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Native American fashion designer shows how appreciation triumphs over appropriation: ‘My culture is not your costume’

For Native American designer Dante Biss-Grayson (Osage), taking up space at New York Fashion Week earlier this month was an opportunity to show attendees beside the catwalk and beyond that Natives are “still here.”

“We’re taking up space where, normally, a lot of Native designers haven’t been. So I want to get out there and show them how it’s done,” he tells In The Know by Yahoo. “We’re Native, and we can keep up with the big fashion houses.”

Biss-Grayson launched his fashion house, Sky-Eagle Collection, in 2019 in Taos, N.M. His designs mix traditional Native clothing, such as ribbon skirts, with an avant-garde sensibility. Whether it’s adding vibrant pops of color, lace overlays or even raising the hemlines, Biss-Grayson is creating modern Native fashion that is competing on a global stage.

“The designs, the details, are based out of Osage ribbon work,” says Biss-Grayson, who is the brand’s founder and lead designer. His wife, Yanti, is the premier of the fashion house, while their 4-year-old daughter is in the process of learning the family business. “I kind of took that idea, the concept of the linear structure of the lines, and really made it modern and blew it up.”

The new warriors

The main theme for Sky-Eagle Collection is empowerment, he adds. “For me, that means the new warriors — men, women, whomever — walking in the modern world, who still want to hold on to their tradition, their culture.”

The Osage Nation citizen knows a lot about the warrior mentality as a veteran of multiple overseas tours, including stints in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I returned home, with many traumatic incidents locked deep inside my heart and soul,” Biss-Grayson writes on his website. “I needed a release, I needed therapy, so I opened my art and fashion studios as a way to heal. I paint, write poetry, sculpt, create art installations, and I am a Fashion Designer.”

While his experience was harrowing, he was able to use that to inform his fashion and art.

“It’s like expressionism. And I applied this same concept to fashion,” he says. “I’m expressing my emotion, and it’s really great to be able to externalize the storm that goes on sometimes in people’s lives.”

That experience helped lead the Native designer to not only launch Sky-Eagle Collection but also to “level up” with a growing list of projects. Biss-Grayson also admits that his military experience has helped with running a business.

“Coming out of the military world, I’m a big fan of planning,” he says. “I have a three-, five-year, 10-year vision and master plan.”

“My culture is not your fashion statement.”

That plan has included New York Fashion Week, among other couture appointments in the US and abroad. What’s been especially important for Biss-Grayson is showing those audiences that the visibility and representation of Native-made clothing is crucial in a world that has often given space and energy to “Native-inspired” designs, a euphemistic term that encompasses the cultural appropriation that has appeared on runways in the form of headdresses, buckskin and beaded garments — all part of traditional Native regalia and dress.

“It’s very cliché,” Biss-Grayson says about the appropriated designs he’s seen on various runways. “My culture is not your costume. My culture is not your fashion statement.”

While the Sky-Eagle Collection founder is adamant that non-Native brands avoid using Native dress as their “inspiration,” he also seeks to use his platform to educate.

“Pushing my brand into these spaces is to educate and be like, look,” he says, “I’m a Native designer. I grew up doing my ceremonies. And now I’m sharing the difference with you. I’m educating you along this journey.”

And Biss-Grayson is on quite a journey. Now that this year’s New York Fashion Week has come to an end, he has plans to visit Cannes, France, in May to headline a runway show that will run alongside the annual film festival. After that, he will produce a three-day event at the Santa Fe Indian Market at Bishop’s Lodge Resort to showcase 100 looks of Sky-Eagle Collection. And then in 2024, Biss-Grayson and his team will be producing “a major show at the base of the Eiffel Tower” in Paris.

For the veteran designer, things just keep moving.

“It’s a great journey,” he says. “So happy and honored.”

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