March 4, 2010

Article | Maya Stewart in the Oklahoman

Designer from Oklahoma finds fashion-world success
McClain County woman uses small-town, American Indian influences to craft fine handbags
The Oklahoman
Published: March 4, 2010

Many fashion designers work for years without receiving the recognition that has come to Maya Stewart, who grew up in an Oklahoma town with a population of about 600.

She designed a collection of handbags for designer Mike Vensel’s runway show in Los Angeles last fall and had three bags in his recent New York fashion show. She showed her handbags in the inaugural UNRESERVED Designer Collective during New York Fashion Week in February.

What’s impressive is that Stewart, 30, is still in school, completing her final year in the honors program at London College of Fashion. She’ll graduate in June with a degree in Cordwainers Accessory Design. A cordwainer is someone who makes shoes or handbags from fine, soft leather.

Juggling fashion shows and events in America while still in school in England adds an ocean of stress, but Stewart knows such opportunities shouldn’t be wasted. "I was ecstatic and honored to participate in the UNRESERVED Designer Collective,” she said in an e-mail interview. "It was a dream come true.”

UNRESEVED Alliance nurtures new American Indian talent, helping to expand career options and create new paths for future generations. Stewart, a member of the Chickasaw, Muscogee and Choctaw tribes, said she met co-founder Gail Bruce at the Santa Fe Indian Market in New Mexico last year. She sent Bruce information on school design awards and photos of her collection.

Bruce was impressed not only with Stewart, who hails from Washington in McClain County, but with her talent and the way she uses modern luxury materials with ancient techniques.
"She asked me to participate as the handbag designer for the upcoming show,” Stewart said. "As you could imagine, I was absolutely thrilled.”

Stewart had six handbags on display at the showing in New York, which attracted a throng of retailers and fashion press. Five pieces were delayed due to a blizzard, but they arrived in time for a trunk show and cocktail party. The bags and accessories grabbed attention. Response has been amazing, she said.

Fashion always has intrigued Stewart. "I was raised by an artistic family who is well respected in the Native American art world. I began designing with my mother, Jimmie Carole Fife Stewart, at a very early age and was greatly influenced by my family and their historical significance. I decided to focus on handbag design seven years ago.”

Her path to fashion has taken her on an interesting ride, from working in fashion public relations in Beverly Hills to an internship for designer Matthew Williamson in London. Every step has been beneficial in getting her to where she is today.

The name of her handbag brand, Crazy Snake Rebellion, speaks to Stewart’s ideas and inspiration. Crazy Snake was a Creek tribal rights activist in the early 20th century who resisted assimilation into the mainstream. As a young artist in the 21st century, Stewart said she considers him the inspiration for the natural strength and aesthetic independence in her art.

"My design objective is to resist the ordinary and ignore the conventional path to creativity. Crazy Snake Rebellion pays tribute to American Indian cultures and themes. It focuses on the geometric shapes constant throughout the Creek, Chickasaw, Navajo, Plains, Pomo and Seminole tribal motifs. As a member of the Chickasaw, Muscogee (Creek) and Choctaw tribes, I have a unique point of view in fashion,” she said.

"I want everyone to be aware of the beauty of my culture. I have introduced geometrical designs inspired by American Indian weavings, pottery, moccasins, patchwork and baskets to a new generation in the form of detailed patchwork handbags.”

Because her mother is an artist, Stewart has been immersed in diverse art techniques all her life. "I want my accessories to reflect these techniques.”

While many designers look for the cheapest or easiest approach to manufacturing, it’s fitting that the young designer chooses to use the skills and knowledge of American Indian artisans to bring the handbags from the drawing board to completed product.

"This will allow for quality and authenticity of the product as well as provide valuable work for the American Indian community,” Stewart said. "Each collection will be hand made by individuals who, collectively, have hundreds of years of experience in the very complex and delicate detailed stitching techniques.” A stamped leather tag of authenticity will be sewn into each bag to ensure its authenticity and recognize the artisans.

After graduation, Stewart will return to Oklahoma to focus on the design and marketing of her handbags, and to be closer to her parents, Robert and Jimmie Carole, who live in Washington, and her sister, Kelley Hyde, in Norman.

Her business plan is simple and matter-of-fact. "I will incorporate American Indian designs with a contemporary twist and become part of a movement of artists who are creating modern decorative objects in an ancient manner,” she said. Judging from her early success, she’s well on her way.