MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Recently, we talked about how fashion designers have been trying to figure out how to express their ideas and worries and their designs for New York's Fashion Week. But there's another group of designers with a lot to say. Native American designers are featured in an exhibition called Native Fashion Now at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in New York. The broader fashion world has long borrowed native designs which can be a sensitive subject.
Jacki Lyden of the Seams reports on an artist with the Seminole tribe of Florida who's challenging stores and a big name in fashion with a group called Seminoles for Authenticity.
JACKI LYDEN, BYLINE: Picture this - a pair of red legs and feet - the skin, a patchwork of red hues stuffed headfirst into a Donna Karan shopping bag. The artist is Seminole tribal member Jessica Osceola, and this ceramic piece is called Not Yours, Not Ours, Not for Sale.
JESSICA OSCEOLA: Patchwork has become a really recognizable art form for the Seminole people. Lately, there's been a lot of exploitation of it, other people making these very specific designs and styles and construction. And I wanted to try to be a part of putting out pieces to show people that it's part of our identity, that we remain strong, that it's not a historical thing, and it's also a thing that's happening now.
LYDEN: Seminole patchwork is handmade clothing made from strips of colored fabrics placed side by side in an undulating horizontal band. It kind of gives it a pop art look. Designers like Donna Karan and Chanel and clothing chains like Anthropologie and Free People have used interpretations of the designs in their collections. None have given credit to the Seminoles.
After Osceola complained, she did get apologies from the chain stores. So far, Donna Karan hasn't yet responded to a letter she sent saying, quote, "I'm saddened that such a well-known artist like Donna Karan would steal from the grandmothers, aunts and daughters of the Florida tribal people."
OSCEOLA: Donna Karan specifically had some patchwork designs set up just the way like a three-quarter length Seminole Miccosukee skirt would be with the diamond pattern and rick rack. And her artist statement said it was her own creative concept. So when I tried to confront her as well as my cousins, like, we didn't get any answers from her.
LYDEN: The Donna Karan skirt in question is muted brown and black in tone. There's nothing illegal about using designs like these, as long as they're not labeled as being made by Seminoles. Designers borrow from each other all the time. In fact, designs have spread from one Native American tribe to the other. The Seminoles may have even gotten some of their designs from European styles.
Floridian author and historian Patsy West has collected hundreds of pieces of Seminole clothing for her archive from the early 20th century on. She arranged it by decade in her Fort Lauderdale home. Tourists bought patchwork clothing on trips to Florida. Then a missionary named Deaconess Bedell took the clothes up to New York to sell in the 1930s.
In recent years, designers from Isaac Mizrahi to Jeremy Scott have gotten in hot water for appropriation of symbols like totem poles. Donna Karan herself has won praise for collaborating with a Native artist from the Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico. A decade later, she acknowledged Haitian artisans where she's worked extensively. Here's a 2012 clip in an interview on YouTube in which Donna Karan tells Neiman-Marcus creative director Ken Downing that she wants to pay homage to her sources.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DONNA KARAN: If I couldn't do that, I don't think I'd design. You know, I just don't think about designing. I hope that I inspire other people to, you know, see design as just not a business, but as somebody's heart and soul.
LYDEN: And as cultural heritage. Kathleen Ash-Milby is a curator at the New York branch of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and a Navajo tribal member.
KATHLEEN ASH-MILBY: As far as deriving inspiration from native culture, I don't think there's anything that we can say is wrong with being inspired by native art and expression. I think the issue is when things are copied to such a degree that it is very, very apparent that this is not their idea. It still has that very, very strong visual association with the originator which, you know, might be a particular native community that should be acknowledged.
LYDEN: Giving credit can mean anything from naming a tribe to paying for work or a share of the profits. In Florida, Seminole tribal artist Jessica Osceola agreed recently to collaborate with a San Francisco company on a line of children's clothes. Osceola says all her group Seminoles for Authenticity was asking for from Donna Karan was acknowledgement. Donna Karan's representatives were unable to make her available for this story for comment.
OSCEOLA: I know personally myself, I can't beat her. Like, I can't do it myself, you know? So what I can do is just try to continue just to plant a seed and just try to foster that seed and try to help it. So a little bit of recognition with me goes a long ways.
LYDEN: Later in the spring, the curators of Native Fashion Now in New York will tackle appropriation head-on with tribal designers from around the country in a symposium with the Fashion Institute of Technology, and Donna Karan has been invited as a speaker. For NPR News, I'm Jacki Lyden.
MARTIN: Jacki Lyden has been reporting for much of the past year on the history and artistry of the Seminoles with the help of a grant from the Florida Humanities Council. This is the last of her reports for us, but you can check out the entire series at theseams.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.