Social causes are almost ubiquitous in the fashion / product / branding world, but it’s hard to find a company that takes its commitment seriously. Mac Bishop, founder of Native(X) is focused on his mission from the inside out: to collaborate with Native American artists and give them a platform to communicate their traditions and culture. It doesn’t hurt that the young designer has entrepreneurial chops, an eye for Native American art, and a background in the textile industry. Gear Patrol talks with Mac about the many iterations of Native(X), his relationship to Pendleton Woolen Mills, and how he plans to collaborate with the Native American community in the future.

Gear Patrol: Where are you originally from? Tell us about growing up.

Mac Bishop: I’m from Portland Oregon, which is probably the weirdest city in America. Our motto is keep Portland weird. And I would definitely say there is a lot of creative energy in Portland. I’ve learned to value that different perspective or those little quirks – I really appreciate those. Portland was a great place to grow up. Out here on the East Coast it’s a lot different – a lot faster. Portland feels like a very small town compared to New York City. I did what the average kid does: played sports like basketball and tennis, but what I really liked to do was mountain bike, because we lived in an urban park. I would literally be in the woods until dark, building trails, biking, hanging out with buddies. I’d say I developed an appreciation for outdoors, just through biking and being in nature.

I started thinking seriously about the underlying mission. You know, with these shorts, I’m a white boy, selling something that is Native American inspired. It didn’t make complete sense in my head. Something was missing. The idea of working with Native American artists, collaborating with them, while helping them sell their artwork online came to me over time. It just felt right.

GP: So how’d you get the idea for NATIVE(X)?

Mac Bishop: My dad works at Pendleton Woolen Mills and my grandpa worked there. I grew up surrounded by the Native American aesthetic from a young age. I remember being a little guy, looking at my grandpa’s Native American art collection; he had everything from totem poles to Northwest Coast drums, prints, paintings. So that’s probably where it started, but it didn’t hit me until sophomore year in college, when I started laying the groundwork for NATIVE(X). I’ve always been somewhat entrepreneurial, just experimenting with various projects. It was never really about the money, more about the idea of building something, creating something. During that sophomore year in college, I decided to make board shorts using Pendleton’s Chief Joseph Lightweight Blanket Wool. They cost a pretty penny to make in the US and I retailed them for $150. It took about 8 months to sell all 24 pairs. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next, in terms of where to take the brand.

I started thinking seriously about the underlying mission. You know, with these shorts, I’m a white boy, selling something that is Native American inspired. It didn’t make complete sense in my head. Something was missing. The idea of working with Native American artists, collaborating with them, while helping them sell their artwork online came to me over time. It just felt right. And I decided to give this new concept a shot when my mom and I drove up to Vancouver BC to meet with Native artist, Todd Baker. My mom has been a tremendous help. [laughs] This was probably the longest day of my life – we woke up and left at 5:30am, in the freezing rain. We drove from Portland to Vancouver, BC to Todd Baker’s place, did a video interview (you can see it embedded at the bottom of this interview, it was my first attempt at video and it wasn’t too great). Anyways, we decided to finance a series of prints: we have four bears and a thunderbird. That inspired the Thunder Tee collaboration. Then I partnered with Nathaniel Wilkerson, who is a Gitxsan Tribe member. He’s been a great partner and he’s an amazing artist. We most recently collaborated on a tote and some scarves.

Now, it’s time to start thinking about the next phase of the business… well, usually what I do is gear up for the holiday season, and then rethink the business, and adjust it. Last Christmas I only sold scarves, skirts and shorts. And this Christmas season, you see a curated selection of art, and everything on NATIVE(X) has a Native American design to it. There is a direct connection to a Native artist, and that Native artist is receiving a commission or portion of the proceeds.

Now that the 2011 holiday season is over, I’m thinking about the next steps and where I want to go with the brand. I really like the mission and working with Native American Artists. Ideally, I think it would be really cool to travel around the country meeting artists from different tribes, interviewing them, talking to them about their culture, and their inspiration. I would try to work with them on some kind of collaboration and showcase their artwork on the site.

Educating consumers on Native culture, art, and history has always been a focus for NATIVE(X). Many Americans have a misconception of Native Americans. Natives have been misrepresented in history for the last 200 years. If you look at what Hollywood did, with the cowboy movies and John Wayne and everything. There was a mass generalization and a depiction of Native Americans being savages, wearing headdresses. But that’s just not true. Every tribe is different; every tribe has an individual culture. I would like to hand over the mic to different Native tribes and artist, and let them tell their story to the larger audience that my site and my brand has. I’m not trying to tell the Native American story; I’m just trying to provide a platform for native communities to tell their story. There’s a great film I’m watching, it’s called Reel Injun. It’s a documentary that explores Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans. An incredible documentary from Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond.

GP: How did you get interested in menswear? How did you make the decision to begin with shorts?

MB: It’s all kind of random, but at Cornell, where I went to school, I worked with some designers. We started a menswear line for the Cornell Fashion Collective, which is a student-run fashion show.

We designed a line of menswear and that’s where my initial interest began. We had a 1940s inspired line, which had a bomber military aesthetic. Then my senior year, the group designed a line based on Bob Dylan and concept of a wandering, restless American in the 60s. That’s where my interest in menswear originally developed, in college.

GP: Your site touts NATIVE(X) as a “lifestyle brand.” Can you explain that? What does that label mean to you?

MB: When I say lifestyle brand, I mean that the brand can surround you in many elements of your life. I’m not limiting NATIVE(X) to just apparel or handbags or accessories. It can be home décor or artwork…anything with a Native design.

GP: What is the process of collaborating with Native American artists? The great thing about NATIVE(X) is your connection with true Native American artists – but in a way that doesn’t feel like a gimmick. How do you escape the marketing-ploy-feel?

MB: The thing is, I’m not an expert, by any means, on Native American culture or artwork. I’m learning as this process goes on. To start I look for inspiration from reputable galleries such as Quintana in Portland, Oregon. They are the experts and have relationships with the best Northwest coast artists. Nathaniel Wilkerson happened to be one of those artists. I ended up emailing him, we talked over the phone, and I have a buddy who does video, so we drove up to the Seattle area to meet with Nathan. It was an amazing experience. We met his entire family – he has five kids, his wife, Cindy does his photography for him, he works a side job doing engineering. We were up there hanging out with him for probably four or five hours. His wife bought sandwiches for us, and we sat around the table talking. It was just a really rewarding experience. I didn’t go up there like “alright, I’ve got to make money, we’ve got this amount of time, we’ve got this budget. It was more like “just tell your story, and let’s hang out.” Now, I talk to Nathan, and talk to his wife probably once every two weeks, just to check in and see how they’re doing.

I guess in terms of making money – right now, NATIVE(X) is a hobby for me. I’m not forcing myself to suck profit out of it. Every dollar that I earn goes back into the business. I don’t force myself to think about profit. This really helps the business and gives us the non-gimmicky feel that you talk about.

GP: Do you commission pieces, or at this point do artists contact you to submit their work?

MB: So I do a little bit of both, actually. With Todd Baker, that was the first collaboration. I commissioned five prints and gave him half of the prints as payment. With Nathan Wilkerson, he has an incredible assortment of designs and we wanted to create usable accessories based on his designs. We developed the laser-engraved leather art labels that you see on the scarves and bags. I managed bag and scarf development, but Nathan would comment on the patterns and give his feedback on the design. It’s definitely a collaborative process.

GP: Do you create any Native American art yourself?

MB: I do not actually produce any Native art because I am not Native. I love to watch the process and would like to learn to carve someday.

GP: Do you imagine that NATIVE(X) will ever become a part of Pendleton?

MB: I think Pendleton does a great job working with the Native community. They have a couple collaborations – they have a blanket series that benefits the American Indian College Fund. But I would love to see more collaboration. Pendleton is a corporation and they’ve got to hit their bottom line numbers especially in this tough economy. Working with a Native designer on each product they sell wouldn’t be feasible.

But… that’s an idea. Nothing on the radar right now.

Does that seem like a natural partnership to you?

GP: Well, it’s kind of a trade off. On one hand it’s nice to have Pendleton’s weight behind what you do, on the other, what’s great about NATIVE(X) is that you truly connect with each artist.

MB: I’m just curious because Pendleton was founded, essentially, on collaborating with Natives, so this is going back to their roots. Pendleton had a blanket designer, who would literally go out and live with Native American tribes, and come back with inspiration and ideas. And then Pendleton would create a blanket based on that aesthetic. That’s essentially how they would do it back in the early 1900’s.

GP: That doesn’t happen any more?

MB: They don’t send designers to go live on reservations, but they do design some blankets in collaboration with Native artists.

GP: So then it really makes sense – what you’re doing – it’s a re-orientation of the roots that Pendleton was founded on. If we’re not mistaken, everything you make is produced in the USA. That seems like an integral part of the brand.

MB: With Pendleton, all of their wool is woven in United States. The NATIVE(X) wasco tote, for example, features Pendleton fabric, woven in US. Pendleton doesn’t make everything in the United States. Check out their new Portland Collection. It’s their new line, it’s 100% made in the US. Obviously the price points are higher, it’s aimed at a younger demographic, and it’s more fitted. In this day and age, if you’re a large apparel company it’s tough to make all of your goods in the US. But they still do make all of their blankets in United States, because they have two mills, one in Pendleton, Oregon and one in Washougal, Washington.

GP: What about NATIVE(X)? Is it all manufactured in the US?

MB: Yes. Everything that I’ve made – the scarves, the totes, those are manufactured in the US. I’ve done lots of random things on the website, just to see what works and what doesn’t work. I have jewelry from an Acoma artist in New Mexico, so those were made in the US. The only things on the site that aren’t made in US are the mugs and bamboo boxes. Those were a design collaboration with a company in Vancouver, BC that works with artists up there. So they were designed in Canada but manufactured in China. In my next iteration of NATIVE(X), everything that’s on the website will be made in the US.

I’m not trying to tell the Native American story; I’m just trying to provide a platform for native communities to tell their story.

GP: It’s interesting that you talk about “iterations of NATIVE(X).” Is it important that you continually re-invent the brand?

MB: Yea, that’s what all entrepreneurs really do. You come out with an idea, but an idea is never going to be the end result. I’ve got to change things around. Right now, for me, the business is so small that I think there are so many ideas I could go for. I need to prioritize and figure out what’s really the best. I ask myself “Is this what I really want to be doing? What is the best idea?” I’m constantly thinking about the next step.

I’ve found my mission, but now I need to find a really distinct product line, and how I relay that message to the customer. That’s really the next iteration – to figure out the product and nail it.

GP: The product line is really important. Are you considering expanding into other areas – outside of bags and accessories – or are you going to focus on the products that you’ve been working on?

MB: Basically, I’ve been testing a lot of things, seeing what people like, seeing how the process works. I’ve been learning a lot, collaborating with Nathan, working with Michelle, who is the jewelry artist in New Mexico. I think, just to start, I want to really specialize in something and move out from there – so I can really devote a lot of time to making the best tote out there on the market, or whatever it is. That’s better than spreading myself out too thin and not being able to concentrate on one thing.

GP: Do you have any crazy stories from your whole NATIVE(X) adventure?

MB: Hmmmm. Ya, I do have a story. When I first made the shorts, I started marketing them with a Facebook ad. A guy saw the ad, and we ended up having a heated discussion over Facebook messages. He was a student at UCLA, and he was telling me that I was stealing from his culture, saying things like “You’ve taken my land, and now you’re taking my design.” We went back and forth, but ultimately ended up agreeing that exposing Native art and culture was a good thing. At this time, I started refining these ideas in more detail, about working with Native artists, handing them the mic and letting them tell their stories. That conversation was part of the inspiration.

I should go back and thank that guy. It was a confrontational argument over Facebook, but it helped steer me to the right concept.

GP: We imagine that conversation could have ended up a lot worse than it did. What is it like, as a non-Native American, to be working so closely with the Native tradition? Do you feel like you are approaching as an outsider?

MB: There’s a sense of hesitation – “why are you doing this? what’s in it for you?” There’s sensitivity around the collaborative process because in the past, Natives have had so much taken from them. And heck, I don’t blame them for the hesitation. It’s unusual that I’m coming out and saying “hey let’s do this together and see where it goes.” And for that, the artists trust me and respect what the “white boy, Mac” is doing.

GP: That’s at the heart of what NATIVE(X) is. Collaborating and providing a platform.

MB: Absolutely. Building a platform for Native artists to tell their story.