Ruben Hernandez

Native American ideas infuses designer’s fashions

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Arista La Russo: “With the fast-changing lifestyles, with the transitions of living off the reservation, Native Americans are all changing, and with that you are going to see clothing change also. I’m a part of that change.”

Arista La Russo’s personal vision of her fashion designs encompasses seeing herself and her vibrantly creative products as a “bridge” between evolving cultures.

“Culture is never static,” she says from amid finished custom coats, dresses and vests. Still-to-be stitched bolts of sunset-hued fabrics fill her boutique in Phoenix’s Coronado District.

“With the fast-changing lifestyles, with the transitions of living off the reservation, Native Americans are all changing, and with that you are going to see clothing change also. I’m a part of that change.”

La Russo herself is the product of an interaction between cultures (La Russo is her married name). Her main clan is the Mexican People Clan. Her three other Navajo, or Diné, clans are the Deer Springs Clan, the Many Goats Clan, and the Towering House Clan.

Her main Diné clan origin runs to the south, toward Mexico and converging from a mestizo people. “The version I hear is that maybe my ancestors integrated with a family from down south,” she says.

The fashion world groups the work of Native American designers like La Russo into three categories:

Traditional Native American Clothing (both functional clothes and ceremonial regalia),

Contemporary Native American Clothing (modern clothes like tee-shirts made with native designs), and

Native American Designer Clothes (contemporary clothing styles designed as wearable art and priced accordingly).

La Russo calls her work contemporary Native American. Her designs range from $100 to $2,000.

“What I like to do is develop a concept that is both functional and classic, weaving in traditional beauty as well,” she says.

Her inspirations embrace the myths and spiritual beliefs of the Navajo and the cultural evolution of the American Southwest. For example, she uses angular figures that represent the sky or sacred mountains. Colors, too, may be culturally symbolic, with blue representing sky, the yellow representing day, white representing clouds and black representing night. She derives some designs from Diné rug weavings, a tribal craft dating back to the 1600s.

La Russo knew while living in a hogan at an early age she would be a fashion designer.  After high school she earned an associate of arts degree in marketing from Phoenix College, attended the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, then went on to receive a Bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

The designer operated a boutique called Deerwater Designs in downtown Flagstaff until 1992, but relocated to the Valley last year because “the Valley is such a major market in the Southwest,” with a population of millions, plus all the tourists who come to Arizona to experience the Native American culture, she says.

She is among an elite level of Native American fashion designers that include Margaret Woods of Phoenix, Anna Tavo from the Hopi region, and Patricia Michaels from Taos, N.M.

“The inherently innovative and culturally embracing nature of fashion parallels that of generations of Native peoples,” said fellow designer Patricia Michaels in a Native Peoples magazine feature. “It is, in part, this ability to adapt and move ever forward that enables indigenous cultures to survive.”

La Russo has come up with a unique concept she calls her “signature piece.” She incorporates a Pendleton wool blanket from shoulders to waist, with silver buttons, along with a traditional, three-tiered, velvet skirt. She also works in cotton, silk, leather and fur.

“You have to kind of become one with the fabric and develop a feel for how to work with it,” she says.

Even tribal traditionalists will give more leeway to veer from the older ways to artists such as La Russo.

“As an artist you find new ways or new looks or develop new concepts of fashion,” she says.

Yet, she adds, if you are Native American, the freedom to create carries with it great responsibility.

“Our elders always tell us to carry ourselves with modesty and respect, and to always remember who we are and where we came from.”

Arista La Russo Contemporary Native American Fashion
2307 N. 7th St., Phoenix
(602) 253-9601
By appointment only

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