Who are you wearing?

Native Fashion Now opened a couple of weeks ago with a big bang – a preview party akin to Hollywood’s Oscar Academy Awards when that question (“who are you wearing?”) is hurled every three seconds by paparazzi at movie stars fluttering down the red carpet.  Except that I’m no Charlize Theron in a Dior dress. It’s even better. I’m the curator of the contemporary Native fashion exhibition that just opened after three years of preparation, and as the curator at your own exhibition opening, you can’t wear just anything or anyone. I had to not only represent, but throw it down…and bring it on home.

And so faced with this exciting-but-slightly-daunting task of figuring out what to wear to the opening party, I did what any righteous fan girl would do.  I commissioned a dress from Jamie Okuma.  Yes, that Jamie…the mastermind behind the pair of beaded Louboutin boots you’re surely coveting like everyone else who comes into contact with them online, in print or in the flesh.  And yes, the same Jamie who designed the hot pink Mad Max meets Barbarella leather jacket, pants, and purse also in Native Fashion Now.


Boots, 2013–14 by Jamie Okuma (Luiseño and Shoshone-Bannock). Glass beads on boots designed by Christian Louboutin (French). Peabody Essex Museum commission. © 2015 Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Walter Silver


Instagram capture of J.Okuma ensemble in Native Fashion Now. Photo by @j.okuma

I first met Jamie Okuma, designer and proprietor of her J.Okuma label, in 2009 at Santa Fe’s annual juried art show and market, aka “Indian Market.” We were both pregnant with our boys, due within six weeks of each other.  I, of course, had been familiar with the work of this rock star artist who catapulted into the Santa Fe art scene in the year 2000, at the ripe old age of 22. Jamie was the youngest person to ever win the “Best of Show” award since Indian Market’s inception in 1922.  (She still holds that honor and has since gone on to win it two more times.)


Jamie Okuma’s “Best of Show” doll, August 2012. Photo courtesy of the artist

But it wasn’t until 2013 (the year she won her 3rd “Best of Show” award) that I got to know her better. By then, Jamie had transitioned from creating her renowned mixed media soft sculpture dolls — completely decked out in miniature regalia and accouterments — to fashion on a human-scale.  This was jaw-droppingly beautiful, deeeeee-luxe wearable art. I needed some, first for the museum, and then two years later, for myself.

PEM’s former assistant curator Maddie Kropa and I talked with Jamie over tapas about possibly commissioning a pair of her beaded Christian Louboutin boots. I wanted to get a clearer sense of the timeframe, cost and her design process. Jamie had already made a couple pairs of these killer heels – and had only made one pair of completely beaded boots. Commissioning these three-dimensional shoe sculptures was new territory for me, but I knew that they’d be a fantastic fit (no pun intended) for our permanent collection and for the Native Fashion Now exhibition.  When Jamie showed up to our dinner wearing her own Louboutins, it was then that I started to better understand the razor-sharp eye for fashion and affinity for detail truly start with herself.  In fact, she considers all of her shoes self-portraits.

“If you want to know who I am, look at my shoes,” she says.


Here, I’m lovingly cradling a pair of Jamie’s Giuseppi Zannoti beaded-boots-in-progress at her Indian Market booth, August 2013. Photo by Photo by Dominic Henry

Thanks to a group of generous supporters and PEM’s leadership, the museum commissioned the boots that are now a signature image for the Native Fashion Now exhibition.  We also worked with Jamie to develop a digital mood-board as part of the exhibition’s interactive experience. In order to collect fresh material for this interactive, we interviewed Jamie and filmed her working on the boots. She answered lots of questions about her design process and inspiration.


Capturing footage of Jamie beading what are now PEM’s Okuma-Louboutins, August 2014. Photo by Maddie Kropa


Here I am, cozying up to the camera for an interview with Jamie Okuma, August 2014. Photo by Maddie Kropa

Last July, the Wheelwright Museum’s Case Trading Post hosted a trunk show of Jamie’s fashion label, J.Okuma.  Ken Williams, the Case’s manager, worked with Jamie to select items from her premiere line of silk dresses and scarves adorned with photo reproductions of her floral beadwork and stylized feathers, chartreuse pony hair spiked handbags, a pair of beaded shoes and silver jewelry galore. I was drooling, based on everything I was seeing on Facebook and Instagram. This got my wheels turning about me wearing a J.Okuma dress to the Native Fashion Now opening.  Hmmmm, could I pull this off? By the time I got to the Case several weeks later in mid-August, most everything had already been sold. And while I wasn’t surprised, I’m not going to lie to you… I wasn’t entirely sure my bod would work with that particular style of dress anyways. I’m not just talking myself down here.  I saw models long and lean and at least six-foot-one wearing these J.Okuma silk dresses at SWAIA’s Indian Market fashion show, so suffice it to say, I needed a Plan B.


Limited Edition Parfleche Dress, J.Okuma, 2015. Photo courtesy Jamie Okuma


Models wearing J.Okuma floral limited edition “beaded” silk dresses at SWAIA’s fashion show, August 2015. Photo by Karen Kramer

Soooooo, over a chat, in person and after visiting over a dinner with our friends, I casually threw out to Jamie that if I can’t get my paws on one of those dresses — and even if I could get one, but the dress doesn’t work for me since I’m not a gazelle — maybe, just maybe, she might think about making a dress for me, for the NFN opening. She responded:

“Oh my gosh, I’ve been thinking about asking you if I could do that for you! But I don’t want you to feel any pressure to say yes!”

Um…pressure? To have a dress designed specifically for me, by my good friend Jamie Okuma, whose fashion designer heroes include Peter Pilotto, Gary Graham and Rick Owens? Who finds equal inspiration in 1970s platform heels, carpet patterns at the Bellagio hotel and the swallows that returned every summer to her land growing up?  Award-winning fashion designer and bead artist Jamie Okuma, making me a dress?  Pressure?  Ha, hardly! Let’s just classify this one under “no brainer.”


This is me with Gary when he came to the museum to look at our collection and have it inform his own. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM

And so it began. Jamie asked me to create a secret Pinterest board for her eyes only, filled with all the dresses I could possibly ever hope to own.  She kept an eye on the cut I’m drawn to, color palette, design motifs and materials.  She also asked me to send her my measurements, and a couple of dresses that fit me well to use as reference.  She said she’d start there, and then go fabric shopping (in LA, baby!) and put her own spin on things, as she always does. We were off to a pretty darn good start, I’d say.


Screen shot of my secret squirrel Pinterest board. Take note of cut-out of the sleeves in lower right corner.

As the weeks leading up to the opening began to approach, everyone asked me what I was going to wear, and I just got  more excited…and curious…about Jamie’s dress. I hadn’t heard from Jamie in a bit, and the opening was just under three weeks away.  I knew she’d come through, but was starting wonder where things were with the dress. So in early November, I sent her a text with a photo of some shoes and asked (ever-so-slyly)

“Do you think either of these shoes will work for the dress you’ve got in mind for me? No pressure…”


Here’s the photo I sent to Jamie as possible shoe options to match my maybe-not-yet-made, but soon-to-be haute couture J.Okuma dress. Incidentally, I wore the ones on the left. They were perfect and comfortable.

In true Jamie form, she responded immediately with a message about how either pair of shoes would definitely match. Because she knew what I was really getting at, she said:

The background fabric would be “a light silk with embroidered peachy silk roses…It’s going to be a sheer tunic top with a double-layered skirt with a black silk belt with an antique, sterling buckle.”

Land ho! Now we’re getting somewhere. This all sounded great! The next day, Jamie sent a photo of the neckline. And it was awesome. And I was psyched.


Snapshot of neckline, noting beautiful peachy fabric with delicate embroidered roses. Photo by Jamie Okuma

And then a late-night text the next day arrived.

“Do you like sleeves? Short, long, or none?” I wrote “Love a three-quarter sleeve” and something about my flabby arms. She responded with, “Like this?”  It was a full-length photograph of the dress. The Dress. THE dress. My dress! OMG!


My gorgeous dress, almost finished. Photo by Jamie Okuma

I responded in a string of texts:

“Yes!!!! Oh my goodness- lovely!!!!…It’s beautiful….I’m dying…It’s stunning…so so so cool!!!!…I’m having a hard time finding the right words, but this is perfect…I love my dress!!!!!!!!!”

I noticed that the hemline at the bottom followed the lines of an old school animal hide dress.  Jamie said,

“Yessss!! So glad you noticed that. Native finery for the 21st century!!”

And then, a few days after that, she sent me some pictures of the final dress to give me an idea of how it looks and moves.  Swoon.

The dress Jamie made for me is fit for a queen. Or at least, for the curator of a contemporary Native American fashion exhibition! It is, as I told Jamie, perfection.  I felt like the belle of the ball that night. I’ll never forget it.  Unlike the Hollywood starlets who wear their gowns that one time only, I’ll get the honor and pleasure of wearing mine to each of Native Fashion Now’ s exhibition openings, when the show travels to the Portland Art Museum, Philbrook Museum of Art and at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian over the next two years.


Jamie Okuma wearing Zuhair Murad with me wearing J.Okuma at the Native Fashion Now preview party, November 2015. Photo courtesy of Kathy Tarantola/Peabody Essex Museum

#NativeFashionNow @peabodyessexmuseum now through March 6, 2016.

Editor’s note: After the opening, Karen and Jamie were featured in the Boston Globe’s Names section. Go  here to read the article. To learn more about Jamie Okuma, see this profile on the blog Beyond Buckskin.


  1. Sylvia Belkin says:

    Karen, If anyone deserves a Jamie Okuma dress, it’s you! Your Native American shows at PEM have been fascinating and memorable. I’m getting ready to do a student tour in the gallery tomorrow morning, and I can’t tell you how much fun I’ve had preparing for it. Thank you for all you do to make PEM so interesting. You are an amazing woman!

  2. Sandy Sheckman says:

    The story is enchanting and the dress is stunning! I agree with Sylvia: you deserve it. And you have so many opportunities to show it off. Thank you for sharing this with us and for bringing such interesting exhibitions to our Museum. You make us better for what you do at PEM.

  3. JIm Olson says:

    Jamie is the real deal, in so many ways! I was lucky enough to get a few sneak peeks of the dress before opening night. Karen you rocked that dress!

  4. Hi Karen! I’m a local Salem artist and just wanted to let you know I did a review of the show for my art blog on my website! I absolutely loved it, the overall design of the space was fantastic for highlighting the pieces. Very well done! If you’re interested, here’s the link to my post! I really admire what you do!

    Thanks so much,



  5. Madelon bures says:

    Well, Karen,
    I’m a bit late perusing your story about the fashion of Native American designers scribed about the December show . The whole exhibit was superb not only because it featured fashion but also because it brought these women (and those to follow) into current times and I could imagine what’s to come. Finally that opportunity has been seized by YOU. you are putting them on the map!

    And then there is your delightful expression – once again so ‘au courant’, so modern. It’s all seen in your eyes, literally and physically. You sparkle! Best to you, Madelon Bures. 6.20.16

Leave a Comment