In October 2016, Native American fashion designer Loren Aragon left his engineering career and made his runway debut at Phoenix Fashion Week. This year, after making fashion his full-time job, the Arizona resident will return to the runway with a new collection — and hopes to claim the title of Designer of the Year.
We spoke with Aragon and asked him about his latest collection, what inspires his brand and how he became a fashion designer. You can see more photos of his designs at the bottom of this story. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Tell us about yourself and your fashion brand.
I’m Loren Aragon, I’m originally from the Acoma Pueblo of New Mexico, and I’m a Native American fashion designer. I started living in Arizona in 1998 and graduated from Arizona State University in 2004.
My brand is ACONAV; we’re a couture fashion brand based out of Phoenix, specializing in women’s couture evening wear. We’re trying to express the idea of evoking the empowerment of the female spirit through fashion, and also representing Native fashion and Native America respectfully through fashion – mainly the Acoma Pueblo, which is mostly known for pottery art culture, you’ll see that a lot of my designs are representative of that and where I’m from.
When did you become a fashion designer?
I got into fashion about four years ago. Before that, I finished a degree in mechanical engineering from Arizona State. I worked around the Valley in different occupations as an engineer for about 13 years, and then, for about 11 of those 13 years, I got back into the arts. I started to explore different avenues of art. I love to draw and always had some connection to art, either traditional or contemporary.
Back in 2012, I was awarded a fellowship that allowed me to research my own textiles in New Mexico. I really wanted to give identity to Native fashion. A lot of prints weren’t satisfying as far as them being recognizable to one particular tribe, and I really wanted to represent our pottery culture in a more wearable art form, so with the help of that fellowship, I was able to develop my own textiles. I used those in my first small capsule collection, and people loved what they saw. From then on, I progressed my fashion designs. The only education I’ve gotten in sewing was from my mother and my aunt, who were seamstresses most of their lives.
When did you realize you wanted to transition from a career in engineering to a career in fashion?
I think it was just landing upon something unique that people really loved. I did illustration; I got into jewelry and sculpture and fine arts. People love those things, but they aren’t really moving, and I just felt like I wanted to do more. Going down the path of the fashion side of things sparked the passion for everything I like doing as an artist, and fashion is sort of a hub for everything. I love to draw, there’s a part of engineering that goes into it, there’s sculptural elements, and it's hands-on. To me, fashion carries everything, and the fact that people love what they see and what I do is just so encouraging and inspiring.
It was a scary decision to make at first, but I was really confident in what I had in my designs. It was tough because I was going between being an engineer and a fashion designer, back and forth, which was just so demanding.
Fortunately, my supervisor at my last job was really supportive of my decision, and he told me I should go for it. He was a great mentor of mine in making that decision, and he continues to be there to support me.
How did ACONAV get its start? What is the brand inspired by, and where does the name come from?
ACONAV started out as a greeting-card company. Me being an illustrator throughout high school and college, I had a small greeting-card company and it didn’t have a name yet; it was just to make money on the side to get me through school. When I met my wife, she discovered my drawing talents and we combined our artistic skills, and we started coming up with more unique cards. She was heavily into scrapbooking, and she wanted to make my cards a little more ornate.
At that time, we came up with the name ACONAV, because I’m Acoma Pueblo and she’s Navajo, so we combined those two cultural names. We both play a lot of roles. My wife is the operations manager — she has a background in business. She helps me with a lot of the sewing as well, and we also include my mother, who is our master seamstress.
We believe in a lot of the same things, and the main part of it being matrilineal culture. We heavily believe in our matriarchs, our mothers. We hold women in high regard, and we wanted to capture that and present it in fashion. Women’s fashion was the answer to that — taking a lot of those matrilineal ideas about empowering the female spirit. In our culture, we look up to them because they are givers of life, they’re nurturers, they’re teachers. We want women to feel empowered when they wear our designs.
Our other biggest influence is our pottery culture. It’s a real recognizable art here in the Southwest, and really world-renowned, it’s a heavily collected item, our pottery art. When I talk to collectors, they say in a lot these designs, they’re timeless and so elegant. And that’s in our brand message, cultural design embodied in timeless elegance. It’s basically taking a snapshot of our culture and embodying that in a wearable art form, and displaying it as a timeless piece that can be worn time and time again while looking elegant.
What was your experience like last year at Phoenix Fashion Week?
Last year was my first year actually applying. I observed Phoenix Fashion Week in 2014 and was really inspired and thought I’d really love to show my collection on that stage one day. In doing the research, I started to discover what was all involved and didn’t feel I was ready. But I met with Brian Hill, the director, on several occasions in meet-and-greets, and he encouraged me to apply.
In May we got the news we were in the 2016 lineup. I was still employed as an engineer at the time, and I had to make the decision to drop my engineering career and pursue this full time to make this work for us.
I’m really glad I did it; it was a great experience. What I really loved was that they helped us develop our brand and figure out who we really are. To be one of two designers that were Native American for the first time in Phoenix Fashion Week last year was awesome. That’s also part of our mission – to bring more awareness and exposure to Native fashion and be more representative of ourselves, rather than be represented by non-Native designers — because we’re still living, we’re still here and we still have a voice.
I came close to winning Designer of the Year last year. We came in second, according to the points system. This year they extended an invitation for us to come back, and for them to continue to believe in my brand is awesome, so I decided to try again.
What can we expect to see in your latest collection?
It’ll be my Spring/Summer 2018 collection. This year’s collection is still very heavily influenced by the pottery art. I’ve spent two months in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the Ron and Susan Dubin Native American Artists Fellowship at the School for Advanced Research. They have an Indian arts research center that has a collection of our pottery, and I’ve been observing a lot of the textures. I want to bring a lot of that into my designs this year.
I also want to concentrate on combining my skills in jewelry making and fashion. I’m going to bring more of my metalwork and ornate embellishments to the designs, giving everything a more three-dimensional look. It’s a little darker, but there’s more color added to the designs.
It’s also going to tell the story of emergence. In our culture, we believe we are a product of the Earth. We emerged from the Earth much like plants — that’s part of our origin story. I’m really inspired by that this year and telling little parts of that story through fashion. The idea of the emerging spirit is also tied into me being an emerging designer.
— Emily Balli