MCGREGOR — Amber Buckanaga adjusts square cuts of fabric on her sewing table. Some are checkered in green, black on white or red resting on a cream background. But what Buckanaga sees is much more.
A thigh-length jacket with wide sleeves that flare out at the wrists, she said, holding a band. “This one will be a half-zip hoodie with appliques and ribbons,” she adds, flipping through another.
The Ojibwa fashion designer is behind the Buckanaga Social Club, a collective of four Indigenous artists whose traditional designs with a modern twist have been showcased from the Duluth Art Institute to a catwalk in New York.
Each member’s talents span several mediums: Buckanaga (fashion, beadwork, leatherwork); Chelsy Wilkie (blankets, bags, jewelry); Sophie Glass (multimedia painting, jewelry); and Buckanaga’s sister, Alyssa (beading, leatherwork).
In addition to offering courses, the collective organizes events that highlight the work done by Aboriginal people.
“My main motivation was to be able to help other artists,” said Amber Buckanaga.
Buckanaga quit her teaching job to focus on fashion full-time about five years ago. The collective followed about a year later, and before COVID-19, they took part in 2019’s Rise New York Fashion Week, shows at the MacRostie Art Center, Minnesota Fashion Week and more.
The Buckanaga Social Club is hosting a fashion show at Duluth Coffee Co.’s Roastery from 5-7 p.m. on July 21 and has been accepted for its second showing at Rise New York Fashion Week in September.
“People underestimate what Indigenous artists do,” Buckanaga said. “I want to make sure people have the opportunity to see us for what we are worth.”
In Buckanaga’s basement studio, works by other Indigenous artists line the walls around his sewing machine, ironing station and clothes rack. Detailed beaded butterflies, tobacco leaves and intricate night skies encased in hearts await earring hooks, and a colorful skull lighter and bright yellow flower adorn leather pouches.
Buckanaga often draws inspiration from traditional American tattooing, noting that its colors are similar to those of wood beads.
Asked about the plants in her pearl and leather goods, Buckanaga said sometimes she didn’t know right away. Cultural teachings are lost due to negative histories with non-Indigenous people, separation from families and boarding schools, she said, so many Indigenous artists unable to identify plant life reinvent it instead .
“Take flowers they’ve seen and say, ‘That looks like me,’ or see a flower and use other colors inside that really aren’t there,” she said.
Above her sewing machine, the lineup for the social club’s latest show lists different looks and the matching pattern: “Butterfly shirt, Byron. Strawberry shirt, Jaeden. T + brown corset, Trey.”
Buckanaga uses used items and gifted fabrics before purchasing new to reduce waste. “Cotton is cotton no matter where you get it,” she said.
For her applique pieces, Buckanaga draws patterns on the back of the heat and bond material by hand, cuts it, appliques it, then finishes it with her sewing machine.
She makes ribbon skirts from scratch, and during a visit to News Tribune, she meticulously pinned black ribbon to what would become a jacket with a used burlap coffee sack in the back.
“It’s traditional with a modern twist,” Buckanaga’s sister Alyssa told the Grand Rapids Herald-Review. “New York opened her mind to her way of designing clothes, and she went from using neutral colors to very bright colors in a modern way.”
For now, Amber Buckanaga is creating a collection based purely on her tastes: shirt and short sets, a mix of solids and patterns, and a color palette of burgundy, brown, dark green and dark yellow.
It’s a break from what she’s been doing, but she prefers oversized jackets over fitted outfits, and neutral, comfortable ones over dresses.
Asked about Indigenous representation in the fashion industry, Buckanaga noted Jamie Okuma and B Yellowtail – national brands with high-priced items that sell out quickly.
“While I think it’s great that they’re so successful, that’s not what I want,” she said, “because 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 stay affordable.
For Chelsy Wilkie, sewing blankets with Buckanaga was the start of her cultural expression, something she couldn’t do growing up.
“In our community, we use these blankets for ceremonies. It felt good to know that I was helping to do things that were going to be part of something special,” Wilkie said.
Being part of the collective has helped Sophie Glass give herself some grace when she’s not actively painting and publishing.
“With the team, if we are able to create, we will create. It reminds me to be gentle,” she said. “Now I’m letting things flow…I’ve seen my work flourish, even though I don’t publish it online as much – that’s what we really look for when we create.”
The Minneapolis painter grew up with the members of the collective, and although they run the social club together, they are friends first.
Glass makes items and models in the collective fashion shows, and joining the Buckanaga Social Club has given her a supportive unit.
“I needed to find my own worth outside of being a parent. Exploring art on my own and learning on my own was hugely empowering and helped my mental health as well,” she said .
Having a group of women she trusts, supporting each other physically, mentally, emotionally, is priceless. “It’s so much easier with a team,” she said. “I love my daughters.”
What: Buckanaga Social Club Fashion Show
When: 5-7 p.m. July 21
Or: Duluth Coffee Co. Roastery, 105 E. Superior St.
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