An Extended Conversation With Indigenous Designer And Eugene Native, Korina Emmerich

Jul 6, 2021

What follows is an extended interview between KLCC's Brian Bull and EMME Studio founder, manager, and designer Korina Emmerich, recorded via Zoom call on June 30, 2021.

Korina Emmerich, from her Instagram account, https://www.instagram.com/korinaemmerich/

Emmerich (sound check): My name is Korina Emmerich, I’m a clothing designer, artist, and writer. And I am Puyallup from Coast Salish territory.

Bull:  So Korina, one of the biggest highlights of anyone’s career is to see their work prominently featured by a very high-profile person, which is the case this summer.  Because InStyle magazine is featuring Interior Secretary Deb Haaland who’s made history as the first Native American woman appointed to that position. And the cover features her in this really stunning, Indigenous-themed ensemble. And you are the designer of that dress.  As a person who grew up in Eugene with long-term aspirations to work in fashion, design, and art…did you ever think you’d see this day?

Emmerich: (laughs) Oh, I have hoped since I was really young that this day would come, that I would be able to be on the cover of a magazine, and my work would be on the cover.  And it’s just such an honor, especially to have somebody so game-changing as Secretary Haaland to be wearing one of my pieces.  I did not know that it was going to be on the cover, the items were pulled by the stylists. I knew it was going to be for InStyle magazine, but I had no idea it was going to be the cover until the day the stylist sent me a screenshot and said,  ‘We got the cover,” and I was just shocked.  So it’s a pretty huge deal, I’m still kinda resonating in it (laughs) but it’s pretty exciting.

Bull: Describe to me how you felt when you saw Interior Secretary Haaland on the cover, looking so stately and as the cover says, so badass…wearing something that you designed.

Emmerich: Yeah, I was actually outside walking my dog at the time (laughs), so I just checked my phone and I was shocked. It took me a few minutes for it to really sink in, that it was going to be the cover of the actual, physical magazine, it wasn’t just an online story. As Indigenous people we tend to often get published a lot online, and online stories we don’t actually get a chance often to be inside of magazines or on the cover of magazines, so it took me a minute to really realize what had happened.  And I looked around and realized I didn’t really have anybody to share it with. So I was kinda internalizing all of that excitement until I got home, and the response from those images being released  was just incredible, I’m so grateful for everybody’s support.

Bull: What are the design elements you specifically put into the dress that Secretary Haaland is wearing? 

Credit Camila Falquez/Thompson / InStyle

Emmerich:  Yes, the piece that I actually designed was on the cover that I designed is from my Mother of Waters collection. And the collection is inspired by my tribal homelands up Washington state, where my father’s side of the family is from. So that collection was all made entirely from organic cotton jerseys and knits, and so sustainability is something I focus on in my design, it’s the cornerstone of my design, it’s part of my design mission.  So the dress itself this bright cerulean blue, mock neck, long sleeve dress that’s made from 100% organic cotton. And along with the dress it’s styled with one of Deb Haaland’s personal pow-wow shawls. Which just…the colors together look so beautiful together, And a few other designers who did the handbag that’s on the cover, as well as the jewelry.  But it’s very beautifully bright blue cover with a red background so it’s absolutely stunning.

Bull: How long had you known that Secretary Haaland would be wearing one of your creations?

Emmerich:  The story is actually quite a complicated one, because when InStyle had initially reached out to say they were dressing Deb Haaland for a story with the magazine, and they needed items the next day. So I sent a box of pieces of samples that I had in studio, and it was stuck at the post office and they were unable to retrieve it. So I thought I had missed this opportunity completely, I’d written her a letter and had included some gifts. And I just thought, “oh my gosh, wow, this opportunity’s just over because it’s trapped at the post office. And they couldn’t get someone over to retrieve it in time, they were leaving for Washington DC that night.  So the stylist contacted me through Instagram DMs, and was like, “Look, we really want your stuff.  Is there anything that we can do?”  So I packed up two more boxes, a messenger came at 11pm at night to pick them up. And then one of the creative directors of InStyle magazine hand carried the items on the plane to Washington DC first thing in the morning

So it almost didn’t happen (laughs) And I’m just so grateful that everybody put forth so much effort to really support the designers that ended up being a part of this.

Bull: Have you heard from Secretary Haaland about how she felt about the dress, or being featured on the cover of InStyle?

Emmerich:  I have not, yet. I’m really hopeful that I will be able to speak to her one day, whether it be over the phone or (laughs) whatever, I haven’t heard but she looked absolutely incredible and I’m sure she felt amazing during the shoot.

Bull: And it’s going to be great exposure for you, I’m sure.   As a designer I’m sure you’re getting lots of positive press from this.

Emmerich: Yeah, it’s been a whirlwind.  The past week has been really interesting, and I’m finally starting to see all of this work and effort that I’ve put into building this clothing line really come to fruition and it’s really exciting. So now we just have to work even harder (laughs)

Bull: How many years have you worked as a professional designer, Korina?

Emmerich: So I’ve had my clothing line officially as a business for about six years,  but I’ve been working, steadily trying to build this brand for about the last 10 years,  I’ve been living in New York now for 12 years. Shockingly enough, it’s been that long. So yeah it’s been a while, but we’re taking it slow and making sure we’re making the right moves instead of growing quickly and feeling like we don’t know what we’re doing.  Yeah, slow growth is something that I focus on.

Bull: It’s got to be quite the culture shift, from growing up in Eugene and now working and living in New York City.  How did your Eugene experience influence your artistic and fashion sense?

Emmerich:  Yeah, I’m so grateful for the support of the arts community in Eugene.  Y’know I got my International Baccalaureate in the Arts from South Eugene High School, I also played in the wind ensemble. And I’m so grateful to be able to do both of those things within school.  I also took art classes at Maude Kerns Art Center, that I know is still going strong. So that’s exciting to see, and that was definitely one of my favorite memories growing up, was taking figure drawing classes there. It’s just such a beautiful place to grow up, and I think it’s just such a community that supports arts and theater, and everything.  I mean, I was going to theater, my parents were actors when I was growing up, and so…we were always surrounded by creative people, and that’s my favorite thing about growing up in Oregon.

Bull: We’ve come a long way since Victoria’s Secret models strutted the runway wearing oversized feathered war bonnets.  Where do you see Native American culture in the fashion world today?

Emmerich: Yeah, it’s really interesting . I think that Indigenous designers are being spotlighted right now and have this incredible opportunity to really have our own voice instead of having this appropriation voice that was previously represented in fashion in the past.  And I think a big part of that is our access to social media, and our way to have our own voice and to be able to hold people accountable for cultural appropriation, hold big brands accountable for it. and just be able to share  each other’s work as well, I mean so many designers were able to be part of this InStyle magazine shoot with Secretary Haaland, and it’s just incredible to see how much talent is across Indian country and how many talented designers that already exist that are finally getting the recognition that they deserve.  

Bull: When you design your clothing, Korina, what elements are important to you as you create something new?

Emmerich:  Yeah, I mean my work is very personal. That’s a big part of what I do.  It’s a huge outlet for me and so I’d say fashion is just another conduit for my voice. I work a lot in community organizing and activism fields, I speak a lot about sustainability, and within the fashion industry, and dismantling this system of white supremacy within the fashion industry as well.   So a lot of that comes through my work.  I’m really mindful fabrics we use, the production practices that we use, we take into consideration and take gratitude for every step that is taken to make the final pieces that we have. I produce everything locally. 

And as far as my inspiration goes, it can be anything from a mountain to a rock, to music to a song, and I’m always looking for different inspiration. You’ll never know what will spark that drive.

Bull:  I understand that you still incorporate Pendleton blanket designs into your work.  Where or how did that begin?

An EMME Studios creation incorporating a Pendleton blanket design.
Credit Korina Emmerich's Instagram account

Emmerich:  Yeah so, you know it’s interesting. Well, growing up in Oregon I think a lot of people probably grew up with Pendleton in their house.  And for us, we had Pendleton all over that we would win from pow-wow raffles, I was a pow-wow dancer when I was in high school as well.  But a lot of blankets that we had from pow-wow raffles, I was gifted my first Pendleton blanket when I graduated high school. So it’s always been kind of an aesthetic that I had growing up, and it’s really interesting because my dad had initially said, “Why don’t you use Pendleton fabrics in your designs?” when I was in college, and I was like, “Oh, I dunno, I dunno know if I want to do that,” and I  thought it was overdone because we just saw it all the time within my own immediate family.  But now it’s really become a cornerstone of my brand and I really respect a lot of their business practices as far as sustainability goes, and their commitment to clean and fair wages.

Another part of it is because Pendleton is not an Indigenous-owned company, I also think there’s a sense of reclamation in using those fabrics as an Indigenous designer, because it’s still prominently used in community and ceremony.  We see it all the time, so yeah, there’s a sense of reclamation in using the fabrics, but I also really, really appreciate their business practices that align with mine as well.

Bull: I was going to say, in your work and throughout this interview, that you speak about authenticity, social justice, and battling white supremacy.  Those all seem to be important values for you to share with your audience.

Emmerich:  Yes, yeah.  Definitely.  I work for…not only for my clothing line, but I also work with community organizing for the Indigenous Kinship Collective, that’s based here in Brooklyn. And we run a mutual aid organization to support people who are unsheltered, especially during COVID, that there was just a lot of access to resources that people didn’t have. So we’ve been working to provide those resources as well as redistributing funds. I also serve on the board of directors of the Slow Factory Foundation, which is a sustainable literacy non-profit. Both are huge parts of what I do as well, which may not always be in public eye, but it’s important I think to balance all of your work.

Bull: I also understand you don’t do large quantities of your designs, but small limited amounts, so that you always sell out.  I’d be curious to know if you’ll revisit that business model now that you’ve got the Secretary of the Interior wearing one of your designs on the August cover of InStyle.

Emmerich: Yeah, staying a small, slow fashion brand is definitely something that’s very important to me. I don’t imagine that we’ll suddenly just into production or shipping our production overseas or anything like that. My goals right now are really to continue to build this studio, and continue to make things in-house.  I’d love to have a small team of people working with me.  I currently only have one employee.  So it’s kind of a whirlwind for the two of us. But I’d love to continue to grow, continue to make things in-house, continue to make things to order. And we do have limited quantifies because I’m just really cautious of not overproducing.

Bull: I’d imagine the fashion world – especially there in New York City – is very competitive, and so it’s important to strike out and make a big positive splash when you can.  How are things currently going with the New York fashion world, particularly since we’re still easing out of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Emmerich: Yeah,  it’s definitely a struggle. Sometimes I wonder myself, whether we need new clothing all the time for, that’s an internal struggle (laughs)  that I have, definitely. But again it’s a conduit for my voice and we’re really cautious about not overproducing.  But I think the best advice I ever got was to find a place that you can stand on that nobody can push you off of. And I think that’s something that’s really important when people enter these industries, and think they need to fit in.  Really the best thing that you can do is stand out. So whatever makes you different, whatever makes you unique, that’s the thing that you should really be looking into to, and just sitting in the authenticity, because that’s going to set you apart from everything else. I think I spent a lot of time trying to fit into this industry. And as soon as I started speaking out and speaking my mind, and really truly being myself, and finding my own voice, is when I kinda found my place within the fashion world.  And I’m just really grateful for that. So yeah, I think it just takes some time and the best thing is to be true to yourself.

Bull:  Korina, what were some of your favorite haunts in Eugene when you lived here?

Emmerich:  Well, the Glenwood is probably one of my favorites. I also love McMenamins. Uhm, what do we do when I go home?  My sister’s the only one that lives there now. So it’s really strange to go back, but I just love being in Oregon and driving around, and being able to see all the trees and how big they are, and how amazingly beautiful it is, it’s something that I definitely took for granted. Just looking out the car window. And I just miss that more than anything.  It’s like driving around with my sister on like the Loraine Highway, listening to music. (laughs)

Bull: Obviously this dress design for Secretary Haaland is a big deal, and perhaps this is the one…but is there a specific garment or creation you’ve done that you’re especially proud of, and best represents your talents as a fashion designer?

Instagram post of the Yakima Coat from EMME Studios.

Emmerich:  Yeah, you  know…like last fall we did the Yakima Coat.  It’s Pendleton wool, it’s a long coat. It’s half red and black, and half black and white. That was an incredible seller. And it’s also part of the Mother of Waters collection, but that’s definitely one of our standout pieces that was the most popular piece.  

And why do you think it was so effective and popular?

Emmerich:  I think one thing that I really like to do is to take the Pendleton materials and modernize them a little bit, and make them a little bit more fashion forward.  People have described my aesthetic as this like Indigenous Soho designer which I think is funny. So I think it’s really just taking these elements and elevating them into more of a high fashion world.

Bull: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our KLCC listening audience?

Emmerich: I’d just say you can find me at www.emmestudios.com.  I guess that’s the only thing! 

Bull: Yeah, you gotta get your social media plug out there! (laughs) Instagram’s been really good to you, though.

Emmerich: (laughs)  Yeah, Instagram’s pretty, ah…I’m on it too much, yeah! (laughs)

Bull: Korina, it’s been a real pleasure talking with you, and I wish you continued success with your fashion designs.  Thank you again for your time, and be well.

Emmerich:  Yeah, you too, I’ll talk to you later! (laughs)  Bye!

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