Leech Lake artist Delina White expands fashion design business
Delina White, an Ojibwe fashion designer from Leech Lake, was recently awarded a DEED business loan and selected to display her work at the annual Southwestern Association for Indian Arts market. White’s work blends traditional Ojibwe beadwork and modern fashion designs.
LEECH LAKE -- Delina White’s dive into fashion began at age six in a two-room shack without electricity, under the watchful eye of her grandmother.
A master beadwork artist, her grandmother taught her everything she knows about beading.
Growing up, White quickly discovered a passion for the traditional woodland style of beading but soon realized it is nearly impossible to make a profit equivalent to the amount of work required. She recalled her grandmother selling her beaded work for just a couple of dollars, severely undervaluing it.
Then, she had an idea.
White began printing her traditional bead designs onto fabric, which she then uses to craft scarves, dresses, skirts and other pieces of wearable art.
“That is my way of taking my traditional beadwork and making it more accessible, more affordable. The material can be washed and the color doesn’t fade. I think it’s a wonderful way to expand my work for the masses,” she said.
Now, White is a celebrated designer and artist, blending traditional Indigenous beadwork with modern designs. More recently, she has gone down the business path. Earlier this year she received business funding through the Minnesota Indian Business Loan Program (IBLP) administered by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. This program supports the development of Native American owned and operated businesses.
She recently launched her website called “I am Anishinaabe” and has plans to expand.
“My Anishinaabe values culture and beliefs are at the core and are the foundation of everything that I do. I am so proud to represent my people,” she said.
Growing as an artist
Self described as a Native apparel designer, jewelry maker and beadwork artist, White has spent her whole life interested in art and fashion.
“I couldn’t imagine my life without art,” White said. “I was able to mix my love for my traditional art into something that’s wearable and functional and can be used today both in traditional settings like powwows and in fashion settings as wearable art.”
As a teen, she attended modeling school and practiced sewing and bead work as a child.
In 2014, White started developing a reputation as an artist, and from there began participating in more runway shows and exhibits.
White says one of the best feelings in the world is seeing her work come to life on the runway.
“My favorite part is the styling and working with the models, presenting it on the runway or in print and seeing it in magazines,” she said. “That’s why I do it, it’s such a rewarding feeling of seeing my work on the runway and people appreciating it.”
She joked that even the worst parts of her job are still quite bearable, which must mean she chose the right path.
“In everything that we do, in every job you have, there’s always something that you hate about it. The worst thing about what I do is pattern making and shipping,” she said. “I hate that, but I can live with it, so if that’s the worst part of it, this is going to be awesome!”
White has received numerous awards, fellowships, grants and local and state recognitions for her artistry and design work, and was named one of the Star Tribune’s 2019 Artists of the Year .
Visiting White’s website, you’ll see her products are divided into two categories: haute couture and made to order.
Haute couture she defines as her commissioned work and custom orders, the types of garments you might see at one of her runway shows.
“I rarely do the custom orders anymore, but I will take them if they are for a special occasion or a really important event that means a lot to somebody,” she said.
The rest of her work she describes as made to order.
“My stuff is not off the rack because I don’t have a warehouse,” she explained. White doesn’t have the storage or woman-power to make her pieces in every size and color, so she offers certain items in varying sizes and colors, and then gets to working on them after they are ordered, which usually takes around three weeks.
She is a true one-woman-show. “It’s just me, I make everything,” she said with a laugh.
Her online store, iamanishinaabe.com , is where she sells her made-to-order mix and match separates, scarves, jewelry, specialty T-shirts and other one-of-a-kind apparel. She posts new sales and designs to her Instagram account, @anishinaabekweniin.
White also makes jewelry using natural materials like birch bark.
Jumping through hoops
White is grateful to have received a DEED loan, and said without it her business would’ve failed. She explained that the experience made her realize the barriers Native Americans face when applying for business loans.
“If I didn’t have the tenacity and the wherewithal to continue with it, I would've given up on it, but because of my desperation, and need for money -- I would’ve folded in my business -- I kept at it,” she said.
“As Native people trying to build businesses, we face a lot of financial barriers,” she added. “It’s important to understand that Native Americans have highly complicated and complex conditions that make our status unique, and that means we require specialized assistance to access appropriate financial, technical and educational opportunities to improve our chances at self-sufficiency and to grow the reservation’s economy.”
With her funding, White was able to increase her inventory and build a small shed as a much-needed warehouse. “That is really liberating for me,” she said. “I can’t think with all the chaos and clutter taking over my small live-in studio.”
She also plans to use part of the loan funding to buy a van to haul her crew and apparel to fashion shows and art gallery events around the country.
White would like to see more people from Indigenous communities receive support to start businesses. “We have ideas and the wherewithal to develop a business, but there needs to be more resources and access to capital,” she said. “It’s awesome that the money is made available, but there’s got to be ways of making it more accessible. That is a barrier or a hindrance to why Native people living on the reservation don’t apply for business loans, because it’s almost impossible to get.”
Going forward, White has many goals for her expanding business. Once it is safe to do so, she hopes to again be able to hit the road and participate in in-person events, markets and powwows.
She was accepted into the prestigious Haute Couture Fashion Show in Santa Fe -- held virtually this year -- which she described as “the New York Fashion Week of Indian Country” and “a dream come true.”
She has plans in the near future to expand into a men’s clothing line as well.
She also wants to help support other Indigenous artists and models in their endeavors.
“Native fashion design is very rare, so our community is very small, but when we do meet each other we are all so excited, and we’re so supportive,” she said. “It’s just a wonderful community.”
Her ultimate goal? Landing on the pages of Vogue magazine.
In listing her goals for the next five years, she said, “I want to do more beadwork, I want to do more of the haute couture, I want to of course get more exposure, one of my lifetime goals is to be in Vogue magazine, I want to be able to create for an international audience. Yeah, I guess that’s it,” she said with a laugh.