutions on how to make our communities prosperous. Yes, that’s important, but I strongly believe you can give back to your community through fashion and art just the same.

My advice to young designers: do your research, study fashion history, and step out of your comfort zone. As Indigenous people, we tend to get comfortable in our Native bubble. We forget that there are other cultures and histories to soak up. It’s a big world out there, go explore!

ArtsThread: Thank you Niya!

See Niya DeGroat ArtsThread Portfolio.

Learn more about MA Fashion Journalism at Academy of Art University on ARTSTHREAD and also from the School of Fashion at Academy of Art University website.


ARTS THREAD Newsletter

Of
Interest

1) Niya DeGroat. 2-6) Indigene Fashion Magazine celebrating contemporary indigenous fashion. 7 & 8) Modern Indigeneity Stying.

We interview ARTSTHREAD member Niya DeGroat, a 2020 Fashion Journalism MA graduate from the Academy of Art University. We discuss his experience designing a magazine for contemporary Indigenous fashion for his thesis project, the hurdles indigenous designers face in the fashion industry and amazing designers to watch.

See Niya DeGroat ArtsThread Portfolio.

ArtsThread: Please tell us a little about how you came to study at Academy of Art University?

Niya DeGroat: For as long as I can remember, I knew that I wanted to get a master’s degree. The problem was: In what? I initially looked into fashion photography at a school in New York, but I soon realized, I really couldn’t afford it. Besides, I already had bachelor’s degrees in films studies and photography. It would have been redundant.

While I was doing my research, I stumbled upon an ad for advertising at the Academy of Art University. After looking over the curriculum, I was sold, ready to apply. But then, I was once again distracted by another digital ad this time for the school of fashion.

I almost didn’t click it, because I assumed it was only for fashion designers. To my surprise, I saw a number of online programs outside of design from marketing to styling to fashion journalism.

In my high school yearbook’s “Who’s Who of the Senior Class,” I remembered saying that I wanted to get a degree in fine arts or journalism. Well, here was my second chance. Better late than never. I didn’t waste any time and I applied immediately because scholarship and financial aid deadlines were just around the corner. I guess you can say it was meant to be.

ArtsThread: What was the focus of your MA final project (thesis work)?

Niya DeGroat: For thesis work, fashion journalists are required to create their own magazine from cover to cover. Early on, I knew I wanted to create a magazine for contemporary Indigenous fashion because, at the time, there was little to no coverage in the American industry with the exception of Native Max – a lifestyle magazine committed to featuring Indigenous culture and stories.

Even when I was working for Phoenix Fashion Week in Arizona, I made it a point to reach out to emerging Indigenous designers so that they could take part in our business of fashion bootcamp, as well as our runway competition. Ultimately, one of those selected Native designers, ACONAV, ended up winning Designer of the Year in 2018 – a first in Phoenix Fashion Week history.

Working with our Native designers, over the years, allowed me to have access to their new collections and behind-the-scenes work, so when it came to making my magazine, I had already gathered enough content to showcase.

ArtsThread: Your new magazine Indigene - can you tell us about it? The challenges? and highlights so far?

Niya DeGroat: Indigene is a fashion magazine that celebrates and highlights the ever-changing tapestry of Indigenous fashion by sharing and presenting Native stories and cultures authentically through forward-thinking perspectives and unique storytelling.

Essentially, I wanted my magazine to move beyond the archetypes everyone is used to seeing. I wanted to present Native people in contemporary designs in contemporary settings tackling modern issues. No nature backdrops; no feathers or leather fringes.

A highlight for me was that I was able to flex my multidisciplinary skills. As a self-taught graphic designer, with a background in photography and visual communication, including some styling experience, I was able to build each page with ease. Now, the biggest challenge for me, is creating the next issue. Native fashion moves slowly and unconventionally. It’s a young market with lots of very green designers who haven’t yet become sustainable brands. Just like mainstream fashion, I’m always looking for the next big thing. They’re out there, I just have to keep looking.

ArtsThread: Contemporary indigenous designers? What are the biggest hurdles they face? and who are the designers we should watch out for?

Niya DeGroat: The biggest misconception about Indigenous peoples is that we are a monolith. There is even a large segment of the American population who believe we no longer exist. An Indigenous writer I follow on social media, Simon Moya-Smith (@simonsaidtakeapic), said it best: “We are the visible invisible.”

People don’t realize that America is home to 574 federally-recognized tribes, as well as a number of other tribes who are not formally acknowledged. That means there are 574+ tribal nations in the U.S. who have their own unique culture, language, spirituality, and traditional clothing.

In the fashion industry, I feel like Indigenous designers have to meet two sets of standards in order to be taken seriously or to be considered “successful.” The fashion standard established by the Western fashion system and the Native standard set forth by Indian Art markets across the country. On the one hand, Indigenous designers are told repeatedly that their designs are not fashion forward. On the other hand, they’re told their designs aren’t Indigenous. Just like their everyday lives, Indigenous artists get stuck between not being Native enough and not being mainstream enough.

In the middle of all that confusion, non-Natives hesitate to wear Indigenous designs for fear of being accused of cultural appropriation or committing some kind of offense. It’s an endless cycle of uncertainty that leaves some Indigenous designers wanting to quit all together.

Still, they persevere. Designers like Loren Aragon (Acoma Pueblo), and his wife, Valentina (Navajo), of the fashion label, ACONAV, continue to have career defining moments including dressing Arizona’s only Tony Award voter, Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, who walked the 2018 red carpet wearing a custom, pottery-inspired gown. Every season, Orlando Dugi, a Diné designer in Santa Fe, New Mexico, creates mesmerizing couture pieces that are known for his intricate beading technique. Dugi’s designs are quite modern, yet very much indigenous. There’s also, Bethany Yellowtail (Northern Cheyenne/Crow), who infuses her ready-to-wear line, B. Yellowtail, with Indigenous social justice awareness.

Finally, from a historical perspective, Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee), is known in the Native American community as the father of contemporary Native fashion. His groundbreaking work in the 1950s and 60s contributed greatly to the advancement of contemporary design culminating in the development of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico for which he was a co-founder and admired professor.

ArtsThread: How can more young people from indigenous backgrounds be encouraged to study design? What are the barriers? and do you have suggestions to overcome this?

Niya DeGroat: A major barrier for some aspiring designers is that academic advisors and scholarship foundations tend to overlook the arts, including fashion design, as a viable career option. Instead, we are encouraged to become lawyers, doctors, nurses, or teachers, so that we can return to our respective reservations and come up with solutions on how to make our communities prosperous. Yes, that’s important, but I strongly believe you can give back to your community through fashion and art just the same.

My advice to young designers: do your research, study fashion history, and step out of your comfort zone. As Indigenous people, we tend to get comfortable in our Native bubble. We forget that there are other cultures and histories to soak up. It’s a big world out there, go explore!

ArtsThread: Thank you Niya!

See Niya DeGroat ArtsThread Portfolio.

Learn more about MA Fashion Journalism at Academy of Art University on ARTSTHREAD and also from the School of Fashion at Academy of Art University website.


ARTS THREAD Newsletter

Of
Interest