By Alexia Hill
All photos by Sai Kappagantula (@printingwithyourboi on Instagram)
Phoenix Fashion Week (PFW) focuses on bridging the gap between national and international designers and premier retailers and top fashion media, according to its website.
With multiple events and programs including the Top 40 Model Challenge, Little Black Dress Challenge, an emerging designer bootcamp and more, PFW has been able to foster the Arizona fashion community exponentially.
This year’s PFW Designer of the Year was Norma Baker-Flying Horse of Red Berry Woman. Flying Horse is an indigenous designer of about 10 years from North Dakota. She has a fashion line that incorporates Native American traditional garment styles into contemporary couture garments and ready-to-wear for both women and men, according to her website.
“I never really thought of myself as somebody who would be a stylist or designer or anything like that. I just loved seeing beautiful dresses, I loved seeing how people put things together,” Flying Horse said. “Then at the same time, I was learning culturally, how to sew, how to bead and how to do different things and put my own outfit together. I never realized that what I was doing was actually fashion, it was our fashion.”
Originating with formal wear for special events, Flying Horse was able to give people Native representation without needing to wear full traditional attire to events.
“I just knew there was something as far as being able to speak to people and try to create things and, and getting these gifts that were passed down from my mother and my grandmother,” she said. “It just felt like there was a reason I was given it and it needed to be more than what the purpose was, which was just making outfits for my cultural attire. I wanted it to be a way to speak and to combat cultural appropriation and the stereotypes that we have about Native Americans.”
There are multiple streams of inspiration for Flying Horse’s work, but her daughter is one of the main sources of expression through fashion and what leads her to continue growing in her work. Flying Horse had a daughter in 2020 who was born with Trisomy 18, or Edwards’ Syndrome, and unfortunately passed away after four weeks.
“I want to start doing things where I put myself outside the box because I feel like outside the box is where you really live, and my daughter’s not here to live this life. So I wanted to just go for things and being part of this boot camp was one of those things,” Flying Horse said.
Flying Horse was inspired to get involved with PFW after Native designer Loren Aragon won Designer of the Year in 2018. And yet, Flying Horse still never saw herself in the light of being a ‘real’ fashion designer. However, after being encouraged by friends to join, she found that it helped her tremendously with brand and economic development.
“When you’re doing what I do, it’s crazy because you don’t think of the business side of it, you’re so worried about creating something that somebody’s gonna love and somebody wants, and you don’t think about brands, you don’t think about marketing,” Flying Horse said. “So this program actually really made me think about that side of my whole business. We were doing so much every week.”
Designing in Phoenix has been a learning experience for Flying Horse through the Emerging Designer Bootcamp, but also because North Dakota is such a drastically different fashion environment than Arizona. Flying Horse jokingly described North Dakota fashion as “jeans.”
“I really feel like North Dakota is such a rural state and it’s hard to have accessibility to fabrics and to designers,” Flying Horse said. “You know, we’re so far away from everything and it does make my business a little difficult because I have to work with people who are quite a ways away.”
Flying Horse also explained that North Dakota is a place that focuses on highlighting indigenous designers who are native to the area. Specifically with indigenous designs, it is important to recognize the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation.
According to Flying Horse, her target audience is everyone, and wearing her pieces is not considered cultural appropriation as they are meant to represent different tribes. She hopes her pieces will spark good conversation about Native American culture, history and more.
“As Native Americans, we’ve tolerated too much and unfortunately, people do not understand that what has happened to us didn’t happen centuries ago. I’m the granddaughter of a boarding school survivor and even my mother was in boarding school.” Flying Horse said.
Flying-Horse shares articles online about cultural appropriation in order to encourage education and awareness of the topic.
“I feel like in today’s age, there’s no excuse for it. Because you have so much social media, the internet, you have so many resources to learn what isn’t cultural appropriation, and if you are just not bothering to learn about it, then I feel like it’s just ignorance,” Flying Horse said.
Overall, 2022 PFWEmerging Designer of the Year, Norma Baker Flying-Horse, has many genuine reasons for creating clothing that expands beyond money, business or exposure. She is making an impact in the Phoenix community and all around the world, not only through her designs but through the passion that shines through her pieces.
“I feel like fashion speaks louder than our words. A person is going to see what you’re wearing before they hear what you say and that’s really powerful,” Flying Horse said. “I really truly believe that the word fashion is just not enough.”