Sew Shall She Reap

Miccosukee designer Renee Osceola combines a flair for high fashion with an acute understanding of native tradition

During a cable television show called Miccosukee Magazine, which aired last month on the Sunshine Network, Billy Cypress summed up the meaning of Renee's patchwork in three words: "It's our identity." Cohost Buffalo Tiger elaborated: "That type of design gives us recognition in South Florida....We don't have to have anything in writing. It's sheer design."

These days Renee can't keep up with the demand at the casino, where patchwork vests and jackets are uniforms for dozens of attendants, poker dealers, and security personnel. "Today we don't have very many patchwork makers. So it's a very hot item," Renee comments. "People are standing by waiting for you to finish when you are making something. That's how hot it is."

Miccosukee chic: Renee's husband, William Osceola (left), and his cousin, Douglas McKinley Osceola, sport two of her custom-made jackets
Steve Satterwhite
Miccosukee chic: Renee's husband, William Osceola (left), and his cousin, Douglas McKinley Osceola, sport two of her custom-made jackets

Outside Miccosukee country Renee's patchwork is not exactly in vogue, but it is in strong demand among one group, the Miami Lakes Lions Club. She currently is working on an order for twenty-five vests: four small, eight medium, six large, five extra-large, and two extra-extra-large. Charles Pinkerton, an orthodontist and founding member of the 35-year-old chapter, explains that every year tens of thousands of Lions Club members convene and stage a parade. Although the several-hundred-strong Florida delegation marched in patchwork vests during the 1980s, times have changed. Many of them now wear other uniforms. But the Miami Lakes branch is carrying the flame. "Every time we go to a state convention, people come up and say, 'Where did you get those vests?'" Pinkerton reports. "The standard vest that you get from Lions International is just kind of a goldish yellow. We're the only club that has these vests, so we kind of stand out."

He admits the patchwork symbols are a mystery to him. "I don't know what they mean," he says. "They're just nice-looking vests." The Miami Lakes Lions add their own touch: a logo on the back consisting of the king of beasts wearing a vest and holding a golf club. After women were allowed to join five years ago, some requested longer vests to conceal their hips. "Some of us are a little long-waisted," explains Pinkerton's wife, Colleen, a real estate agent and the women's club president.

Miccosukee patchwork jackets are making their way into other nontraditional arenas. Renee says The Rock, a World Wrestling Federation grappler who is all the rage among fans these days, bought one at the resort gift shop. And she custom made a jacket last year for another wrestler, Chief White Eagle, who also is known as Richard Buster. He is a tribe member, and his wife, Becky Buster, is marketing director at the Miccosukee resort.

"Someone once said that when you are in a position to have something made especially for you, there's just no greater sense of status," Becky observes. "Everything we make here for you will give you that status. It's made just for you and you feel good about wearing it."

Every once in a while Osceola thinks of Galliano, Gaultier, and Versace and ponders trying something a little more over the top. "I admire what those designers do outrageously," she says. "Because I'm sitting here doing something toned down. I'm not outrageous like they are. Probably because I don't have the nerve to do it. I'm dealing with what everybody wants."

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