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In The Spotlight

Santa Fe | The New Mexican
By Ungelbah Dávila | Writer, Photographer, Videographer
August | 2013

Some would argue that fashion is as integral to culture as language and art, with humans using clothing to identify themselves and their kin since the beginning of recorded time. The couture of artists Virgil Ortiz and Orlando Dugi supports that theory: Through their collections, contemporary Native-designed fashion is making an international name for itself and demonstrating that American Indians are fashion-forward and cutting-edge in their creation of the new Native silhouette.

Virgil Ortiz: Retelling the Pueblo Revolt

Imagine the year 1680, spiraled somewhere into the year 2180, where Po’Pay and all the heroes of the Pueblo Revolt are more like futuristic superheroes: They have daring hair styles, secret powers and are clad in the original fashions of Virgil Ortiz, supernova Cochiti potter, artist and designer.

“My mission is to first of all keep the tradition of pottery making alive, because it is a dying art in Cochiti, and at the same time tell the whole world the story of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, the first American revolution,” Ortiz said. “Because none of that is told in history classes, America doesn’t really know about it at all, but when I work in places like Amsterdam or Paris or Prague, they already know the story of 1680.” He developed the superhero theme, he said, to interest Native children, give them something to look up to and use as an educational tool.

Ortiz, who was raised in a family of notable potters, grew up with his hands molding clay, having no idea he was making “art.” However, it is this clay that has spawned all of Ortiz’s many talents.

“Clay is the core of all my creations,” he said. “Water feeds the clay; the sun feeds the wild spinach plant. Fire awakens the wild spinach plant, binding it to the hardening clay. The wind unfurls the cloth, inspiring my fashions. My work gives voice to these elements.”

In junior high school, Ortiz, now 44, began experimenting with making his own clothes because the fashions he was attracted to were outside his means. He began the hard way, teaching himself to master leather, vinyl and latex before switching to easier cotton cloths. Leather remains his favorite fabric and it makes a bold appearance in his newest line, Leather Luxe, which debuted at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles in June.

Leather Luxe is a high-fashion sportswear line for men and women that includes jackets, tops, shirts, skirts and pants. Ortiz said the decorative motifs on the clothes are indicative of the designs and imagery on his pottery, and that the “style and visual impact” of the garments is inspired by his story of the Venutian Soldiers — last year’s photographic, sculpture, pottery and design project that offered a new take on an important event in the Pueblo Revolution.

In the epitome of lucky breaks, Ortiz received what he thought was a prank call from a jokester pretending to be women’s clothing designer Donna Karan, during Indian Market of 2002. But later in the day Karan, with an entourage of assistants, breezed into Ortiz’s Plaza boutique, Heat. She showed him her 2003 collection and told him she wanted to incorporate Pueblo pottery designs in her garments. A short time later Ortiz was on a flight to New York City where he was mentored by the fashion mogul herself. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Ortiz’s design career is now in full swing. Anyone with an ear and an eye for rock ‘n’ roll should be sure to catch Lynyrd Skynrd’s Last of a Dyin’ Breed tour — the band might just be rockin’ the Leather Luxe look.

All the media he works in influence each other, Ortiz said, and he has become known not only for creating a connection between clay and fashion, but also for breaking into the fashion industry at large through his labels Indigene and Made in Native America.