Jamie Okuma’s Native American Wearable Art
Jamie Okuma is a Native American artist and fashion designer who’s Luiseño, Wailaki, Shoshone-Bannock, and Okinawan. She’s of Native and Asian descent, and when she was five years old, her parents moved to La Jolla Indian Reservation in Pauma Valley, California, in order to raise her within her culture and heritage.
Because of this, she has been immersed and surrounded by her culture since a very young age. It’s what she knows and what directly influences her art, which she began pursuing professionally when she was 18 years old.
“I’ve done artwork my entire life. Even in high school I would make things for other dancers and that’s how I’d support myself through high school for extra money,” Okuma said. “Then, as an 18-year-old I was allowed to enter art shows and from there, it has led me here.”
During that time, she was attending pow-wows.These are the gatherings where Native Americans come together to honor their cultures through traditional dances, singing, and socializing. She was creating traditional dresses for dancers to be worn for these events. Then, as time went by her fashion, which is better described as wearable art, has evolved a lot ever since she began learning the craft during her childhood and adolescence.
Her unique statement pieces stand out of the crowd because of how she plays with symmetry and geometric shapes, drawing you in. There’s no way you’ll miss her clothing.
“They aren’t always necessarily [symmetrical]. It’s just composition, and aesthetically, I’m very conscious of things. But that’s not always the case in everything that I do,” Okuma said. “And they’re [also] based off traditional geometric shapes and traditional designs within my tribes.”
The inspiration of Okuma’s fashion and art is rooted in her tribe’s culture. She wants to represent her background through the craft she’s been immersed in throughout her life.
“I’m just glad that I can make things that anybody can enjoy. Our culture is just very beautiful and I’m just glad to be able to share that and that people respond to it,” Okuma said.
The Natural Process
If you take a closer look at her dresses, footwear, and accessories, you’ll notice a common thread and motif throughout the pieces: nature. She includes flowers, butterflies, leaves, and birds in her work as an homage to nature and its incredible beauty.
Nature is prevalent in her fashion in a way that the artistic process comes through organically without hesitation. s. Throughout the process, she does not think much about it because she doesn’t even need a sketch, to begin with.
“I don’t think about it. It is as natural and necessary as breathing or water or food to me,” Okuma said. “I just need to do it, so I always have something in the works and it’s just being able to get to it. I just start going and so there’s no one way.”
Her work can be described as multimedia because of the use of textiles and very detailed bead working. Her beadwork is a very tedious and complex technique depending on the size of the piece she’s working on.
“I don’t have a crew. I don’t have a team. I do everything myself. And I’ve been for a while, a wife and a mother, so I don’t have regular hours,” Okuma said. “It’s hard to gauge. This commission piece that I’m finishing up in the next couple of days, it’s been on my desk for about a year. But that’s not me sitting like a regular job eight hours a day doing it. So, it’s very hard, but it seems like it takes forever.”
Due to the complexity of creating wearable art as an independent business owner, Okuma has evolved and transformed her fashion design over time. Before, she spent more time as a traditional jingle dancer while simultaneously working as an artist. Then, her art career took over and she was immersed in creating the outfits g from head to toe, which entailed designing dresses, accessories, and footwear. After learning how to manage her time and career, she’s been able to evolve her wearable art into fashion that’s accessible to all people while commemorating Native designs.
As a means of creating accessible fashion and art, she’s been able to showcase her work in Germany, Australia, and France, establishing her as an international artist and fashion designer. Within the U.S., her art has been exhibited throughout many museums and institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her work is also in the permanent collections of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Denver Art Museum, and the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.
“[The curators] come and ask me for pieces. I don’t reach out to them; they reach out to me. As a professional that’s kind of what happens while you’re working and I’ve been doing this for a very long time now,” Okuma said. “It’s always thrilling when they ask you to do these things. I’m certainly grateful and humbled every time. It’s just a process of being an artist.”
Making It into the “Mainstream”
Getting her art into museums and institutions is not the only way Okuma has positioned herself in the “mainstream.” Her work has appeared on the sitcom television series Rutherford Falls and the Indigenous American series Reservation Dogs. In the fashion industry, it has also made appearances in Vogue’s digital cover where Billie Eilish asked various climate activists and organizers to join her for the Vogue campaign.
Indigenous activist and model Quannah Chasinghorsewas included in the group of climate activists for the Vogue cover and made an appearance wearing one of Okuma’s mesh tops. Okuma was pleasantly surprised to find out Chasinghorse was going to use the top for Billie Eilish’s Vogue cover.
“She reached out. I didn’t know what it was for. They don’t tell you these things. It’s just you have something along the lines of this and it’s either I do or I don’t,” Okuma said. “My process with that is very extremely personal because I have to know these people. I’m not giving my stuff out to people that I don’t know. As a professional, I have to have that relationship with people.”
Okuma’s latest fashion appearance was on the Cannes red carpet. Actress Lily Gladstone, of Blackfeet and Nimíipuu heritage, wore Okuma’s bead earrings for Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon feature film world premiere.
But, for Okuma, who’s the first Native American designer to become a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), her art and fashion are all about creating and hand-making through the tactile process of making with her hands. It’s about honoring her culture and creating Native American contemporary art.
“It’s amazing. I don’t think about creating Native stuff necessarily because it’s like talking about yourself. It's my everyday life. I’m just extremely thankful that I can,” Okuma said laughing. “That there’s an audience for it and that people respond to it. And I’m able to do it because I don’t know how to do anything else.”
To stay up to date with Okuma’s wearable art, follow her on Instagram at @j.okuma.
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