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Native fashion designer from Oregon lands in spotlight with 'game-changing' Interior secretary

Fashion designer and artist Korina Emmerich grew up in Eugene, Ore., and has roots in the Puyallup Tribe of Indians.
Provided by Korina Emmerich
EMME Studios
Fashion designer and artist Korina Emmerich grew up in Eugene, Ore., and has roots in the Puyallup Tribe of Indians.

It’s every fashion designer’s dream to see their work prominently featured on a magazine cover, especially if it’s worn by someone prominent themselves.

That’s the case with Korina Emmerich, who grew up in Eugene, Ore., and now lives and works in New York City. A dress of hers adorns Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on the upcoming August cover of InStyle magazine.

Haaland is the first Native American woman to serve as Interior secretary, and Emmerich is also Native, with roots in the Puyallup Tribe. KLCC’s Brian Bull asked her if she ever expected to have such a breakthrough moment like this one.

Emmerich: 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, 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. 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.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland wears a dress designed by Korina Emmerich on the cover of InStyle magazine.
Credit Camila Falquez/Thompson / InStyle
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland wears a dress designed by Korina Emmerich on the cover of InStyle magazine.

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

Emmerich: Yes, the piece that I actually designed was on the cover … is from my Mother of Waters collection. And the collection is inspired by my tribal homelands up in Washington state, where my father’s side of the family is from. 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 is 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 powwow 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 a beautifully bright blue color 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 D.C., 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 11 p.m. 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, D.C., 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.

READ MORE: For an extended interview with Korina Emmerich, where she describes her activism, advocacy and business philosophy – as well as why so many of her creations use Pendleton blanket designs – click here.

Brian Bull joined the KLCC News Team in June 2016. He is a 20-year reporter who has worked at NPR, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including three Edward R. Murrow Awards and the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award in 2012.