Orlando Dugi takes stars invoked in tribal ceremonies and sprinkles them on shimmering silks in the guise of beads and sequins that wink in pinpoints of light.
The sparkle accentuates movement and body awareness as women garbed in the designs stride down a runway.
Locals and visitors will be able to see it for themselves when the Santa Fe-based Navajo fashion designer’s creations are among those featured in runway events and competitions Saturday and Sunday at the Santa Fe Indian Market.
Those are among many events that will be featured through the weekend as tens of thousands of people descend on the city for the annual Indian Market. (See swaia.org/events for a full schedule.)
It’s been quite a rapid rise for Dugi, who said he only committed to fashion design full time about three years ago. That’s when the first dress he ever designed, sewed and entered in the market’s clothing contest won a first prize.
“I realized how much I enjoyed it,” Dugi said, taking a break from beading fabric in his studio in The Lofts of Cerrillos Road. “So I decided to go for it.”
The dress that won, “In Full Bloom,” featured a long black silk skirt with a flash of orange lining and a fully beaded bodice that took a sinuous track down one’s front, barely skimming the tip of the breasts. That skimpiness stirred controversy, Dugi said, with some contending that the design exploits women.
“I got a mixed reaction to that,” he said, saying some loved it and some hated it. But getting strong reactions on either side is better than getting no reaction at all, he added.
In the years since then, he’s been winning more prizes and getting invitations to fashion shows around the world. Not that he’s been able to take part in many of them. Entry fees can hit $16,000-$20,000, Dugi said.
But he has been able to accept invitations to some, including the Plitzs New York City Fashion Week and the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in Oklahoma City.
Originally from Gray Mountain, Ariz., Dugi grew up in Flagstaff.
He spent his first 10 years after high school graduation traveling around the country, dancing in powwows. He met his partner Ken Williams (Arapaho/Seneca) – also a beadworker – on the road, Dugi said, then started taking part in art markets five or six years ago, where he sold mainly beaded handbags.
Then he started making jewelry “for fun” and quickly won awards in that category. But five years ago, when he entered his first Santa Fe Indian Market, the Native American clothing contest captured his attention and he decided to make something for the following year’s competition.
High-fashion evening wear for women has been his focus ever since. He works only in silk, Dugi said, and beading is a major element in his designs.
“I’ve always been beading since I was 6 years old,” Dugi said. He used a single-bead stitch then, he said, gradually moving on to more intricate techniques, generally using the beads to decorate Native American paraphernalia.
His family has been active in the arts, with his mom working with beads, his grandmothers weaving rugs and his father doing silverwork.
But, along with his beading, Dugi said, he always has had an interest in high fashion.
Stars and their link to Native traditions come into his designs, he said, noting that stars have significance across cultures, offering an avenue to link across the world. In his own culture, people rise early to greet the sunrise, at a time when stars still can be seen, he said.
“This is my interpretation of giving me direction,” Dugi said of the stars’ sparkle translating into his designs.
Noting how Native Americans “dress for the holy people” in their ceremonial clothing, Dugi said he wears a shirt and tie to carry that over in his everyday life.
“That’s the way I see the world,” he said. “There should be beauty all the time, no matter what you do.”
A little more than a week before the start of Indian Market, Dugi and his helpers were still hard at work on garments for the runway show.
At first glance, it was hard to imagine how a large rectangle of silk stretched taut on a frame, with separated patterns of swirling Czech beads and sequins, would turn into a dress.
But tearing down a sketch of a dress from his wall, Dugi traced lines with his finger where the fabric would be cut, with beading in place, and then sewn together to make different portions of the final garment.
He said he expected to show about eight designs, two newly made from his Jewel Collection and six from his earlier Timeless Collection. The Jewel Collection features sharp, geometric lines inspired by the facets of different cuts of jewels, such as sapphires and rubies, he said.
“My next collection will be super-elaborate with a lot of beading,” with the silk hand-dyed with cochineal dyes, Dugi said, adding that he hasn’t named it yet. But images pasted on his wall for inspiration include a geisha with an elaborate headdress and Cleopatra.
“It’s my interpretation of pre-contact culture here in North America. It mirrors the European monarchies,” Dugi said. His version envisions a female-dominated society in which men are more submissive or even akin to slaves.
But both will be dressed in elaborate garments in this collection, which will include his first designs for men, he said.
Needless to say, due to the fine fabrics and beads used, combined with the many hours needed to hand-construct all aspects of the garment, his designs are “very expensive,” he said. Dugi estimates that he has sold only five pieces so far.
Yet he has grown from his tiny apartment bedroom to a 650-square-foot studio, which already is bursting at the seams. Dugi said he plans to continue concentrating on (almost) one-of-a-kind pieces, hand-sewing and -beading no more than three copies of any one design specifically for an individual customer.
At this point, he said, he has no interest in putting his designs out to production, with others producing a number of copies of his clothing.
And what this self-taught fashion designer does create is very personal.
“I don’t follow trends; I don’t watch the magazines or what others are wearing,” he said. “That just doesn’t interest me.”