Designers Put a Spin on Culture

Native flair mixes with contemporary styles

Date August 21, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Categories Local News & Sports


From punk-meets-the-pueblos to beadspeckled leather, this fashion show shatters boundaries.

With native couture often reduced in popular myth to Navajo ribbon shirts and broomstick skirts, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian€™s first wearable art show could dispel some misconceptions.

Slated for 10:30 a.m. today, the event will showcase designs by Patricia Michaels, Margaret Wood, Penny Singer, Pilar Agoyo and Dina One Heart Gilo slinking down the catwalk, before the museum€™s benefit auction.

All five designers are known for incorporating a distinctively native flair into their own contemporary silhouettes.

Pilar Agoyo (Ohkay Owingeh/Cochiti Pueblo/Santo Domingo Pueblo) never touched a sewing machine until she started school at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She took a class in textiles at the behest of her college advisor.

€œI ended up falling in love with it,€ she said. €œI was 18. I found out I had a natural talent for it.€

But when she graduated in fashion design in 1990, she could find no outlet for her work. She and bead artist Marcus Amerman and Patricia Michaels collaborated and buoy each other€™s spirits with their own shows, even modeling the clothing themselves.

€œWe€™d do our own hair and makeup ,€ she explained.

Agoyo built up a client base, eventually opening a gallery with native design superstar Virgil Ortiz and award-winning metalsmith Cody Sanderson in 2002. Thanks to her skills with a needle, she was also getting hired as a seamstress for movies from €œInto the West€ and €œWild Hogs€ to €œIndiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.€

Her current work incorporates some very nontraditional fabrics like vinyl with pottery designs cut and stitched in reverse appliqué. She€™s known for using everything from plastic to newspaper and raffia place mats in her work.

€œI actually made a dress one time out of Pokémon cards,€ she said.

€œIt€™s very much influenced by punk rock and club-like stuff,€ she continued. €œIt€™s always about your identity.€

Penny Singer (Diné) started out making traditional ribbon shirts and dance regalia for family members. Then she discovered appliqué.

€œIt€™s like drawing on fabric,€ she said. €œIt€™s given me the freedom to do what I want with fabric. I draw with a needle.€

Singer starts with lightweight wool flannel, then appliqués it in Navajo geometric patterns from traditional textiles, animal shapes or landscapes.

€œIt€™s like an open palette,€ she said, €œlike a canvas.€

€œThe new line I€™m coming up with is capes,€ she continued. €œIt€™s opened a whole different palette.€

Michaels melds an education at both the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Institute of American Indian Arts into avant-garde fashions that refuse to scream €œnative.€

Fittingly, the designer was born the same day her mother danced in a buckskin dress at the opening of her new gallery in downtown Santa Fe. Hailing from Taos Pueblo roots, Michaels went to Catholic school on Canyon Road, where contradictions glared. The textbooks called her people €œsavages.€ But the famous road€™s tony galleries showcased pricey paintings of her home pueblo. When she danced with family at local powwows, onlookers always wanted to buy their performance garments.

€œI thought it didn€™t make much sense for someone to wear a buckskin dress or a fancy shawl garment or a feathered bustle,€ she said. €œI wanted to address design in a modern style that wasn€™t so intrusive into our culture.€

Michaels participated in the first Santa Fe Indian Market fashion show in 1996, but left to pursue her vision unencumbered by either anthropology or Hollywood.

€œI moved on because patrons weren€™t ready to be so contemporary,€ she explained. €œThey wanted Santa Fe style.€

Michaels weaves her own fabrics from silk and felted wool. She texturizes leathers into grid-like or almost birch bark forms. Her latest work weaves wide strips of felted wool into bags; she also creates fluffy scarves from faux fur and feathers. She€™s recently started incorporating silk corn husks into bags.

€œIt€™s putting an organic feeling to who we are,€ she said. €œIt€™s like everything natives stood for in the first place that made us €˜savage,€™€ she added, giggling.

Next year, Michaels€™ line will be showcased at the same time and in the same city as cutting-edge designers like Michael Kors and Tom Ford. The American Indian College Fund recruited her to show at the 2009 Fashion Week show in New York€™s Bryant Park.