From L to R: Jessica Hoyungowa (Hopi/Navajo), Leah Kolakowski (Anishinaabe), Jaclyn Roessel (Navajo), Asia Yazzie (Navajo) and Sophia Arviso (Navajo) | Image source: www.oxdxclothing.com
Though Loren Aragon (Acoma Pueblo) and Jared Yazzie (Diné) create fashions on opposite ends of the spectrum—beautifully-designed couture and issue-oriented streetwear, respectively—both designers look to tell the stories of their people through wearable art.
Two up-and-coming Southwest designers are releasing highly anticipated new looks this fall.
Loren Aragon (Acoma Pueblo) will show his pottery-inspired couture fashions on runways during PLITZS New York City Fashion Week on Sept. 10 and at Phoenix Fashion Week Oct. 13-15. Jared Yazzie (Diné), known for creating streetwear that Indigenizes punk culture and doesn’t shy away from tough Native issues, will launch his 2016 fall lineup Sept. 17.
Aragon and Yazzie were led to fashion in roundabout ways, and while they both create awe-inspiring clothing concepts, the importance of their work goes beyond style. Indeed, as the popularity of their work grows, the two have stepped into the sometimes stressful but important role of ensuring Native peoples are respected and represented accurately in an industry that often reduces Indigenous cultures to monolithic, tribal-inspired trends.
Surrounded by tools of the trade, including fabrics, design sketches and inventory, both artists work out of their respective Arizona homes, where they shared their fashion genesis with Native Peoples magazine.
The bold, geometric strokes swirling across ACONAV gowns and dresses make them look like they belong in an art gallery next to priceless Acoma pottery.
Though it may seem Aragon has been creating women’s fashions for decades, the 36-year-old picked up his first needle just four years ago; he had worked as a mechanical engineer doing things like automotive testing and military applications for 13 years.
“It was more of a wanting to reconnect with family, because I’ve seen my mother and aunts being seamstresses for most of their lives, so I thought I’d go back and learn some of that,” says Aragon, who has always had a talent for making Acoma-style crafts, including museum-quality gourd work, jewelry and pottery.
The shift to fashion came in 2012 after Aragon was awarded the Goodman Fellowship from the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe.
“There’s a lot of reverse engineering happening in just observing other people’s [fashion] work,” Aragon says. “I think fashion came pretty easy for me, because being an engineer means being creative, innovative and working to get around obstacles. The same applications are at play with fashion, except instead of square angles, you’re working with more organic curvatures.”
From there he began working with a textile printing company in San Francisco to create his own fabric designs. His first bolts of fabric came in 2013.
“Before that, the material I had to work with was ‘Native-inspired’ or ‘Southwest-inspired’ and not connected with any specific tribe or even made by a Native designer,” Aragon says. “So I thought I’d spruce up traditional attire a little bit by bringing Acoma Pueblo pottery designs to the forefront.”
Enter ACONAV: Cultural designs embodied in timeless elegance. The name and tagline honor Aragon’s Acoma Pueblo roots, as well as those of his wife and business partner Valentina Aragon (Navajo).
“ACONAV is worn by women who want to be empowered—I want my designs to evoke empowerment,” says Aragon, who adds many Puebloan cultures were/are matrilineal and acknowledge “women are more powerful.”
Now, with five collections under his belt, the industry is taking notice. Last fall, ACONAV was invited to show at PLITZS New York City Fashion Week; he’ll show there again this year.
PHOTO ACONAV will show its spring/summer 2017 collection at Phoenix Fashion Week (PFW) in October. Aragon and another designer, Marisa Mike (Navajo), are the first Native Americans to participate in the eight-year history of PFW’s Emerging Designer Bootcamp, a four-month program to help designers from across the globe establish their brands. ACONAV is in the running against about a dozen designers to win Designer of the Year, an honor that includes a prize package worth about $10,000 to help launch the winner’s brand.
“I have bigger challenges for myself; I definitely want to do more with haute couture and have plans to show those designs in the future,” Aragon says as he lays out gallery-worthy sketches on his work table. “Those plans are on paper now and I’m just trying to figure out how they’ll be made and constructed.”
In everything he creates, Aragon strives for originality.
“To me, if I want to stay ‘artsy’ with fashion, dresses are key, because there’s so much that can happen, creatively, with those pieces,” Aragon says as he sorts through a selection of past creations hanging on a rack next to various sizes of female dress forms in his home’s front entryway. “Dresses are a puzzle and I enjoy putting them together and making them fit in interesting ways.”
Find out more about ACONAV:
First of all: It’s pronounced “Oh-Ex-Dee-Ex.” Not “Ox Docks.”
OXDX stands for OverDose and pays homage to one of Jared Yazzie’s favorite punk rock bands, MxPx, which stands for Magnified Plaid. OXDX describes “how we view the world and how we need to pull back and remember our culture and traditions,” Yazzie says of his 7-year-old company, which officially launched as he gave away T-shirts to friends at his own birthday party.
Like the punk music he listens to as he works, what Yazzie does to create his T-shirts is nothing short of masterfully rebellious art. His design skill includes all the things you’d expect of a top-notch graphic artist, in addition to expert understanding of pop culture and its impact on Native identity and tribal issues.
For example: When hipster retailers like Urban Outfitters argue words like “Navajo” legally mean nothing more than trendy styles or design motifs suitable for items like underwear or flasks—and not the tribe of an estimated 300,000 enrolled members—Yazzie’s creations fight back with in-your-face imagery and statements, like “Don’t Trend On Me.”
“People are experts at telling their own stories, and these days everyone’s story is so different,” says Yazzie, adding that Natives need to be able to tell their own stories, whether through films, books or fashion, without outsiders trying to appropriate, steal or otherwise misrepresent hundreds of unique tribal cultures.
Yazzie’s big break came in 2011 when Dr. Jessica R. Metcalf (Turtle Mountain Chippewa) asked Yazzie to sell OXDX items on her then–newly launched online boutique, Beyond Buckskin.
“I was thinking I’d sell maybe 20 shirts, but we sold over 100 that first weekend and the next weekend we sold another hundred,” Yazzie says. “That was a big door that opened for us.”
Part of Yazzie’s appeal is his ability to share the OXDX story in ways that captivate many of the younger demographics wearing his designs; though T-shirts are the big seller, Yazzie also designs dresses, scarves and leggings, among other items. The 27-year-old is an avid user of social media sites like Snapchat and Instagram and keeps his audiences in tune with his company’s adventures with down-to-earth approachability.
It’s been a banner year for Yazzie, and he’s had a lot to share: Several of his designs are included in the ongoing Native Fashion Now traveling exhibit, which was organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., and will be on display at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Okla., from Oct. 2 through Jan. 8. That led to a collaboration with A Tribe Called Red (see story page XX) to design art for the first single released from their latest album. He was also commissioned to design the logo for Indigenous Peoples Day Arizona, a campaign to replace Columbus Day.
“We’re in an age of collaboration,” Yazzie says. “And that’s been awesome.”
The fall release event features about a dozen designs to match the collection theme, Save What We Have Left. Yazzie plans to showcase several new looks, as well as popular throwback designs from past collections.
“I didn’t have to come up with a theme. I just wanted one,” Yazzie explains. “It was important to me because of the designs I’m using, including designs about saving our lands from things like coal mining. One of my designs is called ‘Dehumanizing’ and it’s about saving our images from being misused for things like sports mascots.”
For Yazzie, accurate representation of Native people, by Native people, is a concern because of how often stereotypical images of Native people are used to sell everything from sports tickets to butter without any thought to how that imagery might affect actual Native people.
“Some people think an issue like that isn’t important, but it is,” Yazzie insists. “It’s a base-root problem. How we’re identified and represented is a huge issue.”
Find out more about OXDX:
Instagram & Snapchat: @oxdxclothing