Editor’s note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
The store has no name. Just a neon sign in the window with a symbol: a Native American storm cloud. It represents rebirth.
“I don’t feel the need to do things the way you are supposed to,” says Amy Yeung, when asked why she has made her new shop, which sells fashions handcrafted from upcycled materials as well as art and accessories, virtually unsearchable. “The right people will find it. It is an experiment.”
The same could be said for all of Yeung’s new life. In June, the one-time fast-fashion executive gave away virtually all her possessions, except for two boxes of clothes, some sewing tools, and upward of 500 pounds of vintage fabric collected over 30 years of global travel. Loading that inventory–the physical assets of her online apparel business Orenda Tribe–into a U-Haul, she departed her longtime home in Los Angeles to live a nomadic existence on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, among the indigenous sewers, jewelry makers, and artisans who are her suppliers. Now Yeung has ambitious plans to help the tribe, while further connecting with its members.
The store, near the Old Town section of Albuquerque, has a small living space in back that serves Yeung as a base. Mostly, though, she intends to keep moving, scouting new artistic talent on the reservation and transacting with her existing vendors, most of whom lack smartphones, access to electronic payment, or even mailboxes. While traveling, she will sleep on the road in a series of traditional Navajo dwellings, called hogans, which she intends to start building in the spring. “We’re taught to think you have to have ‘a’ home, and that is very limiting,” says Yeung, 55. “My goal is to have a whole batch of those little homes everyplace I want to live. I know a lot of people in rodeo who do that.”
Yeung’s birth mother is Navajo. Her family, including some of the artisans who supply her businesses, is spread across 70 square miles of the Bisti Badlands near Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico. Until seven years ago, Yeung, who was adopted, never knew them. But now she is intent on helping them and other members of the tribe by creating jobs that don’t involve extraction industries–which she detests–and by funding, through a separate foundation, food programs, activities, and supplies for students of schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
One way Yeung plans to create jobs is by launching a small-scale manufacturing facility to produce items like T-shirts and bandanas. She expects to fund it with grants. Government agencies, she says, are eager to support indigenous entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, she raises money for her charities through Instagram–$150,000 in eight months–and through business contacts from her corporate days. She also invests profits from Orenda Tribe and, now, from her unnamed store. “Sometimes all the revenue is going to those programs,” says Yeung, who views the accumulation of worldly goods as a social and spiritual scourge and, consequently, keeps little for herself.
Seizing on the entrepreneur’s prerogative to design her own life, Yeung is creating one that is at once stripped down and bountiful–solitary and rich in community. With her only child, Lily, heading off for a peripatetic gap year, Yeung has decided to embark–“like Georgia O’Keefe in the desert”–on a grand adventure of her own.
A mother and a mission found
Yeung always knew she was adopted. She was raised in rural Indiana “by two beautiful, loving humans”–a small-town pharmacist and his wife, who helped him in the store. Her limited understanding of indigenous life “was a very colonized view that came through U.S. history,” she says.
For 25 years, Yeung worked in companies like Reebok and Puma, designing activewear. Then in 2009, she suffered a serious bout of hypocrite parent syndrome. Yeung was teaching her then 7-year-old daughter to preserve the environment; at the same time she was creating fast fashions destined for landfills.
Over the next four years she began to move away from corporate work, acting as an independent consultant for international apparel companies and startups eager to manufacture in the United States. During this period, she launched Orenda Tribe as a side gig, producing one-of-a-kind garments crafted from upcycled materials. Making things responsibly, she knew, was good for the earth. But remaking things that already existed was better. Yeung designed the clothes herself and hired small family businesses around Los Angeles to sew them.
In 2013, she ditched consulting to do Orenda Tribe full-time. The business grew thanks to popular items like military knit underwear and flight suits from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s that Yeung buys from vintage and surplus dealers, restores, and dyes in rich colors.
One repeat customer is Kinsale Hueston, a sophomore at Yale and one of Time magazine’s 2019 People Changing How We See the World. Like Yeung, Hueston is Navajo. She is also a performance poet striving to elevate indigenous voices. Onstage, she often wears pieces by Orenda Tribe. “As indigenous people, we have been taught by our grandmothers and mothers not to use brand new fabrics,” Hueston says. “So what she does is closely tied to what I am passionate about.” Even better, the clothes “allow me to be comfortable onstage but also look really put together.”
While Yeung was morphing professionally, she was also exploring and deepening her family ties. She tracked down her biological mother on the internet and heard the story of her mother’s past. A teenager in the 1960s when the Indian Child Welfare Act was breaking apart indigenous families, she had been shipped to a boarding school in Ohio, where at times she was beaten or starved.
“Crazy stuff happened to her there,” says Yeung. “That is how I happened.”
Yeung’s mother stayed in Ohio. In 2007, Yeung and Lily visited her there; then the three generations traveled to the reservation. Over the next 10 years, Yeung often visited New Mexico, gradually meeting her extended family. She also started sourcing jewelry and custom apparel pieces from members of the tribe, her relatives among them, to sell through Orenda Tribe. And she learned about the social, environmental, and economic ills bedeviling her people. More than 500 abandoned uranium mines pock the land around her family’s home: one cousin is dying of uranium poisoning. Suicide and meth addiction are common.
“One third of my reservation is without electricity,” Yeung says. “One third is without running water. So there is a lot of work to be done out there.”
Yeung wanted to help, and not from a distance. As soon as Lily graduated high school, she resolved, she would move her studio, her business, and her life to New Mexico.
Stocking a store and a school
Yeung’s store, on Rio Grande Boulevard, is in a gentrifying neighborhood of a poor city. Albuquerque’s poverty rate is around 17 percent, compared with 12.3 percent nationally.
A former trading post, the space is packed with antique mercantile fixtures: glass displays and looming wooden cases with dozens of shallow drawers that are perfect for storing tools and fabrics. In the middle of the space sits a mahogany bed that Yeung says was formerly owned by Cary Grant (she has the documentation).
“A medicine man from the Jemez Pueblo cleansed and blessed the space and made an offering for all the new energy and the new intentions,” she says.
While a construction crew worked on the interior, Yeung spent the first two months in her new home creating inventory, both for the store and for festivals like the Spirit Weavers Gathering and the Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love. (Thirty percent of Orenda Tribe’s revenue comes from shows, and 70 percent from e-commerce.)
In addition to Yeung’s creations, the store stocks work from around 50 indigenous artisans, a number Yeung hopes will rise to 200. A few have small dedicated spaces in the store, including a 9-year-old painter of hoop dancers and an 11-year-old silversmith who makes bracelets with visual stories engraved on them.
Yeung’s intent is to spend three weeks a month on sales and production and one in service to the tribe, chiefly through her K’e Foundation (K’e is the Navajo word for “kinship”), for which she is seeking nonprofit status. She has already identified generous donors among her corporate connections and the stylist community in L.A. “My LinkedIn is pretty tasty,” she says.
The first focus of Yeung’s philanthropy is the Tohaali Community School, a Bureau of Indian Affairs K-8 boarding school with all Navajo students. Contributions she has raised include not just money but also goods: warm clothes from Patagonia; feminine hygiene products from the Monthly Gift Company; art supplies from Papaya Art; sports bras and leggings from Avocado Activewear; and hats and mittens from Dakine. A major athletic brand is in talks with Yeung about partnering on kids’ sports programs.
“We have a real problem here with hunger on the weekends when we have a lot of kids who go home to houses where there isn’t much food, says Delores Bitsilly, Tohaali’s principal. When Yeung heard that last December, on an early visit to the school, she went on Instagram and quickly raised enough money to fund take-home food for students through the summer term. She also brought them holiday gifts.
“Amy has been such a plus for us,” Bitsilly says. “And she’s a great role model for the kids to see what is possible.”
A birthday and a new life
The store with no name opened officially on August 29–Yeung’s 55th birthday. Surrounded by her rediscovered family and new friends, Yeung celebrated her surprising path.
“I could have been a vice president of some big company making tons of cash, but I would not have been happy,” she says. “What would I have told my daughter? That I produced fast fashion all my life? That I destroyed the environment?”
But those years in corporate land were not wasted. They bestowed on Yeung a wealth of connections as well as fundraising, organizational, and communication skills that are largely missing from the reservation. In Los Angeles, she generated income for the tiny businesses and individuals who made Orenda Tribe’s products. She wants to do the same in New Mexico.