CANYON DE CHELLY, Ariz. – Despite being world-renowned for traditional designs, successful contemporary American Indian designers like Navajo veteran Patricia Michaels – who has studied and worked in Italy – have been too few.
Aside from the few Native designers spread here and there, Dwayne Clauschee said Natives coming together to showcase their talent “was just a figment of someone’s imagination. But now we’re breaking down barriers.”
Clauschee designs for Nizhoni Way Apparel out of Canyon de Chelly, Ariz. He’s been an influence and instrumental in pushing the success of fellow Navajo fashion designers.
“I was greeted with a lot of skepticism when I first started out,” Clauschee said about his early years as a designer in Los Angeles. “People kept telling me that I would have to be more like ‘this designer,’ or like ‘that designer,’ to make it in the field.”
Instead, Clauschee left California to change the fledgling American Indian market rather than have his designs become “another label in some Bel-Air heiress’ closet.”
Back on the Navajo Reservation, Clauschee encouraged other potential fashion designers to come out of the woodwork – like Michelle Silver, who started Dineh Couture. Silver and many other aspiring designers credit Clauschee for encouraging them.
Bonds develop quickly between the American Indian models, designers and photographers. They’re intertwined not only through heritage, but necessity to support the burgeoning businesses.
Navajo model Shan Baldwin has worked with Silverman. “I really enjoyed working with her designs. Every time I wear her clothes, I feel like a real woman. She puts so much behind each design. That’s what I like about Native designers – that there’s always a story behind each creation.”
“I try to give it a twist,” Silver said about her designs, which include handbags that are becoming popular. “I want it to be elegant, yet classy. I want something for everyone.”
Tionne and her husband, Ray Linder, started a fashion company two years ago called Glascy. They not only specialize in clothing design, but modeling and photography.
“We are happy, and love what we do,” Linder said about the mom and pop operation in Cornfields, Ariz. “Glascy is our baby. We both work together as a team.”
Depending on her target market, Tionne is flexible in her modern and urban designs. They created Glascy Models not only for the typically thin and tall models, but for people of more “realistic” proportions.
“Because I believe that all people are beautiful in their own unique way, whether it is through features or through their personality,” she said. Their models are drug and alcohol free, she notes.
“The Native American Market is pretty much up for grabs at this point, and anyone with the ‘mad skills’ can own it,” Clauschee said. “I’m trying to build a solid market to vie with the mainstream, and by promoting talented designers, I believe that’s possible.”
In his beginning years, Clauschee knew he had to work extra hard to make his mark, since there wasn’t a lot of Native designers in the industry. Confident in his abilities, he knew his ethic would eventually pay off. “I come from a family of hard workers, and I tend to work harder than most when it comes to design.”
His experience included working alongside plenty of fashion veterans, including for bigger fashion houses while he was in Hollywood as a dresser. He even primped the gown Tyra Banks wore at the 1998 Oscars.
“Working as a dresser really gave me first-hand knowledge of garment construction,” Clauschee said. “I really got to see the show backstage and how a ‘real’ fashion show is produced.”
He took that knowledge and helped local talents produce their own shows. Clauschee wants to make the annual Native Fashion Week in the spring a popular nationwide tribal event.
Clauschee, Linder and other designers feel people in their region are more than ready and willing to accept new fashion perspectives.
“Support in our area is very good. We’re starting to get more support the more people find out about us,” Linder said.
In the meantime, they eventually want to showcase their ideas to the world, yet hold onto their American Indian roots.
“The fashion industry outside of the reservation. ... they seek unique taste, and their criteria is based on your talent, not on nationality,” Linder explained.
Being a mentor to designers has inspired Clauschee to create a more daring, “polar opposite” of the Nizhoni Way Apparel – DKC*fx. Recently, he has been focusing more on his work and ventured north into Canada. Clauschee’s “Red Collection” is set to make its debut on World Aids Day Dec. 1.
“The look of the Navajo Maiden has made way for the more urban and more career orientated Diné Woman: strong, independent, self-reliant and smart. I feel that my designs speak to them because I don’t offer up to them one look or one role to portray. They are free to be who they feel they are.”
Clauschee doesn’t want to limit the creativity of designs to a mere stereotype of what a tourist thinks American Indian fashion should be.
“At the end of the day the design has to be something that will appeal across a broad range. My goal is not to just design for Native America, but for America as a whole, and then the world.”