Beadwork Artist And Designer Jamie Okuma Has Caught The Eye Of The Fashion World

by Emily Popp

“As an artist, I want everything to be beautiful. There’s so much shit in the world, I want to see beauty,” says Jamie Okuma, renowned Luiseño and Shoshone-Bannock beadwork artist and fashion designer, who lives on the La Jolla Indian Reservation in California. Okuma has had her artwork shown at museums across the country, including the Smithsonian and The Met. And earlier this year she became the first Native American designer ever to be inducted into the Council of Fashion Designers of America

Since childhood, Okuma knew that she wanted to be an artist. “I went to my first powwow when I was five on my grandmother’s reservation at Fort Hall in Idaho,” she says. “For me, it was like being at Disneyland for the first time. Seeing all these beautiful pieces of wearable art and everyone dancing, I can still remember that feeling.” 

Okuma designs ready-to-wear, has a thriving online store, and recently showed at Yaamava’ Fashion Daze, a two-day event celebrating Native American designers. “It was my first show on a reservation,” she says, “so it was such a cool experience.” She also designs exquisitely intricate beaded footwear, working with luxury brands like Christian Louboutin, and transforming shoes into works of art. “Even as a little kid, I loved high fashion. But I couldn’t afford it, of course, so I’d cut out magazine pictures of bracelets and necklaces and tape them onto my arms and neck.” 

Working primarily with vintage beads, some so small they’re practically the size of a grain of sand, Okuma creates standout pieces like a pair of Casadei boots that she covered in buckskin and hand-beaded with images of her beloved pet bird, Peep. “I saved my rarest beads for Peep,” she says. “I had him for 26 years; he was my friend. He really loved cigarettes and money. He’d always steal cigarettes from my grandmother, and if anyone left their wallet out, we’d find dollar bills in his water bowl.” 

While most of her designs are colorful and vibrant, one of her most visually arresting works of art is a piece titled “Becoming,” a convertible purse/backpack with a beaded image of the character Pinhead from the 1987 film Hellraiser, painstakingly stitched onto leather.

The image, at first glance, is dark, bloody, and brutal. But if you look closely, you’ll see that most of the beads Okuma used are actually rose-pink and light green, creating a dazzling effect. “It’s about lighting, it’s about perspective,” she says. “It’s about seeing beauty even in the ‘ugliest’ images—even Pinhead.” 


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