The Only Native American ‘In America’

Korina Emmerich is the only Indigenous designer included in the Met’s new exhibition on American fashion.

Photo: Courtesy of Korina Emmerich
Photo: Courtesy of Korina Emmerich
Photo: Courtesy of Korina Emmerich

This article was featured in One Great Story, New York’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.

Tucked along the right wall of the Anna Wintour Costume Center is a simple ensemble: a skirt and coat, made of a thick, creamy wool, lined with vivid stripes of yellow, red, green, and black. The piece — one of more than 100 items in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” — is modest, almost unassuming next to the row of ball gowns nearby. It’s also the only item in the show created by an Indigenous person.

Korina Emmerich, the Puyallup and Nisqually designer behind the garment, didn’t know until attending the exhibition that she would be its sole representative of Indigenous fashion. And she didn’t fully understand why she was chosen. Maybe it was because one of her dresses was recently worn by Deb Haaland, America’s first Indigenous Cabinet member, on the cover of InStyle, or perhaps had something to do with the popularity of her Split Shot face mask, which has been in high demand throughout the pandemic.

But she still didn’t understand, why her, and only her? “I’m half-white and urban — I didn’t grow up on the reservation. I know I’m more palatable in situations like this,” she says from her Flatbush apartment, which also serves as the atelier for Emme Studios, the clothing and accessory brand she founded in 2015. “But there are people who have been doing couture for a lot longer than I have, celebrated elders in our community,” she says, naming Orlando Dugi, Jamie Okuma, and Patricia Michaels as just a handful among many.

Photo: Courtesy of Korina Emmerich / EMME Studios

She also had questions about the piece the Met chose for the exhibition. The garment itself is a form of protest, inspired by the Hudson’s Bay Company and its most popular product, the point blanket. Emmerich’s item is made of wool blankets from Pendleton, a business based in her home state of Oregon that popularized the Hudson’s Bay print in the U.S.; the Pendleton version has nearly identical colorways, using a black stripe instead of a navy one. The original blankets, gifted to or traded with Indigenous people, are believed to have spread deadly smallpox among them.

That’s just one part of the long and terrible history between North American Indigenous people and the Hudson’s Bay Company. As well as exploiting Indigenous labor, the company played a fundamental role in the colonization of the continent by claiming Native lands for the British crown and American settlers. It’s a legacy Emmerich knows well — her ancestor, Anawiscum McDonald, a member of the Swampy Cree tribe, worked as a middleman between European traders and the tribes in the late 1820s, shuttling fur, pickled fish, and other goods by canoe.

“It’s a symbol of colonialism,” Emmerich says, gesturing to a swath of fabric bearing the print next to us. “The Hudson’s Bay Company print is a symbol of genocide and colonialism for Indigenous people.”

All of Emme Studios materials’ are here in the room with us — it serves as both living room and atelier, a small but bright space where Emmerich works with her one part-time employee. All of her products are crafted here, made-to-order by hand. It’s an enormous amount of work, she says, and while she’s committed to sustainability and slow fashion, she often worries about her business model in an industry driven by cheap labor and materials. “My relationship with being a clothing designer is uneasy,” Emmerich admits, “and I still wonder what the point of creating more stuff to put in the world is.”

Emmerich lost her bartending job at the beginning of the pandemic, and describes a year spent “floating along, creating to survive.” It was a difficult time, and so it was no small thing when she heard from the Met — to have one of her designs in the museum meant a kind of visibility she’d never had access to before now. “But when I found out that I was the only one, my immediate reaction was not excitement,” she says. “I called my sister — I was devastated.”

From the beginning, part of the point of “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” was inclusivity. Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute, “isn’t just trying to change the stereotype of American fashion or counter predictions of its demise,” wrote the New York Times in April, when the exhibition was announced. “He’s trying to expand our understanding of what it means by telling stories of designers that have often been overlooked and forgotten.” In comments to the press during exhibition previews last week, Bolton reemphasized this message, explaining that one of the exhibition’s goals was to “articulate the heterogeneity of American fashion.”

But the Costume Institute’s curatorial staff remains entirely white, and Bolton was not specific about the vetting process when asked how the exhibition’s “diverse range of designers” were selected, telling the Cut that “we chose objects that celebrate the originality and creativity of established and emerging designers working in the United States.”

The museum label under Emmerich’s ensemble in the exhibition cites her sustainability practices, as well as the item’s symbolism. The latter is something Emmerich insisted on including when the Costume Institute requested the piece for loan back in July — none of her family’s history with Hudson’s Bay Company was noted publicly, and institute researchers didn’t explain why they were interested in this piece in particular.

She requested the Met include an artist’s statement explaining everything, and was unsettled when the curatorial team asked for bullet points instead. “It felt a bit like an afterthought,” she muses, “and also like, How do we fit an Indigenous designer in without making a big statement?”

When asked why the Costume Institute chose this particular piece from Emmerich, Bolton told the Cut it “features the motif from Hudson’s Bay Company’s iconic point blanket, an object that has come to symbolize colonialism of Indigenous peoples,” adding that “Korina used the blanket to stimulate dialogue about Indigenous histories, including her own.” But Emmerich is not convinced that curators were aware of the blanket’s lineage until she explained it to them.

“It feels like I’m not being celebrated for me — it’s almost like they pulled a piece where I fit into their narrative,” Emmerich adds. Adding to her unease is the fact that her design sits right alongside another ensemble that evokes the Hudson’s Bay print, but without the aspect of reclamation inherent to Emmerich’s. When the Costume Institute shared it on Instagram last month (caption: “This cape by André Walker will represent the qualities of warmth and comfort”⁣) it was met with immediate backlash.

“A symbol of genocide and colonialism, not warmth and comfort,” reads one comment. Others simply referred to it as “the smallpox blanket.”

It’s possible that Indigenous designers — both established and emerging — will be added throughout the year: According to a press release, the exhibition “will evolve organically with rotations and additions to reflect the vitality and diversity of American fashion.” They also might be included in part two of the exhibition, a historical survey that will open in May 2022.

But as things stand today, Emmerich is troubled knowing that her piece, with its painful history, sits alone alongside those of designers like Ralph Lauren and Donna Karen, labels that have used Indigenous imagery in their advertising and Indigenous designs and motifs in their work.

“Stealing something that for us was illegal and profiting off of it — it’s a disgusting exploitation of our culture,” says Emmerich. The law that gave Indigenous people freedom of religion wasn’t enacted until 1978, “but these companies are like, Oh, no harm, no foul,” she says. “There was so much harm and that needs to be recognized. I always say, this history of genocide does not now make a cute sweater.”

Where Are Indigenous Designers in the Met’s New Exhibit?