In the first few moments of Dawn Richard’s new album, New Breed, you are immediately transported back in time and space to New Orleans, where it all began for the singer-songwriter. Richard wistfully retells the stories of her Catholic school days, of craving sno-balls (a shaved ice confection that’s specific to the port city), of feasting on crawfish, another local delicacy. The album also sheds light on a local tradition that’s been a part of Richard’s family for decades: the Mardi Gras Indian parade, a result of a kindred partnership that formed centuries ago between Native Americans and Africans in what’s now considered Louisiana.
“The one thing they had in common was the art of dance and the art of sewing: the garb, the costumes, and that became the communication between the cultures that led the Mardi Gras festivities for us,” says Richard. “Mardi Gras was Carnival for white people who had money and black people couldn’t be a part of that. They wouldn’t let them participate in it,” Richard says of the origins of the practice. “Black people would come out in their garb and show each other what ward and what tribe sewed the best. They’d create these incredible ceremonies with each other, and it gave them an identity where it had been stripped away.”
Richard’s connection to the marching tribes, and in particular the Washitaw Indians, is generations old. Her great-uncle, Harold Fedison, was a highly esteemed Mardi Gras costume-maker (he was inducted into the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame for his sewing prowess) and a member of the Washitaw tribe. It’s a heritage that’s influenced her ornate performance wardrobe, too. “When people ask me why I do my music the way it is, why it’s cross-genre, why I dress like that with a headpiece and armor on, all I can tell them is that’s what I grew up seeing,” Richard says. “It’s always been couture headpieces to me, seeing these incredible grandiose things, men in diamonds, men who come home from prison who can sew better than any designer and they’re dressed in garb, lace down to their feet, and they’re proud of it. With three dollars and a smile, they did it on their own, figuring it out themselves, creating stuff that could rival any fashion house.”
Her father, too, found Mardi Gras fame in another way. His band, Chocolate Milk, created a contemporary modern day standard with “Groove City,” a song that’s often played during the festivities (Richard even interpolates it into the sonics of the new album). New Breed also weaves in voices from Chief David Montana and other members of Washitaw Nation.
The album cover itself also features Chief Montana’s handiwork: Dawn is pictured wearing the kind of feathered headdress the king of a tribe would usually wear; Chief Montana hand-made the piece for Dawn at her request. “I wanted it to emulate a chief’s crown, because I wanted to show that in this day and age women can be kings. That speaks volumes to the idea that the city can see things in a progressive way and it also acknowledges that women are moving forth and passing on the tradition,” Richard says. “The entire album speaks to how I see women in New Orleans and how so many women around me who were born and raised in this city taught me what it meant to be strong and outlive homelessness, storms, racial profiling, sexual assault, all of it.”
Richard wore that very same crown when she marched with the Washitaw Indians during Mardi Gras last week, an experience she captured in an exclusive photo diary for Vogue. It was a major homecoming for her for a number of reasons. Although she had grown up steeped in the culture of the Mardi Gras Indians, Richard’s great-uncle didn’t pass down any sewing knowledge to the family’s younger generation as had been the custom, so it was her first time properly marching (or masking, as it’s called when you march in garb that you sew yourself).
It was also Richard’s first Mardi Gras in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, after which her family relocated to Baltimore for 10 years (they just recently moved back). What’s more, the Washitaw Indians made Richard a queen this year, and she marched alongside Chief Montana during the parade. “That’s a really huge honor, because usually you have to be a part of the tribe for a long time,” she says. “You need to pay your dues, you’ve got to sew a lot and know your garb, and then the king will appoint you as queen as you do your work.”
To her credit, Richard put in the work. Teaching herself how to sew after years on the road with her former group Danity Kane, she only had a week to create a look for the parade with her stylist, Joey Thao. Each year the chief chooses a theme that the members of the tribe interpret with their garb, and this year it was Black Panther. Richard made the superhero symbol the focal point of her purple apron, wrapping it around a custom Gucci mesh bodysuit.
Richard and Thao also hand-beaded the entire outfit which she topped off with Chief Montana’s headdress, made from faux feathers to honor Richard’s veganism. “After chief chooses a theme and a color, everyone goes to work. It takes a year, a year and a half sometimes, to sew and create the piece that they want to step out with,” Richard says, noting that some people who participate even use dental floss when they can’t afford thread. “It’s only for those few moments. It’s no different than a fashion house getting ready for Fashion Week. That’s why I always felt like New Orleans had the best couture because they would do all of this for this one moment, and the street was their runway. It’s an opportunity to see pieces that you’ve never seen—they were so illustrious and so grandiose and avant-garde—and it was in the middle of the hood.”
Richard captured the beaded, intricate fashions in all their glory alongside more candid moments from the parade (Solange even came along for the ride). “We didn’t want to give you floats and the cliché idea of Mardi Gras, which is fine. We wanted to give you the local’s eye and what it is for us, for people who are born and raised here, not a viewer,” Richard says. “The floats are secondary. It’s really about the family. It’s an opportunity to walk the streets and literally see everybody you’ve ever known for six generations back, because that’s what’s going to happen when you walk down the street. People outside just having a good time.”