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A-i-R Journal—Orlando Dugi

Apr 1, 2018

When I heard Diné fashion designer Orlando Dugi was going to be one of the artists-in-residence at IAIA for Spring 2018, I was excited to see his latest direction. I’ve known Orlando for a few years and have followed his work since I met him, and have had a chance to work with him on several occasions. Dugi captures people’s imaginations with his world of high-end, glittering glamour. His meticulous nature is apparent in so much of what he does. You can see it in his attention to his personal style—it’s rare to see him without a nice suit, just the right accessories, and hair slicked back into two precise, long braids. And it’s obvious in his work, which typically includes painstaking details such as elaborate beading, featherwork, appliqué, and hand stitching. In a relatively short span of time, he’s made quite a name for himself. He’s participated in a number of fashion shows in Santa Fe, Oklahoma, and New York. He’s been widely covered online and in print, and he has won numerous awards at Native art markets, such as Best of Classification in Diverse Art Forms at the 2016 Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market for a dress and handbag named She Holds the Stars, made in collaboration with Benjamin Harjo, Jr. and Dugi’s partner Ken Williams, Jr.; and Best of Show at the 2012 Cherokee Art Market for a double-sided beaded bag made in collaboration with Ken.

Additionally, Orlando Dugi’s work has appeared in several major exhibitions. The list includes the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian’s exhibition and catalog It’s in the Details: Kenneth Williams and Orlando Dugi (June 21, 2013–January 10, 2014); the Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College’s One Bead at a Time: The Artistry of Orlando Dugi and Ken Williams (June 21–December 17, 2014); the Peabody Essex Museum’s groundbreaking and widely covered traveling exhibition and catalog Native Fashion Now (November 21, 2015–September 4, 2017), of which Orlando’s designs prominently featured in the promotions; and the Museum of International Folk Art’s The Red That Colored The World (May 17, 2015–September 13, 2015), currently on tour through January 2019. A cochineal-dyed gown from Dugi’s Red Collection was included in the show, with a feature on Dugi and the collection in the exhibition catalog A Red Like No Other: How Cochineal Colored the World.

IAIA’s A-i-R program is Orlando’s very first residency. In his two months at IAIA, Dugi has been working in the new Performing Arts and Fitness Center, having transformed the Performing Arts Costume Shop into his design studio. “It’s funny, because I’m the first one in here, and it looks like I’ve been here for a while,” Orlando joked during our interview. He’s been focused on bringing several dresses from his Fall/Winter 2018 collection to life. Dugi had fifteen fashion illustrations on a wall adjacent to a work table—the women were long-limbed and minimally depicted, with a dash of a brush mark across each of their faces. The garments were intricately detailed, predominantly in rich tones of browns, tans, and golds, indicating beadwork appliqué, pleats, voluminous tufts of feathers, and architectural features. The space held Orlando’s tools of the trade, such as fabrics, faceted hanks of beads, and even ostrich feathers in tan, dark brown, and white. He’s intermittently been joined by his two fashion interns, Jontay Kahm and Jaycee Custer, one of whom is interning for credits. (Over the past few years, Orlando has mentored a number of individuals.) Throughout the residency, he and his interns were seen wearing a uniform of sorts—crisp, white lab coats, monogrammed with Orlando Dugi’s logo.

I stopped by to see Orlando after one of the open studios, and that evening he was busily working away on completing a gown in time for Ken Williams to take to the Heard. A few days later, awards were announced—Dugi’s The Eagle Huntress Gown, featuring elaborate pleats on the skirt, ostrich feathers on the shoulder, beading, and a golden appliquéd eagle on the bodice, won Best of Class in Personal Attire. Four dresses from the Fall/Winter collection, including The Eagle Huntress Gown, was shown in a fashion show at IAIA’s Academic Building, during the March 26 welcome reception for the next selection of artists-in-residence.

Besides delving into his own work, Orlando has been actively engaged with the IAIA community throughout the residency. He’s held workshops, talked to classes (including a fashion history class), engaged with campus tours, participated in an LGBTQ panel discussion during IAIA’s first Pride week as well as a round table discussion for a senior project event, and interacted with students, staff, and members of the public during his open studios. Letting people into his process through the open format has been a new experience for him. At the introductory A-i-R welcome talk, Dugi peeled back the layers of what goes into putting together a collection. While the end result is certainly glamorous, the process itself involves a substantial amount of time, work, and money. If you want to go into fashion, you have to put in the work.

Amidst the residency, Dugi has been taking classes himself—he will graduate this May with an associates in applied arts in fashion design from the Santa Fe Community College, which he began attending in 2016. Orlando spoke positively of his experiences—he’s appreciated the exposure to a variety of subjects, worked on developing his writing and time management skills, and learned a great deal about the production and business side of fashion. He has enjoyed engaging with a peer group that understands fashion. “I mean, you can learn a lot of different things on your own, of course, which is what I did, but to be able to do it with other people, that’s something really, really cool,” he noted. He’s also been involved in extracurriculars at SFCC. He previously served as the president of the SFCC Fashion Club, assisted last year’s Fashion Club president with the SFCC fashion show, and this semester, he has been serving as the vice president of SFCC’s Student Government Association.

Given his preexisting accomplishments, it’s natural to wonder why Orlando would feel the need to go to school for fashion at all. Fundamentally, the reason for his efforts is that he is constantly looking for ways to push himself. “I think I was missing something,” Orlando explained. “And the business part of it was one of them—at the very top of the list. But reading and writing—mostly writing—I was not good at writing… It would take me forever to write a paragraph. And to start a business, you need to have a business bio—all these different things that you need to write about yourself. When you go to fashion shows, you got to have different write-ups that they want you to submit. Taking these classes at the college, in all the different ways, not just English class, or speech—public speaking class—but art history—even math and chemistry—really kind of opened my eyes a bit more. I was exposed to a lot of different things I had an interest in. I just never was able to pursue it on my own time, until I was made to do it because of class, you know. I think it was really, really beneficial in that sense. But the reason why I went back to school is because I really wanted to go to school in New York or in Paris, because connections are a really big thing in fashion—and that was my main goal.” While Orlando may pursue further schooling, right now, he’s ready to head back into the studio after graduation to seize current opportunities.

“I think I was missing something….and the business part of it was one of them—at the very top of the list. The reason why I went back to school is because I really wanted to go to school in New York or in Paris, because connections are a really big thing in fashion—and that was my main goal.”

Orlando Dugi

A major shift in Orlando’s brand will be the development of ready-to-wear pieces, facilitated by his studies at SFCC. The bulk of his work currently involves handmade accessories and custom, made-to-order garments for select clients, such as one fiery custom gown for the late painter Margarete Bagshaw, which recently was donated to the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. “And see, so what I went to school for was to learn about production, because I need to get into ready-to-wear, because although doing these one-of-a-kind pieces is a lot of fun, there’s not a lot of money in it,” Orlando shared. “When you sell it, you can make quite a bit, but how long did it take to make that? And how long before you actually sell it? And then so all those factors are in there, and it’s just the overhead and everything is just too high to be doing stuff like that, and so it’s been really good to learn about the production end of fashion design and [experience] manufacturing and production houses and companies in New York.”

Orlando discussed how the focus on the handmade in his business comes in part from the rules of Native American art markets, which he has actively participated in for the last several years. These parameters, which are out of sync with design industry practices, present challenges to the growth of his business and those of other Native designers. While these markets have been important to Dugi’s trajectory, he feels he is at the point where he can move away from them to focus on other efforts. “When I set my mind to do this, I worked, and worked, and worked, and worked, and WORKED! And I’m still working! But you know, as much hard work as you’re supposed to do when you want to be successful, it shouldn’t be this hard, you know,” Orlando related. “At some point, you either break and give up, or you have to make some adjustments. And so now, the adjustments are coming.”

Though he has previously had others work with him to fulfill client orders for his business, the process has nonetheless been time-consuming, ultimately affecting the bottom line. Given these considerations, he’ll explore production on a moderate scale, including combining manufacturing with the handmade. “I will be doing some handbags. Even in that area, I’ve learned that I can’t keep making everything from scratch myself, so I’ve ordered some forms, and those kinds of things will be getting going on a bigger scale than I was doing before,” Orlando revealed.

Keep your eyes peeled for this dedicated designer’s next moves. Dugi is planning on several shows in the near future, with one queued for New York in September. He’ll also be featured in an exhibition next year at The Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising at Colorado State University, with several other plans in the works. Follow Orlando at his website, and on Facebook and Instagram at @orlandodugi.

Neebinnaukzhik Southall is a member of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation. She is a graphic designer, a photographer, an artist, and a writer covering Native art and design. She graduated from Oregon State University with a Honors BFA in Applied Visual Arts in 2011, and is currently pursuing a Native American Art History certificate at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Visit Southall’s website,, to learn more about her.

Neebinnaukzhik Southall

IAIA Student