May 28, 2013

Designer Profile | Dustin Martin

Dustin Martin was one of the first designers to support my dream to launch the Beyond Buckskin Boutique over a year ago. I had sent out messages to various artists to get their feedback about this idea to launch a boutique that focused solely on promoting and selling Native-made fashion. His response to my inquiry was thoughtful, and his words found their way into BBB's initial mission statements to reclaim Native America's right to determine what is 'Native,' 'authentic' and 'traditional' when it comes to fashion.

Since those initial conversations, Dustin's designs for his company S.O.L.O. (Sovereign Original Land Owners) have been sell-out favorites on the Boutique site. The graphics are not only eye-catching, but the thoughts and meanings behind them are developed and effectively combine fashion with intellect. The first 'Designer Profile' that I published about his work was over 2 years ago, and I thought we were due for an updated profile so continue reading for BB's interview with him:

BB: I first found out about your work when you were a student at Columbia. How has your work changed since then?
DM: I got a real job. First as a printer in a high-volume t-shirt shop in NYC; and now as the program director of Wings of America. I've loved both experiences but I'm sorry to say that they made creating and printing designs feel more like a business than a passion at times. I'm only just learning how to balance the two. That being said, I'm more confident in the way I approach my designs than I've ever been. Now it's time to get back to indulging more of my creative impulses. I want to generate a body of work that moves way beyond t-shirts. I want to make mistakes.

BB: Can you tell us a little bit about when and why you started creating fashion?
DM: The "feathered cavalier" (S.O.L.O.'s logo) was an image I had stored in my head for a long time. It represented everything I wanted to stand for that a polo jockey couldn't back up. In the summer of 2009 I cut out a stencil of the image and spray-painted it on a few t-shirts. They were pretty lame. The next fall I took a printmaking course to learn the skills I needed to do the logo justice. After a few classes my dorm room became a makeshift silkscreen shop fueled by blank tees I picked up at second-hand stores. Suddenly people started placing orders and asking serious questions about my design inspirations. I'm still astounded by the quality conversations S.O.L.O. products spur. That's why I keep grinding.

BB: I love the idea that fashion can spark conversations. People are responding positively to your latest tee design, Ceci Nest Pas Un Conciliateur. Can you tell us the general process you go through to create your work?
DM: Usually I let an idea for a design brew for a couple weeks before I put pen to paper. Some concepts are weak and I naturally let them go. But the good ones keep me busy researching inspirations and relevant histories until I NEED to see them materialize. Then it's just a few late nights of work. I work best during the early hours of the morning when those few restless birds start to chirp.

BB: What matters to you most as a designer?
DM: It's hard to explain but I would liken it to "harmony". And I don't necessarily mean symmetry. More than anything I want an image or product I create to appear balanced. I think this is best done by complimenting the natural forms that give a design shape and/or purpose. But you can do this without sacrificing creativity or complexity. I love filling a generally harmonious design framework with the most bizarre and jarring angles I can dream up. This way the end result takes more than a quick glance to fully comprehend. But even a quick glance might offer a symbol or shape that musters up some memory or emotion.

BB: What or who is your inspiration?
DM: Infinitely changing horizons. For individuals. For societies. For land masses. Moving through landscapes in the southwest has taught me a lot about the inherent restlessness of things. In a place where flash floods cut deep arroyos in an afternoon and marine fossils can be found on mountain ridges, it is impossible to ignore the promise of a change in elevation. I think this sort of perspective is crucial to recognizing the fractures and fusions we experience in our personal lives and making the most of them. There's quite a bit of order in all that chaos if you make a point of observing. Other than all that jazz, the sight of a new run of shirts neatly organized. I like museums a lot too.

BB: What does Native fashion mean to you?
DM: It has something to do with an awareness of place and identity that breeds a special type of humility. Native designers must take absolute pride in their creations while simultaneously recognizing their material insignificance. At the end of the day, a t-shirt is just a t-shirt. But the idea a t-shirt ignites might become wildfire. It's the idea, not the object, that empowers people. I rest easy knowing my designs express pride in where and who I come from without asserting superiority over another group. Perhaps that's the most control over an idea one can have.

BB: Who are your favorite Native designers?
DM: Any person willing to put in the time and effort it takes to immerse themselves in their local community and use the lessons they learn to articulate a message with some self-esteem. But I really like Sho Sho and Jamie Okuma.

BB: What is your favorite quote or life motto?
DM: It's only money.

BB: What is something that a lot of people don’t know, but should know, about your tribe/home community?
DM: I grew up in and around Gallup, NM. During WWII, the city refused to send nearly 800 Japanese-American residents to U.S. government-run internment camps. I've always been proud of that- especially because Navajos from the same area were rounded up and sent to Bosque Redondo barely 100 years before. Now they call Gallup "The Indian Capital of the World". I like to think the influence of Native perspectives had a lot to do with keeping my hometown unswayed by foolish McCarthyists.

BB: It's been exciting for me to see your work grow and expand. What's next for you and S.O.L.O.?!
DM: I plan to keep doing my best to build the S.O.L.O. portfolio while staying the course at Wings for at least the next year. Be on the lookout for new one-of pieces. I'll decide whether I need to go back to school to become a better designer/artist or a more-effective community organizer/businessman come fall 2014. Hopefully I'll find some place that lets me further explore the middle ground. Also, we got some cool collaborations in the works for summer/fall that I'm excited to watch play out.

Click here to shop his designs.