Belinda Bullshoe isn’t your ordinary fashion designer.
The Blackfeet woman was dressed simply in a printed tank and black skirt as she sat beneath a canopy at the Northwest Montana Fair on a blustery Friday afternoon. She and her husband, Rod, were selling blankets to help fund their upcoming trip to Paris Fashion Week.
She unzipped a black suitcase, revealing an assortment of richly hued dresses inside. These swaths of fabric have become her ticket to the world — in February of this year, the Browning designer exhibited a six-piece collection at New York Fashion Week — one of the industry’s preeminent shows, bested perhaps only by Paris.
Belinda was the first Native American designer to open the show and perhaps the first-ever to exhibit designs on the Big Apple runway.
“I always tell people just to go after your dreams — especially with our culture. We’re so quick to back off from things if things don’t work out,” she said. “With me, I overcame a lot of challenges to be where I’m at now.”
The road to the runway wasn’t an easy one for Belinda, though it started out innocuously enough.
Belinda first picked up needle and thread under the tutelage of her grandmother, and avid quilter and seamstress.
“I knew she was getting older and one day she told us, you guys have to watch me now, watch how I’m sewing,” Belinda said.
Belinda paid attention, but it would be years before she delved seriously into the art.
In 2009, her grandmother died, but Belinda’s losses didn’t stop there.
Her 9-month-old foster daughter, Skyla, passed abruptly from cardiac arrest. A year later, Belinda even faced charges in connection with the death of the infant, until they discovered the true cause of death: a tumor on the left side of the baby’s heart.
The Bullshoes had another foster child — a son named Merlin — and he too was removed from the family that very same year.
“Losing our pink panda (Skyla) and losing my son Merlin was a traumatic loss,” Belinda said. “They put him back with his original dad. After the court hearing was over, we were told we were going to get Merlin back, but that never happened.”
Five years later, Merlin was reunited with his foster parents but his absence, coupled with the death of Skyla, sent Belinda into a downward spiral of depression.
“I went into a really traumatic depression. I almost wanted to commit suicide. I didn’t think there was no life out there — I just wanted my kids back,” she said.
Belinda attempted to take her life three times, but ultimately decided to be strong for Merlin. He may have been taken from her arms, but he wasn’t gone from the world, and the hope that she’d see him again one day carried her through.
With her grandmother’s memory in mind, Belinda began sewing. She fashioned scarves out of printed fleece blankets and soon tried her hand at a car-seat cover, and finally a dress. That first garment took her nine hours, but by then she was hooked.
“I create my designs through what I think — I can’t draw it on paper,” she said.
Rod said sometimes they’ll be driving along the highway and an idea will strike Belinda, who will excitedly recount her vision to him until she can create the tangible form at home.
“It’s all up here,” he said, pointing to his temple.
Once she had a handle on the basics, Belinda began expanding her repertoire of dress designs, creating prom gowns and special-occasion pieces for other residents on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Her talent soon received broader attention.
A woman from Vermont spotted Belinda’s dresses on Facebook and requested one for herself. She showed the piece to a friend in the fashion world and encouraged Belinda to apply for New York Fashion Week. With only three years of sewing experience under her belt, Belinda was unsure how her creations would be received by the high-brow fashion crowd. To her surprise and delight, she received a designer packet via email — a sure sign that she was in.
Belinda sent six designs down the New York runway Feb.10 — the same day as her late grandmother’s birthday.
“It was really emotional,” she said. “When I walked out with the finale, I literally had to bite my lip for me to not cry. But in the video (of the show) you can see my nose is red. It was not only being there, it was being thankful for everybody that has supported me … and realizing it was my grandma’s birthday.”
After her success in New York, Belinda showcased her designs at another show in Scottsdale, Arizona and threw her hat in the ring for Paris Fashion Week, which runs Sept. 26 through Oct. 3. The City of Lights said yes to the Blackfeet designer, too, but now she’s tasked with creating an entirely new collection and funding her travels. At fashion week in both New York and Paris, designers are not paid for their efforts, but rather given the opportunity to exhibit their work in front of a global audience. They have to cover the cost of their travels, lodging and models’ fees which Belinda said will likely total between $10-11,000 for Paris.
“Things are moving along,” Rod said. “We still have a month and a half — it will happen.”
In addition to selling blankets and other wares at the fair, the couple started a GoFundMe page to help with travel expenses, which has raised $2,270 as of press time.
As for the designs? They’re still in Belinda’s head.
“I haven’t even started them,” she said with a laugh. “I started the dresses for New York, maybe a week and a half before.”
Her garments, which combine shimmering brights with Native American prints, share a distinctly modest cut in the Blackfeet tradition, Belinda explained. The garments fall to the knee or below; the majority feature high necklines and not one among them is cleavage-bearing.
“As Native Americans, the women are supposed to be modest,” she said. “It’s more having respect for yourself in the public eye.”
There is also historic symbolism behind her designs. One full-length number with a buffalo across the chest has a dark skirt with a flash of red, which Belinda said represents the beating heart of the buffalo.
Belinda isn’t sure where her career will go from Paris — she’s simply excited for the chance to grow and thankful that she chose life after all.
“I tell people when you’re down and out and in a depression mode, there is life after,” she said. “I don’t know whats going to come out of it, I just want to keep creating designs.”