Buffy Sainte-Marie, the gorgeous, dynamic Cree musician originally from Qu’Appelle, Sask., has mastered a chic informed equally by her heritage, her globe-spanning career and her own unique brand of cool. “When I first entered showbiz in 1963, you could choose between Stepford Wife style and granny dresses, both of which I found appalling,” she recalls. Her solution? “I ordered stuff form the Frederick’s catalog, very pin-up, but it fit me. I sewed a lot of my own designs, using commercial patterns but altering and decorating them to reflect my own shape, my dreams and travels. When I had concerts in Hong Kong, I brought my best-fitting jeans and had them made in silk brocades.”
The 72-year-old continues to speak fluent fashionese, citing her standbys as Betsey Johnson, Calvin Klein “and Thierry Mugler, who made the most delicious tailored sexy suit I’ve ever owned—I still wear it.” She schools us on Sudan Setz, the Vancouver designer behind the label Wild Rose, who silkscreens original art onto flesh-coloured fabric to create the illusion of full-body tattoos. Of course, Saint-Marie can get away with it—she’s got the knack for mixing in the right staples, often slightly preppy, to keep her performance impulses in check. “When I’m packing, I think in terms of a black silhouette, usually a cashmere sweater and jeans and boots, which I decorate with a bright scarf and a cool jacket, currently leather and studs. For stage, I like a gorgeous funky peplum jacket that accentuates curves, with a major showstopper necklace made on the reserve. A very fancy orange beadwork guitar strap that belongs in a museum completes the look. It’s very modern.”
Her beauty routines are precise, but down-to-earth. She maintains her incredible hair by “shampooing it with either Dove (the best face wash I know) or L’Oréal Everpure Volume Shampoo with no sulfate,” she says. “I don’t ever use conditioners. Instead, I build it up with all kinds of stuff: Tigi Bed Head Manipulator and Creative Genius, or Garnier Fructis Style Body Boost spray, then shape it like it’s playdough. I’m brutal. C’mon, it’s only hair!”
So did Sainte-Marie set out to challenge mainstream perceptions of Aboriginal women and beauty? “I did want to make real indigenous people—especially First Nations people—more visible in the mainstream,” she says. “I knew the wonderful variety of looks out there in Indian country and learned my motto early: reality is your friend. We didn’t need to dye our hair black and wear braids and dress like it’s the 1800s. Our cheekbones and real faces identified us just fine.” It was a brilliant approach. Sainte-Marie’s singular self-fashioning is as inspiring to us as it was for concert goers in 1963.
Tradition Mixer: Preppy, Stage Glam and Craft Make Magic Together