The Phoenix Indian Center hosts a fashion show for Indigenous designers

Arlyssa D. Becenti

Kathleen Tom-Garcia started sewing face masks for people during the pandemic. Then one day she found out that the Phoenix Indian Center was offering an online course in bow-skirt making, led by none other than Agnes Woodward, who sewed the bow-skirt Deb Haaland wore when she was sworn in as Home Secretary.

After learning how to sew a skirt, Tom-Garcia made a red one in honor of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Movement. From that day on, she said, she hasn’t stopped making skirts, and every time she posts a picture of a new one on Facebook, someone buys it within minutes.

“After that, I started blooming and creating and all these designs came to my mind,” said Tom-Garcia. “It just flowed. It was like a present. When I buy the fabric, there is an energy that is attracted to that fabric. I just touch it and everything flows in place. I guess it’s a gift from the Creator.”

On a chilly Saturday night in early March, Tom-Garcia’s granddaughter modeled her grandmother’s latest creation to a sold-out crowd for the Phoenix Indian Center’s Indigenous Community Fashion Showcase, held this year at Brophy College Preparatory School to commemorate the center’s 75th anniversary Anniversary.

A model wearing a design by Kathleen Tom-Garcia of Kathleen's Design of the Navajo Nation walks the red carpet during the Phoenix Indian Center's Indigenous Community Fashion Showcase at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix on March 5, 2022.

Not only were community members like Tom-Garcia showing off their creations, but also four notable Indigenous fashion designers whose pieces were worn and modeled by Indigenous models.

“We’re celebrating our 75th anniversary,” said Jolyana Begay-Kroupa, interim director of the Phoenix Indian Center. “It’s going to be a really great year to celebrate events that are community based and bring recognition to all city dwellers and the services we’ve been providing for a number of years.”

Begay-Kroupa said the Phoenix Indian Center has been in full swing during the pandemic for the urban Indigenous community, offering a range of services such as:

“We never closed our doors, but we stopped in-person interaction,” Begay-Kroupa said. “However, we continued to be there for our community and our families as best we could. We explored and used our creativity, focused on services to keep helping.”

Designs inspired by indigenous culture

The idea behind the fashion show was to bring the community together, which is why the first part was dedicated to community members like Tom-Garcia, people who don’t necessarily have a fashion or jewelry line but want to show off their creations.

The second part was for aspiring fashion designers who are part of the fashion industry, Begay-Kroupa said. Four designers were invited to take part in the show.

The fashion show took place on the same weekend as the 64th annual Heard Museum Guild and Market. Designer Sage Mountainflower, Ohkay Owingeh/Taos Pueblo/Navajo, had a successful presentation at the Heard after one of her pieces from her Phendi’-Tewa collection won the blue ribbon. The piece was also purchased by the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts. She said the dress was a contemporary look for her tribe’s manta-style dresses.

Shircura Brown, left, Shenoa Jones, Tania Estrada, Royce Jarvey, Brittany Yazzie and Rebekah Jarvey walk the red carpet during the Phoenix Indian Center's Indigenous Community Fashion Showcase at Brophy College Preparatory on March 5, 2022 in Phoenix.

The black-on-black piece was inspired by their Pueblo culture. The design used black cut glass beads to create beaded flowers on satin, with vintage iridescent goldhorn beads to highlight the water flow and kiva steps. The piece took about 40 hours to make, and a lot of love and creativity went into it, Mountainflower said. When it was bought, she burst into tears.

“I cried for all the work I put into it,” Mountainflower said. “I get emotional with my pieces. A lot of them tend to be custom.”

Her winning dress was just one of half a dozen pieces presented that evening. All were black, giving a contemporary twist to indigenous fashions, whether from the designer tribe or something common to all tribes.

The word “phendi” in Phendi-Tewa, the name Mountainflower uses for her collection, means “black” in the Tewa language of the six northern pueblos, she said.

“I’m still the tribe’s environmental director and I still enjoy doing that,” she said. “So a lot of my stuff will be earth related because it’s my degree in environmental science and my connection to this country.”

According to Mountainflower, indigenous fashion is unique because it has a story behind the creations, who we are as people and where we come from.

Kristen Sanderson of the Navajo Nation prepares backstage before attending the Phoenix Indian Center's Indigenous Community Fashion Showcase at Brophy College Preparatory on March 5, 2022 in Phoenix.

Another Mountainflower track won the judges’ choice at the Heard. Dubbed “Flowers in the Stars,” the beaded bodice dress was introduced when COVID-19 shut down Pueblo villages. She was in quarantine at the time and this moment was represented in the dress through the use of pink on the bodice.

“We all have this origin story, how we came to this earth, and that’s how all my creations are,” Mountainflower said of the importance of Indigenous fashion. “They all have an origin story, too.”

Other designers featured at the runway show were: Wilfred Jumbo (Diné), Joanne Miles-Long (San Carlos Apache and Akimel O’Odham) and Rebekah Jarvey (Chippewa Cree and Blackfeet).

Models help bring designs to life

The young Indigenous models who were allowed to bring these artworks to life were also impressed with the pieces they were asked to wear. Lerae Begay wore Jumbo’s piece and Shicura Brown wore Jarvey’s piece.

“Native modeling is more representative of a culture,” Brown said. “Modeling isn’t just about beauty, it’s also about being a role model.”

The Phoenix Indian Center is the oldest Native American non-profit organization of its kind in the United States. It serves more than 7,000 people annually through direct ministries and reaches more than 20,000 people through other related outreach. It has supported more than 1 million people during its existence.

The center is the largest of its kind in the country and serves the third largest and fastest growing urban Native American population, approximately 150,000 people, in the greater Phoenix area. It offers services in the areas of human resources development, language and cultural enrichment, youth programs, substance abuse and suicide prevention.

Proceeds from ticket sales for the fashion show will go back to the Phoenix Indian Center, Begay-Kroupa said.

“The Indigenous community fashion show was a huge success,” said Kris Beech, the fashion show’s master of ceremonies. “The response from the community has been so overwhelming that I expect it will become an annual event. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if sometime in the future we see an Indigenous Fashion Week that attracts people from all over the world.”

Arlyssa Becenti reports on indigenous affairs for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send ideas and tips to [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @Abecenti.

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