September 26, 2011

Neo-Navajo fashion: Trend or tradition?

This article, published in The Arizona Republic, asks Navajos what they think about the 'Navajo' trend in fashion, and they interview awesome folks like Jaclyn Roessel and Melissa Cody.

Neo-Navajo fashion: Trend or Tradition?
by Jaimee Rose

And now, from the people who think they know everything about what we should be wearing, comes a new trend about which we Arizonans might know a bit more.

At Neiman Marcus, just racks away from Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen's latest leather offering, there's a kicky cashmere shift dress - all geometry in deep red, black and cream - that looks exactly like the Navajo blanket on display in the Heard Museum (hand-loomed in 1880, just so you know).

At Forever 21 in Scottsdale, mannequins wear $8 feather necklaces while posed in positions not unlike a ceremonial dance - and the sign in the window says "Into the Wild." (Made in China, and you don't want to know.)

Diane von Furstenberg is on a $365 "Native Hound" print parade. September style magazines trumpet the look with multipage shopping guides headlined "Hail to the Chief." Teenagers are buying woolly shawls. Shawls!

From the omnivorous minds of fashion designers, who want us in soldier chic one minute and Bollywood brilliance the next, a communal word emerged as the Gospel of Fall: "neo-Navajo!" they declared, flinging Navajo iconography all across the mall.

There are arrows on bracelets and medallions on miniskirts and woven patterns on skinny jeans that cost $660 at Barneys New York.

Even this: "Navajo Hipster Panties," at Urban Outfitters, printed with zigzags and stars, which an online reviewer loves because they make her "bum look delicious." Ahem.

It's such a fashion buzzword that a solid-blue robe at Target is christened "Navajo Navy" - a color we thought was named after a military branch of the USA.

So we have questions. We have questions for the fashion folks and questions for magazine editors.

We wonder what the people who write product descriptions for Intermix were thinking when they penned "The new Navajo: ethnic Aztec inspiration" (different country, different tribe).

We are not sure it was in the best taste for Urban Outfitters to offer a Navajo-inspired flask, because there's a history there. It's complicated.

And we are dying to hear from the Navajo people themselves - who would be well within their rights to have their Navajo hipster panties in a twist, considering the Telegraph newspaper in London told its readers to "channel your inner Pocahontas."

Pocahontas wasn't Navajo. She was from Virginia.

Lost in translation
"It's funny, being Navajo and seeing this. I was looking online, and there was, like, a Navajo tube top," says Jaclyn Roessel, 28, who grew up learning to weave on the reservation and now works in education programming at the Heard Museum.

She sees girls her age wearing the look everywhere: feather earrings for a dinner downtown, or Navajo prints on the light rail, where she spotted an Arizona State University student in a dress so gorgeous that Roessel wished it was hers.

"It was so pretty, but I don't know - I don't know if I could pull it off," Roessel says, and she's not sure she should try.

This modern moment is an odd twist for Navajoland, where parents and politicians alike worry endlessly about too much USA leaking onto their 17.2 million-acre homeland - a wide corner of Arizona where wandering sheep and red rocks reign supreme.

Navajos wage a constant cultural battle to defend their traditional beliefs and Native language against the influx of 2011, which wants the kids to believe in Beyoncé, and sing along to "Run the World."

They're used to selling their kids on their culture, not being the stars of the mall.

So Roessel has questions of her own. For example: Do those fashion folks in New York think that all her people are dead?

"I wonder whether they understand that Navajo is even . . . a living culture," Roessel says, "and that there are women today who wear outfits with these designs on them because they mean something."

In their lust to sell "Navajo" as the perfect blend of bohemian-exotic cool, the fashion elite may not have realized that those stacked triangles and jagged edges are symbols, and that they stand for something else.

The symmetrical pattern on a cashmere cardigan at Neiman Marcus comes from the careful symmetry of Navajo rugs, which Roessel says pay homage to the Navajo convention of leading a balanced life. (This may not recommend spending $517 on a sweater.)

The stacked triangles on blouses at H&M could be interpreted as clouds, which bring rain to the crops of Navajoland and, therefore, food to the tribe's tables. (Fashion and dinnertime have never understood one another.)

And consider the Navajo Hipster Panty: Those zigzags often stand for lightning, explains Roessel. Her people wear the symbol as an emblem of protection. The star design nods to the four sacred mountains on each corner of the sacred Navajo homeland.

Translation: Those undies are protecting something sacred indeed.

Behold, the trendiest chastity belt of all time.

A caveat: No one would be safe trying to precisely dictate the intended meaning of Navajo symbols or rugs, says Ann Hedlund, a University of Arizona anthropology professor, tapestry expert and curator of ethnology at the Arizona State Museum.

Navajo is an unwritten oral culture passed down through generations of storytellers, and things tend to shift during flight. Also, there are times that Navajo weavers put triangles and zigzags on things for other reasons, Roessel says, possibly because they just look pretty on the rug. Or, the meanings could change based on the context of the entire composition. .

Everything is complicated.

Designer labels
"Neo-Navajo": whither, and why?

"I wouldn't say a bunch of fashion editors got together and said, 'Let's name this. What should we call it?' " says Tracey Lomrantz, an editor at Glamour magazine in New York, which dedicated eight pages of its August/September issue to the Navajo look. "But this way, we sort of encapsulate it and make it easier to understand.

"Everyone naturally gravitated toward the word neo-Navajo because (the look) is a new interpretation," Lomrantz says. "It's not a costume. The cuts are very modern, and the tailoring - it still looks like 2011.

"In fashion, nothing is new, but this is the most literal interpretation that we've seen of Navajo . . . and this Navajo theme kept resonating with a lot of different designers."

On the list: Proenza Schouler, Isabel Marant, even rocker-turned-fashionista Gwen Stefani and her L.A.M.B. line. And none of the above would give us an interview to discuss naming and inspiration. Perhaps it's complicated.

We did, however, receive an offer to publicize trendy labels with the following pitch from a fashion house in New York:

"Pay homage to our past while looking marvelously modern with Navajo-inspired styles from Chelsea Flower, Love Sam, DL1961 Premium Denim & Cult of Individuality . . . On-trend and simply chic - minus the Headdress. Pack the teepee (or the closet) with (items) that will be sure to become closet staples."

Teepee? Headdress?

Hail to the grief.

Lomrantz says designers are getting their Navajo notions from all kinds of places, like the work of Ralph Lauren, that Great Spirit of Native-inspired work, who has been extolling the virtues of the Southwest for years. (Did you see him chatting up Oprah Winfrey at his Colorado ranch? Did you see the Navajo rug in the background? He didn't want to talk to us either.)

Also, Lomrantz says, significant designer inspiration comes from the Parisian fabric markets held each year, where designers wander and select their wares. Navajo is huge in France.

Finally, she says, "the most important thing in fashion right now is the idea of a global marketplace, and the desire to travel to understand other cultures."

What not to wear
In the spirit of promoting understanding of the fashion culture, we wish to offer you Lomrantz's advice: Should you wish to go neo-Navajo, do so with discretion.

"Rather than going head-to-toe and being mistaken for an actual Navajo, I think accessories are a great place to start," she says. "Maybe a belt or a piece of jewelry. And I am really loving the fringed suede booties.

"This is not meant to be a costume."

To wit: A few weeks ago, Roessel was in Phoenix, walking to dinner with a friend, and spotted a girl gone wild: "She had feather earrings, and a headband, and sandals with fringe, and it was quite over-the-top, like Native American Fashion Night," Roessel says.

"Now, I love fashion and I love to dress up, but if she was in Glamour, you'd have had the black bar over her (eyes)."

The Navajo now
And in the spirit of promoting understanding of the actual Navajo culture, we introduce you to Melissa Cody, an actual neo-Navajo, if there were such a thing. She is 28, originally from Leupp, on the reservation, and creates weavings that hang in the Navajo museum and the tribal president's office, too. Her work sells for $2,000 per square foot.

Recently, she wove caution tape into a rug so cool that, if Urban Outfitters could see it, we fear for the hipster panties that could come forth. It was a tribute to her father, and what she found in his toolbox.

"I'm a fourth-generation weaver," Cody says. "It started off with my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mom and her sisters, and then myself. We all grew up weaving.

"It is one of the few links that I do have to my culture. I wasn't raised in the traditional religious background. I don't identify with the different ceremonies or songs. I'm not fluent in my language, and I can't converse with my grandma, but we speak the same language in terms of weaving and textile. It's something I hold very dear to my heart."

It's not exactly "the traditional way" to make a rug out of caution tape, Cody says, or to put Pac-Man into your pattern, like 30-year-old weaving celeb Sierra Teller Ornelas did, or to make street-style T-shirts with chiefs on the back and "Noble Savage" on the front, like Cody's friend Jeremy Arviso, 32, did.

But being Navajo now means continuing the culture war by making the traditional arts interesting and relevant to younger generations, and in that way, preserving the Navajo story.

"Neo-Navajo is embracing everything around us, and that's not new," the Heard Museum's Roessel says. "But now it means using social media and film and video games - that give-and-take of adapting things from American culture to make them uniquely ours.

"Neo-Navajo is that push, and understanding that you're part of both worlds."

The last time Cody showed her grandmother something wild she'd dreamed up, her mother translated her grandmother's reaction:

"I'm going to copy that," the elder Navajo said.

Reach the reporter at 602-444-8923 or