I love the idea of Native t-shirt companies.
Mostly for two reasons: The first being the fact that the t-shirt is quintessentially 'American' - blue jeans and a t-shirt are totally American fashion. And secondly, since the 1980s, the t-shirt has become a 'billboard' of sorts - a way to make an affirmative statement. And I like the idea of Native entrepreneurs claiming this American icon as their own and splattering it with their own designs - their own messages - often those that proclaim pride in Indianness. They express that we are still here.
There are several Native-owned and operated t-shirt companies out there - from Native Threads (whom, by many means I consider a path-breaker in this industry) to the female-centered Red Laddee and the politically-minded Demockratees.
In a recent article by Mary Thomson, she noted the important role that t-shirt designing has played in the fashion industry. She also speculates that this trend will change – because we increasingly desire to wear something unique - something that speaks to our individuality and identity. This has led to the upsurge in the production of specialty or designer t-shirts. People want to display their feelings and personalities on the clothing they wear daily - aka shirts.
T-shirt designing has opened the doors for many young designers because a new company can be launched at a relatively low cost. This democratization of fashion is a trend indicative of our current postmodern world in which things that were virtually inaccessible in the past (haute couture, for example, was once accessible to only the elite in Europe) are now becoming more accessible.
I find the current Native t-shirt movement exciting and inspiring because t-shirt designing requires constant efforts and innovative ideas - designers must be able to provide people with what they want. And this is very important, because the increase in Native t-shirt companies demonstrates that what we want is to support Native companies that help us express our Indigenous identities. It is truly an exciting time to be involved in fashion!
To learn more about these companies, please read below and check out their websites, and, as always, support/represent!
After more than a decade in business, Native Threads has emerged as Indian Country's premier apparel brand. They explain, “Our designs are contemporary, yet the messages are very traditional, cultural, and conscious of the social, political and economic current trends that affect Native peoples. By combining these elements, our clothing helps give Native people clarity on who they are ¬ in this place and time. By providing constant reminders about our past, our products help bring to the surface the pride we carry inside of us.”
Tee-shirts are our Battlefield. For some political t-shirts, anti-war t-shirts, anti-bush t-shirts, and sweat-shop-free clothing, check out Ryan Red Corn’s Demockratees.
They explain, "Many times we must make decisions that will affect many others around us. We recognize that our mission may be a worthy task, but we must know what we value in order to make the best decisions for Demockratees and our Partners and Customers. Our values act as guides to steer us through the course of business. OUR VALUES: 1) To be Socially Conscious of our Community, Environment, and our Waste, 2) To stand up for Worker Rights by using only Sweat Shop Free business partners, 3) To be the BEST VALUE by providing a low price shipped to your door, 4) To work as a TEAM, EVERYONE involved in Demockratees is involved in Demockratees Future! Demockratees will grow and become an idea by itself, engaging, captivating, and informing, WE WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD! DEMOCKRATEES VISION TO THE FUTURE, and 5) TO BE THE FLINT BY WHICH THE SPARKS OF REVOLUTIONARY THOUGHT WILL BE STRUCK"
Un3ek System is becoming known for their incorporation of underground graffiti art and fresh hip-hop aesthetics into their designs.
They explain, “The meaning behind “unique system” comes from the reality of how Native Americans lived everyday from their system of culture, survival, and spiritual beliefs. Un3ek Sy5tem believes that system is unique and without that, Native Americans would not be who they are today. Not only does the company name have meaning, the designs of each shirt have its own story. Un3ek Sy5tem is a one of a kind well thought out clothing company that not only clothes people, it inspires those that come across it. Un3ek System continues to raise the bar in designing to help others get out of the typical fashion scene. Un3ek System is a clothing company that doesn’t follow what is trendy today but creates what is going to be trendy tomorrow.”
For Plains Indian tribal gear, check out Tansi Clothing, where you will find the promotion of positive and insightful messages using a variety of Aboriginal languages. The owner explains his business is guided by the following principles: 1). Quality: Clothing made from the highest quality fabrics, 2). Eco-Friendly: Products made from bamboo & organic materials, and 3). Community: Support of local businesses and non-profits.
Ta•ton+ka’ Clothing offers clothing of resistance. Ta•ton+ka’ designs are created with positive educational, inspirational, and motivational messages in mind. They seek to make an impact on yesterdays, today’s and tomorrows generations.
They explain, “We advocate independent thinking beyond the schoolyards of brainwashing institutions and media controlled propaganda. Tatanka means Buffalo in Lakota. The Buffalo were brought to the people as a gift from the creator. They put the buffalo to use as a major resource in everyday life. It provided clothing, housing, food, art, and tools for the people. So now Ta•ton+ka’ Clothing is here to clothe the people with style once again.”
REDLADEE is for the ‘Urban-Rezified’ female Native who seeks to add uniqueness to her signature style, showcasing her Native heritage while also participating in the latest trends. The company seeks to offer clothing that accentuates femininity and flatters the female form, yet also allows for comfort and flexibility to be worn for a workout, to the pow-wow, or for a night out.
They explain, “REDLADEE is for the Native American woman who is a risk taker, strong in appearance and in the mind, who exemplifies beauty in every aspect of her life, walks with her head up to meet the future, balances the fine line between two worlds, and takes pride in every aspect of her Native heritage. It does not matter what band, clan, tribe, percentage, age, size, education level achieved, or if she is straight from the REZ or repping the Urban NDN, just that she knows who and what represents, HERSELF. She is the PAST, PRESENT, and FUTURE, she is a REDLADEE.”
Eighth Generation and Art2Fakt:
For Northwest Coast fresh new cats, check out Louie Gong’s Eighth Generation shoe company that just released its first t-shirt designs, and Art2Fakt just launched their website featuring NWC gear.
About Eighth Generation: “In 2009 Louie found his groove as an artist when – on a whim – he took a sharpie to a pair of Vans. The resulting merger of Coast Salish art and a pop culture icon like Vans was the perfect statement to represent his complex cultural identity. When many other folks also recognized the message carried by the shoes, Louie realized he had stumbled upon a new way to spark dialogue about identity. While many are drawn to his shoes because they represent the confluence of multiple worlds, others simply appreciate Coast Salish art or the shoes’ freshness and originality.”
And, about Ar2fakt: “Ar2fakt is a street wear clothing line with each garment brandishing artwork that gracefully combines the elements of tradition and urbanized fashion. Geared for individuals of all walks of life, young and old a like. Those who strive to be original, creative and artistically cultured within there choice of attire. Those who represent the “Specific North Fresh!”
Cheef Trading, operated by Navajo designer Jolene Chee, produces their quality t-shirt line using organic and earth friendly products, and the company is environmentally conscious and respects their workers. Chee explains that once her company grows, she intends on donating 10% of the proceeds to a Native American organization.
She explains, “We have a third world country in our back yard folks. There is poverty here in the United States. The people that were here first still have no running water, electricity and so on. We want to help our Native communities flourish. We have big plans and your support initiates this process!”
Snatch up one of Cheef's "I love Rez boys" shirts - and support a Native cause!
Alano Edzerza is a young emerging aboriginal artist who pushes traditional Pacific Northwest art in new directions. He also collaborated with the Netherlands Olympic team to produce their uniforms that featured Edzerza’s artistic flair in the form of a dramatic eagle wing design on the sleeves of their jackets, and an Olympic beanie with a native eagle head crest on the front. Thankfully, Edzerza also designs t-shirts for the rest of us non-Olympic-types.
Read also these other posts of mine on the topic of streetwear, t-shirts, and low fashion:
Artist Profile | Brez and Un3ek