The Art of Santa Fe Style

Date January 14, 2008 at 11:00 PM

Publication SantaFe.com

Categories Art Markets & Galleries

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The Museum of Indian Arts & Culture has a fascinating new exhibit, Native Couture: A History of Santa Fe Style (through June 7, 2009). The exhibit chronicles changes in taste and fashion from the 1880s through to the present in Native American jewelry, and from 1968 to the 1990s in clothing. Not only a dazzling collection, it celebrates the ingenuity and inspiration that's transformed traditional dress and design over time into contemporary urban chic, while still keeping elements that are timeless.

The core of the exhibit is the Dicky Pfaelzer Jewelry Collection, donated to the museum by her children in 2005. The legendary Pfaelzer was renowned for her no-holds-barred Southwestern-style flair and magnificent jewelry. She embodied the originality at the heart of authentic Santa Fe style. As Helene Singer Merrin, a donor to Native Couture, explained it, "Santa Fe style, for me, is the exuberant self-expression of the individual"€¦. We Santa Feans make ourselves a moving canvas."€

Native Couture also asks the question, "Is it fashion or function?"€ Take, for example, the old Navajo leather and silver ketoh, or bowguard. Once worn to protect the wrist while hunting with bow and arrows, it's evolved into a superbly crafted adornment that's outlasted its original use but is just as elegant and pleasing. As exhibit curator Anita NcNeece pointed out, an essential element of true Santa Fe style is the handmade quality. The ingenuity and workmanship of artisan-crafted clothing and jewelry hold the real appeal.

Native American imagery turns up morphed into modern street wear and leather goods, such as in the work of Virgil Ortiz. A famous Cochiti potter whose clay figures are coveted by collectors, Ortiz attracted the attention of Donna Karan, who invited him to incorporate his bold graphic designs into a clothing line. Ortiz has since launched his own label designing hip, outlaw-flavored jackets and dresses, jeans, tee-shirts and handbags.

Santa Fe style, while celebrating local culture, has had phenomenal influence in the fashion world. Back in the day Ralph Lauren created a hybrid western frontier version of it, mixing Native American jewelry and rug designs, Hispanic influences like hand-tooled leather, and prairie calico prints. Native American imagery turns up in contemporary interpretations, such as in the work of Virgil Ortiz.

So do locals feel they flaunt a distinctly Santa Fe style? After all, in real life, a sterling concha belt is a big-time investment and easier to borrow from a friend to wear when there's company in town; car doors tend to rip off leather jacket fringe; and a velvet broomstick skirt is almost never seen. Inquiring minds hit the street to wrangle a few answers.

"Eclectic"€ was the most popular description. "It's casual and relaxed,"€ said a woman in black on the plaza. "There's no standard, really. People wear whatever they feel expresses their own values."€ Claudia Garcia, a manager at Origins, a popular long-time Santa Fe destination for multi-cultural, unique clothing and accessories, pointed out that the presence of so many artists living and working around Santa Fe encourages people to create their own personal style. "People here don't dress so much for the latest fashion; they put thought into what they wear. There's a big diversity."€

Not everyone likes the current state of style in Santa Fe. Pink Coyote owner Patty Kempe, who's been dressing Santa Feans for years, thinks so many people are traveling that the preference for wearing regionally inspired fashion has mostly faded, at least on a daily basis. The exceptions are a passion for jewelry and "a casual look with a little edginess to it in more dress clothes,"€ Kempe said.

Still, a native Santa Fean commented on how, when she visits other parts of the country, she notices that she attracts attention. "I think people in Santa Fe enjoy mixing it up. It's the heritage here."€

As Native Couture observed in its exhibit notes, Santa Fe style really "represents a state of mind held by those who live in this town."€ Rather than a particular kind of skirt or type of necklace, it's more about a love of adornment and artistry. Wacky or austere, ornate or post-modern minimalist, that's what makes Santa Fe style.

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