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Navajo story inspires designer

Model Cortney Davis wears a silk gown by Orlando Dugi. (Courtesy of Almanza Photography)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Orlando Dugi conjures the night sky in shimmering silk sparkling with beadwork.

The first dress the Diné designer entered into the Santa Fe Indian Market took first place in about 2009.

This year organizers crowned him featured designer in the annual event’s virtual market opening Saturday, Aug. 1, at swaia.org. Slated for the third weekend in August, the traditional market was canceled due to the

Model Mona Bear (Menominee) wears ensembles by Orlando Dugi. Courtesy of Kitty Leaken

pandemic. Many of the artists earn up to 50% of their income from the Santa Fe event.

Today online sales drive the bulk of Dugi’s income; the online market marks the first time he has shown his work at Santa Fe in four years.

Dugi was born in Grey Mountain, Arizona, about 40 miles north of Flagstaff. He often spent summers on his paternal grandparents’ sheep ranch. It was too hot to sleep inside, so the family often dragged mattresses outside and slept beneath the velvet night sky with its glimmering stars.

“They used to point out the stars and the constellations and we’d sing the (Diné) songs,” he said.

Dugi learned beadwork from his parents when he was 5 years old. The family embellished hair pieces and fans for use in the Native American Church. He remembers seeing fashion magazines, but he never studied them. He started beading bags and clutches in floral and animal designs for sale.

Model Mona Bear (Menominee) wears an ensemble by Orlando Dugi. Courtesy of Kitty Leaken

“It was sort of like coloring with beads,” he said.

Some of his glass seed beads are as fine as a grain of sugar.

“I really don’t like to follow fashion,” he explained. “I don’t follow trends. I do everything myself.”

Dugi never thought about making garments until he heard the Santa Fe Indian Market had added a contemporary category to its annual clothing competition.

“All of my grandparents made their own clothes,” he said. “So I knew how to sew. I sketched it out and got a dress form and started draping.”

He stitched the results, “In Full Bloom,” from silk chiffon and satin with beaded florals.

He works exclusively in silk.

Model Sam Maxwell in a gown by Orlando Dugi.

“I love the feel of silk,” he said. “It’s luxurious. I love the sheen it gives.”

Next he created “three or four pieces” for a fashion show at what is now the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts with the family of jewelry artist Connie Tsosie Gaussoin (Navajo/Picuris/French). It proved an inspirational turning point.

“I hand-stitched everything,” he said. “I wasn’t using a sewing machine. I loved the way the model carried herself; she just stood taller.”

He accepted invitations to the Plitzs New York City Fashion Week and the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in Oklahoma City.

The designer hopes to create 10 garments for the virtual market, all reflecting the Navajo story of the Hero Twins. The progeny of the sun and Changing Woman, they are known as the Monster Slayer and Born for Water. The sun gave them flint tools to kill monsters.

“Today’s monsters are a disease,” Dugi said.

The designer will embellish a silk black gown using a golden arrow motif. A grid pattern in beading and embroidery will represent the twins’ flint armor.

Models wearing designs by Diné designer Orlando Dugi. Courtesy of A.J. Goldman

The pandemic’s descent prevented Dugi from ordering the silk fabric he wanted, so he turned to improvisation.

“It freed me to think about making a collection,” he said. “I have boxes and boxes of fabric scraps that I’m going to use to make garments.”

Designer Orlando Dugi poses with one of his designs. Courtesy of Jason Ordaz

The as-yet-unnamed collection “will have all these elements in them about fighting a pandemic,” he said. “They’re not super-literal; I think the only literal translation will be the arrows.”

He’s sprinkling each with crystals, sequins and gold metal thread. Some will bloom with ostrich plumes.

“In Native American cultures, we use a lot of feathers in prayers,” Dugi said.

So far, he has completed three pieces. One features arms wrapped around the body in protection.

“A lot of the garments are close to the body,” he said. “I wanted to keep them very fitted. I wanted to keep it clean, like you have to wash your hands. All that extra fabric catches germs.”

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