An Interview with Sustainable Fashion Designer, Upcycler & Community Leader YEK

YEK (Cheyenne River Lakota) uses his Native American heritage as inspiration and brings a new perspective to streetwear style.



This month we’re getting to know John Lafferty AKA ‘YEK’ (Cheyenne River Lakota), the Phoenix-based sustainable fashion designer, upcycler, and community leader who brings a fresh perspective to streetwear style with his repurposed methods and customized fashion, all influenced by his heritage. YEK the label is not only a translation of the compilation of his human experiences; it’s also a platform for YEK to express and heal himself. We caught up with the Lakota designer to learn more about the label and what it takes to mix traditional Indigenous influence with contemporary fashion and style, and sustainability.

Would you share a bit of yourself and where you’re from?

My name is John Lafferty, AKA ‘YEK,’ which serves as an abbreviation for my Lakota name, Wasloslolkiyeka–meaning thinker or curious one. I’m of mixed blood, the other half being Mexican. I’m 28 years old, born and raised in Phoenix, AZ.

YEK. (credit: YEK)

When did you realize your calling was to become a fashion designer?

I can’t think of one definitive moment when I realized I wanted to become a fashion designer. The desire for becoming one has definitely compounded with a list of variables since I was a kid. From obsessively dressing my gaming characters, having open-minded parents who supported my ever-changing wardrobe (no matter how out-of-the-box), treating high school like a fashion show, and collecting sneakers to working retail jobs like American Apparel (now Los Angeles Apparel), Urban Outfitters, landing an internship with Tried + True, then styling gigs with Champion. I also don’t doubt that fashion may simply be in my blood. My Lakota grandmother would make star quilts for all her grandchildren, and my Mexican grandmother would make dresses for my mother. I guess if I had to pinpoint a pivotal moment, it would be the pandemic. It gave me the opportunity to slow down on the road of life, look back at where I’ve been, where I’m at now, and where I want to go. I have much to learn, but I’ve never been more ready and motivated.

Could you tell us more about your label? What is the ethos of your designs? And what defines your style?

First and foremost, YEK, the label, can be translated into a compilation of my human experiences. A platform for me to express and, by the same token, heal, it will forever evolve with me. Currently, my team and I look to mix traditional Indigenous influence with contemporary fashion and style while doing our best to reside in the sustainability arena. 

What influenced you to become a sustainable designer?

The buffalo. My ancestors. Resourcefulness. Creating with what I have and leaving no stone unturned. Sustainability is important, and it seems like everyone is moving in that direction. Whether there’s a legacy tied to a brand or not, there are now sustainable or recycled options and collaborations. Even big fashion houses are promising sustainability.

YEK brings a fresh perspective to streetwear style—like transforming coveted sneaker styles into modified moccasins. (credit: courtesy)

In your own eyes, how has becoming a sustainable designer changed your life?

It has certainly strengthened my inventive or creative outlook on life. It’s given me a broader perspective and forces me to think of things in a more ethical way or from multiple angles.

How do you use your Native American heritage as inspiration, and how do you bring a new perspective to streetwear style?

Traditions and stories shared by my father allow me to find a plethora of inspiration. Life on vs. off the reservation, the merging or transition between both worlds. The trials and tribulations–I’d like to shine a light on the offspring of all that via my work.

What is your process in repurposing and customizing fashion into wearable art?

Accents like the Morning Star, tassels, silver studs, various types of leather, conchos, and colorways all get woven into whatever it is we feel gravitated towards. At the moment, those are classic silhouettes such as the Nike Air Force 1s, the Boston Birkenstock, and Clark Wallabees. We then style second-hand clothing with those reworked pieces we create in an effort to illustrate a bigger story and suggest multiple ways to wear our work.

Describe to us what the sustainable fashion movement is like today? And how do you contribute to the sustainable fashion movement with your work?

I don’t know that I contribute anything to the sustainable fashion movement, but I’ve always had to be sustainable, repurpose or recycle out of necessity and lack of resources. I appreciate things with character or a certain one-of-one feeling. I want to remain sustainable moving forward even when I have the option.

People say that sustainable fashion is too expensive or too difficult to do. How do you usually respond to that?

It doesn’t have to be expensive; it just requires some digging. I believe the internet makes it easier for us to find sustainable fashion at a decent price. Of course, we can’t compete with an H&M, but that’s disposable fashion. Those pieces have no value after being purchased. I feel we need to be more intentional or cognizant of whatever it is we purchase and leave more room for sustainability/quality.

What are the biggest challenges you face as a sustainable designer?

The tallest hurdle is reconditioning my Western consumer mind from thinking that in order to be successful in fashion, garments/fabric have to be “brand new.”

You are said to be defining the next-gen culture of non-metropolitan cities around the country; why is this important? How is this shifting the fashion industry as we know it today?

It’s an important topic for me because growing up in a “non-metro” city, I always thought I needed to move to a larger city, like LA, in an attempt to fulfill my aspirations. Which maybe five, even three years ago, would’ve been valid, being that there weren’t as many creatives coming together in Phoenix as there is now, but fortunately, that isn’t the case now. In hindsight that was the most suggestive reason for me moving to LA initially was the amount of creatives willing to network out there. Phoenix has always had creative talent; I think now, though, everyone’s more open to playing together as opposed to appreciating from the sidelines. It’s shifting fashion or at least providing an updated narrative for my gen and the ones to follow that we have the capability to flourish wherever we are on the globe; we either find that union or start to build it ourselves. The internet is the most significant tool for that.

Where can our readers find out more about or follow your work?

You can follow me @yek0ne (that’s a zero, not the letter O) on Instagram &/or check out our most recent work via our website

YEK is featured on Facebook’s “On The Map” travel series hosted by Speedy Morman that elevates the work of community builders. The series, which premiered on Facebook, spotlights young innovators across the country who are defining the next-gen culture of non-metropolitan cities around the country. 

Check out ‘On The Map’ – Episode 1 with YEK here.

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