In Grey Mountain, Arizona, where Navajo beadworker and fashion designer Orlando Dugi found his first love — fashion — at age 4, the night sky is like a silver-studded swatch of black velvet draped from one end of the earth to the other.
In a recent interview, Dugi recalled gazing at this baroque panorama during all-night ceremonies and waking to see shadowy figures surrounding him, the firelight dancing off their silver jewelry, making them sparkle in the moonlight. It was here, in the lavish Navajo skirts and blouses and opulent jewelry, that Dugi developed a fascination with the textures of cloth, the drape of a silhouette and the experience of adornment.
Five years ago that childhood fascination became a driving force, propelling Dugi into the world of high fashion, fueled by the imagery of his youth. “A lot of it stems from starlight and Navajo star songs and prayers,” Dugi said. “Everything was done at night, in front of the stars.”
Though Dugi’s work does not have a traditional Navajo feel to it, these celestial influences can be seen in subject matter or the color choices of the beadwork on many of his handbags. “I didn’t want to do traditional-looking objects, taking from Navajo deities or anything,” he said. “That wasn’t my interest when I started. So I took my interest in fashion and my attention to detail and I started a [beaded] piece of a phoenix flying through the universe.” The result was the award-winning Celestial Phoenix evening box purse Dugi created with Rebecca T. Begay (Diné).
At age 5, Dugi began learning beadwork from his grandmother, an art form that he has since mastered and uses to embellish in his silk gowns, clutches and handbags — all of which he constructs himself, using silverwork to create custom clasps and even hand stitching entire silk gowns. While Navajo culture can’t help but influence Dugi’s designs, he said he is more interested in being recognized for the quality of his work than for being Native American.
“Being a designer doesn’t always mean having to reinvent a look,” Dugi said, referring to a traditional Cherokee feather cape that he has embellished and altered for his first collection, Desert Heat. “I bring it from that traditional form to this, which can be worn in fashion.”
Desert Heat features a line of silk gowns in a fiery array of tangerine and crimson, accented with smoky blacks and greys. Each piece is embellished with masterful beadwork, such as a hand-sewn red silk chiffon and charmeuse gown with a floral bodice, hand-beaded with 24-karat gold electroplated glass beads and Swarovski crystals.
While other couture designers might travel the world gathering ideas, Dugi feels that — at least for now — there are enough cultures in the United States where he can find inspiration without needing to leave the continent.
Find Orlando Dugi (orlandodugi.com) at Indian Market booth 237 PAL-S.