Indigenous couture: Four Southwestern designers combine fashion and Native American heritage

by Nick Gonzales

Jolonzo Goldtooth graduated college straight into the Great Recession of 2007-2009, and his degree in behavioral psychology wasn’t getting him anywhere fast. So, like many a Millennial, he moved back to his family’s ranch, located about 30 minutes south of Farmington. As soon as his grandmother caught him lounging around, though, she put a some fabric in front of him and asked him to make her a dress.

Cut to March 2019: Goldtooth is at Paris Fashion Week, showing his work as part of an indigenous fashion show inside the Eiffel Tower itself. This September, he’ll be showing at the Fashion Week in Milan.

[image:10]Goldtooth’s business, JG Indie, is just one of several indigenous-owned fashion brands creating designs rooted in the cultures of the Southwest and presenting them to the wider world.

ACONAV — Acoma Pueblo and Navajo designLoren Aragon fell into fashion design by accident.

“I actually was an engineer for 13 years before becoming a fashion designer. I did mechanical engineering for a long time and had art in my background, but always did art on the side,” Aragon said.

After moving through several of the fine arts, including illustration, jewelry making, and sculpture, Aragon landed in fashion design. His mother and aunt were seamstresses for most of their lives, but despite growing up around it, he never thought about pursuing fashion design, though he felt a need to preserve his culture in some way.

“That was always my grandfather’s challenge to me: how to preserve our culture into modern things, modern ideas,” he said.

[image:2]After starting out making some traditional garments, Aragon created an entire collection in 2014 and attended Phoenix Fashion Week that same year. Two years later, the fashion festival named him Couture Designer of the Year. He quickly left engineering behind and took on fashion design full time.

His brand, ACONAV, was a product of his illustration days when Aragon collaborated with his wife, Valentina, to create hand-made greeting cards. The name itself is a joining of his tribe, Acoma Pueblo, with hers, Navajo.

Since entering the fashion business, however, Aragon said ACONAV has evolved into “a couture fashion brand that celebrates the strength and empowerment of women through positive ideas that are expressed in fashion and tie culture to modern style.”

Feminist ideals, he said, are built into his culture.

“Where I’m from, the Acoma Pueblo, we’re known mostly for our pottery art culture but beyond that, we really believe heavily in a matrilineal system. And it’s these female leadership ideas that we believe in that I instill into every garment that I make. … These positive ideas, these things that we believe in — the strength of women — are all ideas that are told through the designs that are placed into our garments, and I really just want everybody to feel that and to embrace that feeling of empowerment once the garment is worn,” he said.

[image:3]Visually speaking, Aragon’s designs combine the geometrical patterns of the Acoma Pueblo with his own contemporary and modern ideas.

“I like to say that my designs are timeless, just like our pottery,” he said. “It always seems to me that our pottery, no matter its age, is so modern with its geometries and shapes.”

Aragon’s most recent collection focuses on the rain cycle.

“We’re a culture that is really heavily dependent on rain and we believe in it, we pray for it, and there are a lot of things that we fear or respect from it. And I wanted to express that,” he said.

On a broader scale, the goal of ACONAV is to express Aragon’s ideas on a more generalized platform outside of Native communities to add to the cultural diversity, he said, and to combat cultural appropriation and misrepresentation by the rest of the industry.

“I feel we have a right to belong on the same stages and runways as Dior and Gucci and all these other high-end brands … we have every right to represent ourselves and honor our own people,” he said. “With a lot of what I do, I really try to educate people along the way as to why things might be wrong, or why you just can’t take an article that’s a part of a culture and use it.”

OXDX — streetwear fashionJared Yazzie found his passion for design while attending the University of Arizona.

“I was always interested in fashion and streetwear, and I didn’t really find any representation in any of those areas, so I felt that I had to create it myself. My fashion sense really came from a longing to feel represented in that area,” he said. “So I started creating stuff that I would like to wear, and a lot of people connected with it, and it just seemed like an easy transition.”

As soon as people began noticing his clothes, a business soon emerged in Yazzie’s dorm room.

“It started off as hand-painted and specialty one-off pieces … for my friends and stuff like that, and I asked if a few of them wanted to do pre-orders for my first shirt,” he said. “I had thirty people agree to pre-orders at thirty dollars apiece and that gave me nine hundred dollars to start up my company.”

[image:4]Yazzie was able to fulfill that first order and invest the profit into his next design. This cycle continued until he eventually had full lines in the fall of 2009, and from there, OXDX was born.

The company’s name pays tribute to Yazzie’s musical influences. It’s an abbreviation for “overdose,” borrowed from Lupe Fiasco’s spoken word poem “Baba said Cool for Thought,” which talks about being careful and not incorporating too much of a certain thing into your life because you don’t want to overdose on it. The abbreviation also tips its hat to MxPx, a Christian punk band Yazzie grew up listening to.

Yazzie said that his designs stem from two sources: his background with music and his Navajo heritage.

[image:5]For instance, one of his first designs, “Mis-Rep,” combines the Cleveland Indians logo with the Misfits’ skull logo.

“In general, I think punk rock and anarchism kind of fit with how native people should feel about the world, and I feel like our grandparents were punk rockers before it even existed,” he said. “They did it better and bigger than today’s anarchists because they actually defied the government and tried to live under their own rules.”

On another level, Yazzie finds inspiration in the setting in which he grew up. Patterns from Navajo weavings and pottery feature into his designs and bring traditional art into his creations.

[image:6]The designer, based in Tempe, Arizona, said a goal of his art is to increase awareness of indigenous issues and to show the beauty of Native culture, but OXDX can’t do that on its own.

“What makes OXDX a brand is the community involved with it, the people that bring it together and wear it are like-minded and have common ideas. People are what makes this brand strong, and that’s what will make any movement strong,” he said.

Orenda Tribe — sustainable fashion with a community purposeFor over 30 years, Amy Yeung designed for activewear companies such as Puma and Reebok, and other fast fashion brands where the clothes she made would wind up in landfills almost immediately. Then, in 2009, she realized that this was an inauthentic way to live as she taught her daughter, Lily, to be a sustainable human in the world.

[image:7]Yeung spent the next few years distancing herself from corporate work and creating her own brand, Orenda Tribe, which she now focuses on full-time. She describes it as “a small batch clothing brand for upcycled, reimagined vintage and artisan products.”

The brand allows her to practice what she preaches.

“I do everything off of goods that are already here on the earth, whether that’s surplus or vintage or ancestral cloth. But we take things that are already here, and then we make them relevant to the time by reimagining them, adding a new color and deconstructing them — all sorts of processes,” she said.

One of the main pieces Orenda Tribe is selling this year is upcycled flight suits. The suits from the 1970s and ’80s are stripped of color before a vivid rainbow of shades is introduced. Yeung said she likes working with old military garments because they are very functional and utilitarian, making them great base canvases to color and embellish.

“It’s been such a joy to produce these designs, since the women and the men that have bought them have just felt really empowered by wearing this suit,” she said. “My experience is anything you have that is soulfully made with passion and love and joy … there’s a different energy to it.”

[image:8]Around the same time she began her split from fast fashion, Yeung, who was adopted and raised in Indiana, rediscovered her indigenous heritage. She reconnected with her birth mother and started traveling to the Navajo Nation, finally moving to New Mexico in July of 2019. She said her journey brought “a huge amount of joy, but there’s also sorrow and trauma.”

As someone who reintegrated into the tribe later in life, Yeung is struck by the lack of basic resources on the reservation. “One-third of the reservation has no running water or electricity in 2020. And that’s just a shocking thing to say because this is the United States. My question to everyone is why? Why is it like this? Why has this not been fixed?”

At her atelier studio in Albuquerque, Yeung sells goods from other indigenous peoples alongside her own creations.

“We do tons with the artisan goods of Native Americans from my tribe, as well as those from other indigenous peoples around the world that we’ve met through our travels. So it’s sort of a mercantile of just really beautiful old textiles and simply-made clothes,” she said.

Yeung said her intention is not to grow the brand, but rather to grow the work it does. To that end, she has put her business background to good use by starting the non-profit K’é Foundation, which is dedicated to bettering the prospects of indigenous youth. She has been working with Navajo children for the last year, a goal that resonates with her ancestry — her grandfather had a church near Farmington and spent his life translating the Bible into Navajo and ministering to the area.

“For me, the future of my tribe is its children,” Yeung said while discussing the lack of funding and attention they receive. “It’s just a huge inequity to the way my child was brought up, and I just feel these kids deserve the same education and opportunities as public school kids.”

[image:9]In addition to establishing a children’s food bank at the Tohaali Community School, west of Newcomb, New Mexico, one of Yeung’s next big projects is building a “native skate garden” — a skate park surrounded by an ancestral garden — in the same area.

“It addresses a lack of resources for kids to stay busy after school. A skate park is something they can always do to be physically engaged and to work out their day on a skateboard. We want to bring together the community by surrounding the skate park with an ancestral garden so that parents, grandparents, and little kids can participate in this community space.” she said. “If we can get this one up and running, we’d like to roll this out to all the remote areas in the Farmington region.”

Yeung hopes that she can bring her understanding of how to build wealth, branding, and outreach not only to Orenda Tribe, but to the Navajo Nation as a whole.

As for Lily, that daughter that inspired Yeung to seek out a new path? She is now a model and can be seen wearing many Orenda Tribe styles on the brand’s website and Instagram page.

JG Indie — An independent mind for an independent brandThe name of Jolonzo Goldtooth’s brand refers to one of his core values: independence. He has adopted a mindset of making everything his own and growing as an artist without outside interference. His slogan is: “An independent mind for an independent brand.”

[image:11]Even if it wasn’t his primary interest growing up, Goldtooth’s upbringing fully prepared him for design. His grandmother and aunts were seamstresses and practiced traditional arts, including weaving their own textiles. He was particularly influenced by his great aunt, who lived in Durango and worked for colorful sportswear companies Bula and Bomber Gear. She was able to bring home material scraps the companies weren’t using — that’s how Goldtooth learned to value upcycling and to cast off any fear he might have had about using engaging colors, one of the hallmarks of his brand.

When his grandmother asked him to make her a dress instead of watching TV, Goldtooth caught the design bug. His grandmother enjoyed the dress he made and wore it to church as her Sunday best. Her friends complimented her and asked if they could place orders for jackets and other items. Soon, Goldtooth was addicted. He put his designs on social media and they were noticed by a New York Fashion Week runway show director. From there, Goldtooth’s career snowballed, and now he’s international, but he has chosen to stay in Farmington, New Mexico, to be near his family.

[image:12]“I feel like if I were to move to a huge metropolis, I’d kind of lose sight of my purpose, my vision. I’m a very humble person, and so my family definitely keeps me grounded,” he said.

Goldtooth also supports his community and brings his team with him when he travels. He includes local Native American models in his shows so they can get a taste of the larger fashion industry. This also gives him the chance to show the world that Native Americans are distinct and not extinct. In places like Australia and France, Goldtooth regularly hears from young people who think his people were moved to Oklahoma and subsequently wiped out. These misconceptions allow him to teach people of other cultures about Native Americans and to explain to members of the fashion industry why it’s inappropriate to have, say, dancers in Plains Indian headdresses.

[image:13]“I definitely like to be an advocate by telling people who I am, where I come from, about our culture and sharing with them our beauty and our artistry,” he said.

In addition to his Milan show this fall, Goldtooth will travel to Australia for a benefit show of Native American and Aboriginal designs to raise funds for people affected by the recent bushfires.


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