MCGREGOR, Minn. — Amber Buckanaga adjusts square cuts of fabric on her sewing table. Some are plaid green, black on white, or red resting on a cream backdrop. But, what Buckanaga sees is much more.
A thigh-length jacket with wide sleeves that bloom at the wrists, she says, holding one swath. “This one’s going to be a half-zip hoodie with applique and ribbon work,” she adds, thumbing another.
The Ojibwe fashion designer is behind
, a collective of four Indigenous artists whose traditional creations with a modern twist have been featured from the Duluth Art Institute to a New York City runway.
Each member’s talents span multiple mediums: Buckanaga (fashion, beadwork, leather work); Chelsy Wilkie (blankets, bags, jewelry); Sophie Glass (multimedia painting, jewelry); and Buckanaga’s sister, Alyssa (beadwork, leatherwork).
Along with offering classes, the collective hosts events that showcase Indigenous-made work.
“My main motivation was being able to be of assistance to other artists,” Amber Buckanaga said.
Buckanaga left her job in education to focus on fashion full time about five years ago. The collective followed about a year later and, before COVID-19, they participated in 2019’s
, showings at the MacRostie Art Center, Minnesota Fashion Week and more.
Buckanaga Social Club is hosting a fashion show at Duluth Coffee Co.’s Roastery from 5-7 p.m. July 21, and was accepted for their second showing at Rise New York Fashion Week in September.
“People underestimate what native artists do,” Buckanaga said. “I want to make sure there’s opportunity for people to see us for what we’re worth.”
In Buckanaga’s basement studio, works by other Indigenous artists line the walls around her sewing machine, ironing station and clothing rack. Detailed beaded moths, tobacco leaves and intricate night skies encased in hearts await earring hooks, and a colorful skull lighter and a vivid yellow flower adorn leather pouches.
Buckanaga often gets inspiration from American traditional tattooing, noting that its colors are similar to those of woodland beading.
Asked about the plants in her bead and leatherwork, Buckanaga said, sometimes she doesn’t know right away. Cultural teachings are lost due to negative histories with non-Native people, separation from families and boarding schools, she said, so many Indigenous artists unable to identify plant life reimagine it instead.
“Taking florals they’ve seen and saying, ‘This looks like this to me,’ or seeing a flower and using other colors inside it that are really not there,” she said.
Above her sewing machine, the lineup to the social club’s last show lists various looks and the corresponding model: “butterfly shirt, Byron. Strawberry shirt, Jaeden. Maroon T + corset, Trey.”
Buckanaga uses thrifted items and gifted fabrics before purchasing brand-new as a way to stay low-waste. “Cotton’s cotton, it doesn’t matter where you get it,” she said.
For her applique pieces, Buckanaga hand-draws designs on the back of heat and bond material, cuts it, applies it, then finishes it with her sewing machine.
She makes ribbon skirts from scratch, and during a News Tribune visit, she meticulously pinned black ribbon on what would become a jacket with a used burlap coffee sack on the back.
“It’s traditional with a twist of modern,” Buckanaga’s sister, Alyssa, told the Grand Rapids Herald-Review. “New York opened up her mind to the way she designs clothing, and she’s grown from using neutral colors to very bright colors in a modern way.”
For now, Amber Buckanaga’s creating a collection based on her taste alone: shirt and short sets, a mix of solids and patterns, and a color palette of burgundy, browns, dark greens and deep yellow.
It’s a break from what she’s been making, but she prefers oversized jackets to fitted outfits, and gender neutral and comfort over dresses.
Asked about Indigenous representation in the fashion industry, Buckanaga noted
— national brands with high-priced items that sell out fast.
“While I think it’s great they’re that successful, that’s not what I want,” she said, “because then my own people, who are poverty-stricken … what, they can’t afford Indian art now? I want to be successful, but I also want to remain affordable.”
For Chelsy Wilkie, sewing blankets with Buckanaga was the start of expressing herself culturally, an act she wasn’t able to do growing up.
“In our community we use these blankets for ceremony. It made me feel good knowing I was helping make things that were going to be a part of something special,” Wilkie said.
Being a part of the collective has helped Sophie Glass give herself a little grace when she’s not actively painting and posting.
“With the team, if we’re able to create, we will create. It reminds me to be gentle,” she said. “Now, I just let it flow … I’ve seen my work blossom, even though I’m not posting it online as much — that’s what we’re really looking for when we’re creating.”
The Minneapolis painter grew up with the members of the collective, and while they operate the social club together, they’re friends first.
Glass makes items and models in the collective fashion shows, and joining Buckanaga Social Club gave her a unit of support.
“I needed to find my self-worth outside of being a parent. Exploring art on my own and teaching myself have been extremely empowering and also helped my mental health,” she said.
Having a group of women she trusts, who support each other physically, mentally, emotionally, is priceless. “It’s so much easier with a team,” she said. “I love my girls.”
What: Buckanaga Social Club fashion show
When: 5-7 p.m. July 21
Where: Duluth Coffee Co. Roastery, 105 E. Superior St.
Follow the collective online:
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