(Indigenous Peoples Heritage Month)

Designer Bethany Yellowtail Opens Up About Starting Her Own Line

“I didn't see myself in mainstream fashion and I really wanted to be a part of that.”

Bethany Yellowtail

Sitting outside of her Los Angeles office, the sun hitting her peyote stitch-print wrap blouse, this is how B. Yellowtail designer Bethany Yellowtail describes her foray into fashion. The talent, drive, and support from her family were all there, but when you’re born a proverbial world away from the fashion capitals of the globe — 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's a third-generation cattle rancher, so I grew up driving trucks, feeding cows — being a ranch kid. Our closest neighbor was a mile away.” Amid a childhood marked by riding horses and swimming in rivers, fashion emerged as an integral part of Yellowtail’s life and culture.

“One of my earliest fashion memories is my Aunt Joy having my sister and I sit on our living room floor, and she brought materials over and taught us how to fringe our own shawls, so that we could go dance at our tribe’s pow wow.” Beading and sewing around the kitchen table was customary, and when Yellowtail reached middle school, her home economics teacher was struck by her abilities. “She was like, ‘you know, you could be in fashion.’ And when she said that to me I thought, ok, that’s what I’m going to do...I’m going to be a fashion designer. And I started making my own clothes.” Among early designs was a suit she needed for high school leadership program Girl State. She settled on a bright pink blazer and matching pants, inspired by Beyoncé’s looks in Pink Panther and the Check up on It music video. “It was really extra,” Yellowtail laughs. “And I went to high school in Wyoming so I looked ridiculous, but that was me.”

B. Yellowtail

Without the means to study fashion abroad or the academic guidance to fully explore schools like Parsons, SCAD or RISD, Yellowtail decided to attend Brooks College in Long Beach. Only shortly before enrolling, the school shut down. “I called my home [economics] teacher crying that I had nowhere to go and I’d have to stay in Montana and Wyoming,” Yellowtail says. At the time, her teacher happened to be in California for a conference and saw a booth for FIDM. “She explained to them my situation and helped convince them to expedite an application for me.” In a matter of a few days, Yellowtail was accepted.

“You can imagine, moving to L.A. right out of high school was really, really jarring,” she says. “It was super hard to transition to being here.” But culture shock aside, Yellowtail excelled, especially in the technical aspects of design like draping and patternmaking. She graduated in 2009 during a down economy, 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 get a job in a year, you’ve got to take your butt home to the res and figure something else out.” The same week she hit the year mark she got a temp job as an assistant patternmaker at BCBG, which eventually led to a full-time position at the label.

Working on the BCBG and Herve Leger runway collections, much of her job entailed observing then creative director Lubov Azria. “She really has an impeccable eye for fit, and I picked that up there,” she says. “I spent a lot of time asking questions, watching and listening; hearing industry professionals talk about fabrics, the way they should look, and the little quarter of an inch that matters.” When she decided to launch B. Yellowtail in 2014 “my dad put up equipment from my family's cattle ranch so I could take out a small business loan,” she says — that experience proved to be vital.

B. Yellowtail

“I always knew I wanted to have my own brand,” she says. “The mission — leaving home and going to design school — was because I wanted to design my own clothes.” Yellowtail’s pieces aren’t just marked by her deft draping and patternmaking expertise. Each collection is a homage to her Native roots — a mix of modern separates and dresses featuring ancestral Crow and Cheyanne designs. “I didn't see myself in mainstream fashion and I really wanted to be a part of that,” Yellowtail says. “I wanted to see my community and my culture really represented in this space, in this world. And that's what B.Yellowtail is. I get to take all those parts of me that I love — the community I come from, the culture that I love, my family — and see it in B.Yellowtail.”

What many brands that create “Native-inspired” pieces fail to realize, Yellowtail says, is the meaning behind certain colors, motifs and fabrications. Using them indiscriminately, with no knowledge of what they symbolize or input from Native designers is a profoundly offensive and irresponsible form of appropriation she explains.

B. Yellowtail

“Who we are, where we come from, our place on this earth, our connection to the land — our designs say that,” she says, adding that tribes identify themselves with distinct colors and design arrangements. “There are also designs that are only for our spiritual leaders and our medicine people that we’re not supposed to put on everybody. These are things that most non-Native designers don’t take into consideration or even think about… They mishmash it all together.” When Yellowtail launched her label, her family passed down a handful of designs for her to reference and reimagine. “I’m really cautious about making them my own version,” she says. “Just like anything else, we can’t just take them exactly.”

As she builds her brand, Yellowtail is constantly juggling the demands of running a small business with an unwavering commitment to her community. In 2016, she established the B. Yellowtail Collective for Native artisans to sell their work through her brand’s platform. “You see fashion [brands] making billions of dollars off of our cultural art while our people are struggling,” she says, citing high unemployment rates on reservations. “I want to make sure our people can provide for their families.” To date B. Yellowtail has worked with over 60 indigenous brands, including body care line Bison Star Naturals, Kevin Ray Garcia’s namesake jewelry brand, and textiles label Indigo Arrows. Last year during the initial peak of the COVID pandemic, Yellowtail and her team got masks to the Northern Cheyenne Nation in a week’s time. It was a full-circle moment for the designer, who was awarded a scholarship from the Nation to attend college.

B. Yellowtail

2020 also marked a collaboration with NYC-based brand Faherty. “They were formally doing Native- inspired fashion and understood that they were appropriating, and they decided to do something different,” she says. “[They’re] really letting us lead as far as the design process… and helping us develop products that we don't have the capacity to, like knitwear, which is super expensive.”

Yellowtail hopes that other designers, and society at large, follows suit in recognizing, embracing, and amplifying Native contributions, both now and for future generations. “For me, it's so important that when people are buying from B.Yellowtail, they also see us as community members; they see the faces of our artists, they see us as contemporaries and human beings,” she says. “It might sound strange to say that, but there's still this perception that we're like unicorns, that we’re mythical. There are 570-plus tribal nations in the U.S. right now [and] our children deserve to have opportunities, and they deserve to be seen as human beings.”

Since launching, B. Yellowtail has grown from three to eight employees, and the team recently moved into their first headquarters, a 6,500 square-foot space in L.A.’s Los Feliz neighborhood. “I feel like it’s real now,” Yellowtails says. “I've been working out of an apartment or a living room or a small 1,000-square-foot office for so many years.” Though a dedicated clientele has kept the direct-to-consumer label afloat over the years, Yellowtail says she’s looking into investors (she’s never had one) and hopes to eventually see the brand in stores. “It’s super exciting,” she says of her plans to grow the label. “It’s scary, but it’s amazing. My dreams are coming true.”

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