Bethany Yellowtail

Fashion designer Bethany Yellowtail appears with Gov. Steve Bullock at the Innovate Montana conference at the DoubleTree on July 12.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

Bethany Yellowtail has made a name for herself in the Los Angeles fashion world, but her dream is to return home to Montana to manufacture her lines.

Yellowtail, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, said Wednesday in Billings that her experience growing up on the Crow reservation is woven into her clothing line, B. Yellowtail, created in 2014.

She lives and manufactures in southern California.

“I learn from you guys. I see 100 B. Yellowtails when I go home,” the 29-year-old said at the downtown DoubleTree by Hilton hotel.

Yellowtail was Wednesday's keynote speaker at the Innovate Montana Symposium, a three-day event in downtown Billings that attracts business owners statewide. The conference, in its third year, is sponsored by the office of Gov. Steve Bullock, who moderated discussions with keynotes.

Other speakers included Jason Williams, CEO of Blackfoot, a telecommunications firm in Missoula, and Dave Morin, a former manager for Facebook and a Helena native.

Yellowtail sat on stage with Bullock and spoke for about 45 minutes before a crowd of several hundred. Organizers said they sold about 600 tickets.

Yellowtail learned sewing from relatives and a teacher, Pat Mischke, at Wyola schools. She parlayed those skills to secure a spot at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in L.A., where she graduated in 2009.

She then gave herself a year to find a job in her field, and she sent out dozens of unsuccessful applications as the self-imposed deadline grew near. She paid the bills working at Starbucks and worried her shot wouldn’t come.

Finally, a company called BCBG Max Azria gave her a shot as an assistant, learning the business from others.

During her two years there, Yellowtail was already thinking about her own brand. Her challenge was developing clothes that honor her heritage but steer away from the Native American stereotypes seen all over the fashion world.

“What does that mean to tell that story in clothing? How does that translate to fabric?” Yellowtail said.

Last fall, she designed a line of “Protector Gear” in honor of those protesting the North Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota.

She also has an online gallery through her own line to give other Native designers a platform for their work.

B. Yellowtail has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Forbes magazine and other national publications. In February, she spoke at a New York fashion event about diversity in the industry.

Yellowtail has always been humble about her roots, though she’s learned to be proud of who she is.

She said she remembered shyly telling one man in California that she grew up in Montana, a simple "rez girl." He told her, sharply, that she should speak proudly of her roots and how they shaped her.

In that exchange, Yellowtail said she gained a greater appreciation and perspective of her heritage and home state.

“Being from Montana, being from the rez is what makes me unique … I had to go to Los Angeles to realize that,” she said.