Indigenous Designer Justin Jacob Louis made his New York Fashion Week Debut last September 10, 2023.
It’s not every day that Fashion Week attendees are treated to traditional Indigenous powwow dancing, but that’s precisely how Nehiyaw (Plains Cree) designer Justin Jacob Louis kicked off his debut show in New York City last night. Donned in their colorful regalia, members of the touring dance troupe Indigenous Enterprise—including fancy dancers Kenneth Shirley and Dominic Pablo, and jingle dress dancer Acosia Red Elk—opened the collection with a vibrant, upbeat spirit. “It was important for me to have our people here,” said Louis, who is currently based in British Columbia, Canada. “I wanted our community values built into the show.”
The clothes that followed were equally as delightful to take in, though they had a quieter sensibility to them. Louis—who has already established himself in fashion with his streetwear brand Section 35—debuted his new namesake line offering a more sophisticated, upscale assortment. “I’ve matured a little bit,” he said, “and I really have a new appreciation for nice coats and knitwear.” He may have moved away from the graphic and logo-heavy pieces at Section 35, but his dressy staples still had cultural flavor. His striped knit hoodie, for one, featured abstract imagery of a tipi; a long black overcoat included syllabics representing the word Maskwacîs, his hometown. “It’s an homage to where I come from,” said Louis. “My community and homelands are woven into the pieces.”
There were deliberate nods to Section 35, too, like the signature varsity jackets (one of which was recently on view at The Met’s 2022 Costume Institute exhibit). Louis’s latest bomber had numbers on it—“the numbers are actually part of my [Native] status card number, but I blocked some of them out,” he said—and were patched with imagery of tipis, stars, and horses. “The horse on the back is basically from my [dance] regalia,” said Louis. As another special touch, some pieces from Louis’s traditional dance regalia—like the beaded moccasins—were added to some of the looks, too. Louis also enlisted Indigenous jewelers such as MDW Jewelry, Lionel Thundercloud, and Joe Big Mountain to collaborate and bring the looks together.
The show’s special casting made a powerful statement—perhaps even more so than the clothes. Louis enlisted top Indigenous models to walk in the show, including Cherokee Jack, Phillip Bread, and Heather Diamond Strongarm, who is fast becoming a top fashion month It girl (she closed the show in a fuzzy leopard-print style coat, made in collaboration with Freed). The message from Louis here was clear and strong—that fashion still has a long way to go in terms of offering mainstream Indigenous representation. “It wouldn’t feel right not having our own people walk the runway,” he said.
In the same sentiment, many of the clothes were made with this exact idea of community in mind; Louis’s dream for the new label is for it to appear on top Indigenous Hollywood stars and creatives. “Obviously, we want everyone to wear it, but it’s always been about dressing our own people,” he said. “You see old photos of our ancestors, and they were always dressed in these fine coats and three-pieces suits. That was a big inspiration for this.”
This article was originally published on Vogue.com.