Designer Bethany Yellowtail on building her brand and amplifying Indigenous designers
Sitting outside her Los Angeles office, the sun hitting her peyote-print wrap blouse, is how B. Yellowtail designer Bethany Yellowtail describes her foray into fashion. The talent, drive, and support of your family were all there, but when you were born into a proverbial world far from the fashion capitals of the world – or any major city for that matter – a clear path can be hard to see. .
“I grew up on the Crow Indian Reservation in southeastern Montana,” says Yellowtail, who also belongs to the Northern Cheyenne Nation. “My dad is a third generation cattle rancher, so I grew up driving trucks, feeding cows – being a ranch kid. Our nearest neighbor was a mile away. Amid a childhood marked by horseback riding and swimming in rivers, fashion became an integral part of Yellowtail life and culture.
“One of my earliest fashion memories is that my Aunt Joy made me sit my sister and I on the floor of our living room, and she brought some materials and taught us how to tuck our own shawls, so that we could go dancing at our tribe’s powwow. “Beading and sewing around the kitchen table was usual, and when Yellowtail hit college, his home economics teacher was struck by his abilities. “She was like, ‘you know, you could be trendy.’ And when she told me that, I thought, okay, that’s what I’m going to do … I’m going to be a fashion designer. And I started making my own clothes. creations featured a costume she needed for the Girl State High School leadership program. She opted for a hot pink blazer and matching pants, inspired by Beyoncé’s looks in Pink Panther and the Check it out Musical clip. “It was really awesome,” laughs Yellowtail. “And I went to high school in Wyoming so I looked silly, but that was me.”
Without the means to study fashion abroad or the academic guidance to fully explore schools like Parsons, SCAD or RISD, Yellowtail decided to go to Brooks College in Long Beach. Shortly before enrollment, the school closed. “I called home [economics] professor crying that I had nowhere to go and that I should stay in Montana and Wyoming, ”Yellowtail says. At the time, her teacher was in California for a conference and saw a booth for FIDM. “She explained my situation to them and helped convince them to expedite a request for me.” Within days, Yellowtail was accepted.
“You can imagine, moving to LA right out of high school was really, really shocking,” she says. “It was super hard to make the transition to be here.” But culture shock aside, Yellowtail excelled, especially in technical aspects of design like draping and patterning. She graduated in 2009 during a period of economic downturn and supported herself with a job at Starbucks while doing an unpaid internship. “I gave myself a year after graduation and I was like, if you can’t find a job in a year, you have to bring your ass home and find something else.” The same week she reached the milestone of the year, she got a temporary job as an assistant model maker at BCBG, which eventually led to a full-time position with the label.
Working on the BCBG and Herve Leger runway collections, much of his job was to observe then-creative director Lubov Azria. “She really has an impeccable eye for the cut, and I picked her there,” she says. “I spent a lot of time asking questions, watching and listening; hearing professionals talk about tissue, how it looks and the little quarter inch that counts. When she decided to start B. Yellowtail in 2014, “my father set up equipment from my family’s cattle ranch so that I could take out a loan for a small business,” she says – this experience turned out to be true. vital.
“I always knew I wanted to have my own brand,” she says. “The mission – to leave home and go to design school – was because I wanted to design my own clothes.” Yellowtail’s pieces are not only marked by its expertise in draping and model making. Each collection is a tribute to its indigenous roots – a blend of modern pieces and dresses with ancestral motifs of Raven and Cheyanne. “I didn’t see myself in mainstream fashion and really wanted to be a part of it,” Yellowtail says. “I wanted to see my community and my culture truly represented in this space, in this world. And that’s what B.Yellowtail is. I can take all of those parts of me that I love – the community I come from, the culture I love, my family – and see them in B. Yellowtail.
What many brands that create “native inspired” pieces fail to realize, according to Yellowtail, is the meaning of certain colors, patterns and fabrications. Using them indiscriminately, without any knowledge of what they symbolize or the contribution of indigenous designers is a deeply offensive and irresponsible form of appropriation, she explains.
“Who we are, where do we come from, our place on this earth, our connection to the earth – our designs say so,” she says, adding that tribes identify with colors and design arrangements. distinct. “There are also designs that are only for our spiritual leaders and our doctors that we are not supposed to put on everyone. These are things that most non-native designers don’t consider or even think about… They mix everything together. When Yellowtail launched his brand, his family gave him a handful of models to reference and reinvent. “I’m very careful about making my own version of it,” she said. “Like anything else, we can’t just take them exactly.”
As she builds her brand, Yellowtail constantly juggles the demands of running a small business with an unwavering commitment to her community. In 2016, she created the B. Yellowtail collective for indigenous artisans to sell their work through her brand’s platform. “You see the fashion [brands] making billions of dollars with our cultural art while our people are struggling, ”she said, citing high unemployment rates on reserves. “I want to make sure our people can support their families. To date, B. Yellowtail has worked with over 60 local brands, including body care line Bison Star Naturals, Kevin Ray Garcia’s eponymous jewelry brand and Indigo Arrows textile label. Last year, during the initial peak of the COVID pandemic, Yellowtail and his team supplied masks to the Northern Cheyenne Nation within a week. It was a looping moment for the designer, who received a Nation scholarship to go to college.
2020 also marked a collaboration with New York-based brand Faherty. “They were officially doing native-inspired fashion and understood that they were making it their own, and they decided to do something different,” she says. “[They’re] really letting us do the design process… and helping us develop products that we don’t have the capacity to make, like knits, which are very expensive.
Yellowtail hopes other designers, and society at large, will follow suit in recognizing, embracing and amplifying Indigenous contributions, both now and for future generations. “For me, it’s so important that when people buy from B.Yellowtail, they also see us as part of the community; they see the faces of our artists, they see us as contemporaries and human beings, ”she says. “It might sound strange to say this, but there is always this perception that we are like unicorns, that we are mythical. There are currently over 570 tribal nations in the United States [and] our children deserve to have opportunities and they deserve to be seen as human beings.
Since its launch, B. Yellowtail has grown from three to eight employees, and the team recently moved into its first corporate headquarters, a 6,500 square foot space in the Los Feliz neighborhood of LA. “I feel like it’s real now,” Yellowtails says. “I have worked in a 1,000 square foot apartment, living room or small office for so many years.” While a dedicated customer base has kept the direct-to-consumer brand afloat over the years, Yellowtail says it is looking for investors (it never has) and is hoping to eventually see the brand in stores. “It’s super exciting,” she says of her plans to develop the label. “It’s scary, but it’s amazing. My dreams come true.
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