Tonight, Jessica Metcalfe, founder of Beyond Buckskin, will speak about Native American fashion, historical adornments and issues of cultural appropriation to a crowd of 2,000 on the TEDxFargo stage.
TEDx organizes TED-style events across the world to promote “ideas worth spreading.” Metalfe, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, certainly has the background to represent the diversity and individuality of Native American fashion, while taking aim at racist stereotypes.
The business owner launched Beyond Buckskin in 2009, while earning her Ph.D. in American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona. The website was dedicated to showcasing and promoting North America’s first artists and original designers.
In 2012, Metcalfe transformed her blog into an educational and e-commerce platform with a $100 investment to build out her website. “You get creative really fast when you want to launch a business with no money,” said Metcalfe, who was serving as a visiting professor at Arizona State University at the time.
The boutique, still rooted in activism and a desire to share indigenous cultures through fashion design, connects artists to buyers. The broad platform helps to “promote economic development and the advancement of Native artists through financially supporting the movement,” Metcalfe explained.
As the company expanded, Metcalfe organically began to extend micro-loans to Native artists for design materials. “It’s still very fluid—my communication with artists about their needs and what we can do to best help them grow their businesses,” Metcalfe said.
Today, Beyond Buckskin counts more than 40 artists and nearly 300 products available for sale. “Diversity, beauty, utility and tradition come together in the garments and accessories we share with the world – from our hands to yours,” Metcalfe states.
Just two years ago, the entrepreneur opened a brick-and-mortar version of her online shop in Belcourt, North Dakota, home of Turtle Mountain’s tribal offices. “It’s really rare to have a business, especially a fashion business, last that long on the rez in the middle of nowhere. But that’s where these businesses need to be—on our reservations—so we can promote economic development there,” said Metcalfe, hinting to Native Business Magazine that she’s already looking to expand with a second physical retail location.
Last month, Beyond Buckskin launched its subscription box service, Club BB. The successful service quickly garnered nearly 200 subscribers, who receive a monthly box featuring hand-produced products by Native artists. “We want to keep with that handmade quality, without turning artists into manufacturers,” Metcalfe said.
Members pay an upfront fee to join Club BB. Currently, subscriptions run $20/month for 6 months, and $25/month for 3 months. Club BB will introduce a high-end subscription box in December, prospectively for $100/month, Metcalfe said.
“Each box comes with a little description of the item and the significance of it, with information about the artist,” said Metcalfe, emphasizing the importance of consumer education.
Speaking of education and promoting indigenous fashion designers, Metcalfe will kick-off her TEDx speech by highlighting a few of her favorite designers. “I want people to see examples of Native American-made fashion, because it’s probably not what they’d expect,” Metcalfe said.
Her presentation will feature artists Consuelo Pascual (Diné and Maya from Guatemala), Patricia Michaels (featured on the Emmy Award-winning season 11 of “Project Runway” in 2012 where she won the first runner up title), Alano Edzerza (Raven clan of the Tahltan Nation), Jared Yazzie (Diné, founder of OXDX Clothing), and Jamie Okuma (Luiseño and Shoshone-Bannock).
“These five designers really do demonstrate the diversity that exists and the individually [of Native fashion]. They come from different tribes, different regions, and they do everything from streetwear to couture to everything in between,” said Metcalfe, who chose to keep male-female representation of designers in balance for her presentation.
Metcalfe expressed her appreciation for the way Jamie Okuma demonstrates a bridge between ancestral and modern fashion. “What she’s doing right now is digitally printing her original beadwork designs, inspired by traditional Plateau beadwork, and then using those patterns on fabric for dresses, scarves and other items. She’s doing an extraordinary job at visualizing that connection to the past,” Metcalfe said.
Metcalfe’s talk will then segue into a hot topic right now—the misuse of the Native American headdress. She’ll hone in on the offensive appropriation by Paul Frank Industries of a Native American Pow Wow-themed event in 2012. “It caused a large uproar not only within our community, but within the broader community, because it was such a terrible showcase of stereotypes,” said Metcalfe.
Her TEDx speech will also advocate for business collaboration with Native artists.
Following post-production and promotion, TEDx will release video of Metcalfe’s speech in September.
“It’s probably the most extensive preparing for a presentation that I’ve ever had,” Metcalfe said. “[TEDx] sends you a lot of emails and make sure you’re on track with your presentation and that your key ideas are there, so you’re ready to present in front of over 2,000 people.”