“I wanted to tell something. I wanted to be authentic in the story,” says Oak & Acorn founder and designer Miko Underwood, reflecting on her seasonless New York Fashion Week presentation, Red, White and Indigo: The Untold Story of American Denim. “I wanted to be authentic and be fully in my purpose. And to me, what I understand being in purpose is understanding who you are, right? And so, this is what purpose looks like for me.”
Debuting on Tuesday, Sept. 15, Underwood’s evocative short fashion film places Black, Brown and Indigenous people back at the center of the all-American narrative around that most American of fabrics, denim. The primary components of denim—cotton and indigo—are inextricably woven into the story of brown-skinned people in the Americas: Like Black bodies themselves, both are organic properties that were widely commodified, becoming foundational in building the capitalist empire of what would become the United States (as Underwood reminds me, indigo was, at one point, the second-most-important cash crop in the colonies). Likewise, the labor used to extract and export each depended largely upon the transatlantic slave trade, as well as the wisdom gleaned from those indigenous to the Americas, who not only brought it to the attention of early settlers but shared their knowledge of harvesting the precious dye.
All of these are components of Underwood’s genetic heritage, and her sustainable denim heritage brand builds upon that very American story as well, honoring the history of denim while infusing it with ingenuity. The veteran denim designer’s fabrics are compostable and biodegradable, employing antifungal, antiviral technology.
“But when I look at sustainability, I’m thinking about it from a holistic perspective,” she adds. “I’m looking at ‘How am I impacting my community?’ I’m looking at ‘Am I being honest and true to myself? Am I thinking about my mind, body, spirit? What is the message that I’m echoing to the masses?’… So it’s really to me, it’s extremely intentional about being full and holistic, looking at it from a holistic perspective.”
Underwood’s holistic approach includes her “tribe” of collaborators (including Harlem’s Fashion Row founder Brandice Daniel, who gave Underwood her first opportunity to show during NYFW in 2019) and models which helped her produce her short film within the space of a week. In fact, Red, White and Indigo was directed by her sister, Ebony Underwood, founder of We Got Us Now, a national nonprofit for the children of incarcerated parents and Oak & Acorn’s social impact partner. The Underwoods are themselves the children of an incarcerated parent; Miko shares that their father has been in prison for 32 years. There, too, is part of the story of denim, one she tells in her label’s signature piece, the Rebelle coverall ($500).
“The coverall has been our piece because it pays homage to the farmer, the worker, the enslaved, the prisoner,” she explains, noting the appearance of the denim coverall on women working in World War II, many of whom were Black women. “There’s just so many ties to that coverall.”
Oak & Acorn’s latest collection, launching October 1, employs that same universality via a largely gender-neutral collection that is infinitely wearable (no, seriously—we want all the things).
“I grew up loving menswear,” Underwood explains. “And even when I became a denim designer, I recognized that most of the men’s jeans had so much functionality to it, just had a really cool aesthetic. They had the best washes, all that. And I was like, why are we not doing this in women’s wear? And so I always bring that aesthetic into my design wear.”
But while marrying form and function, Underwood is also attempting to help us better understand our present moment by recognizing our place in history. Since the pandemic began, she’s launched a denim collective as an educational initiative, to help others further understand our place in the fabric of America.
“I know that the artist is the healer. I know that in me,” she says.“I see that the way that we can heal in America is by really just unlearning and learning; opening ourselves up to learn, to get the information that we have not been exposed to. We’ve all been duped—it’s not black people, and it’s not just white. Like, everybody.
“You know, it’s our history…that lack of knowledge has allowed us to be used against each other. But when we know, then we really can use our voices and really make changes. And I believe in that,” she adds. “I’m an American…I feel our blood in the ground. I feel that on a deep level, you know what I’m saying? I feel my ancestors’ blood in the ground.”
Hear more about Oak & Acorn and the true story of American denim in our conversation with designer Miko Underwood, above.