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When Orlando Dugi was growing up in northern Arizona, he would intently watch his Navajo grandmother doing traditional beadwork. Before long he picked up the craft, and she’d give him lids from tubs of butter for him to sew beads onto, transforming them into traditional Native hairpieces or necklace medallions. When he didn’t get it quite right, she’d have him start over.
“I’m very visual,” says Dugi. “I can watch someone do something and then copy it, emulate it. I used to dance at powwows a lot to express myself; then I started to express myself through beadwork.”
After he got better at it, he began using beads the size of a grain of sugar, creating exquisitely detailed work.
Today Dugi is one of the hottest up-and-coming Native apparel designers in the country. His high-end women’s evening wear was included in “Native Fashion Now,” a 2015 traveling exhibition organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, that was displayed at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City and other venues nationwide. An image of his work was the lead promotional artwork for the show.
Debut solo show
Now Colorado State University is hosting Dugi’s first-ever solo exhibition in the Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising. The show, “Walking in Beauty: Designs by Orlando Dugi,” opened in early July and runs through the fall semester. Dugi will visit campus Nov. 7-9 to deliver a lecture about his work, field questions from museum visitors and talk to classes in the Department of Design and Merchandising. On Nov. 8, a ticketed event with Dugi at the museum will raise money toward the purchase of at least one of his dresses for the Avenir’s permanent collection. Guests can register and donate at https://advancing.colostate.edu/EVENTS/ORLANDODUGI.
“I’m honored and really thankful to the Avenir Museum and CSU,” Dugi says. “To be able to talk to the students and share a piece of myself will be really rewarding. I look forward to explaining my inspiration for these pieces. I want people to get the meaning, feeling and emotion of my work.”
That work has evolved from beaded handbags to jewelry to elegant formal dresses. He handcrafts each piece, incorporating traditional Native themes and methods while simultaneously giving them a contemporary, trend-setting feel.
“Some garments have a little more Native flair, and others just have a backstory that no one knows,” he explains. “It doesn’t have to scream, ‘I’m Indian.’”
Dugi says he draws inspiration from his childhood, when he’d watch his parents and grandparents weaving textiles, tanning hides and making their own moccasins, silver jewelry and clothes. Their only tools for the fabric work were scissors, a needle and thread, making measurements using the length of their hands or width of their fingers. As a kid, he’d marvel at the sights of the tribal ceremonies he attended.
“You’d see all this color, and the women’s hair would be nicely combed back in traditional Navajo style,” Dugi recalls. “I loved seeing that, and my mom reminds me that I’d go up to the women and ask to see their jewelry and compliment them. Basically I’d just soak in this array of color and shiny objects.”
Avenir Assistant Curator and Collections Manager Megan Osborne remembers the first time she saw Dugi’s dresses. In 2014, the Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango hosted an exhibition of works by Dugi and his partner, Kenneth Williams, also a beadwork artist. Since many of Dugi’s dresses are made for a slim body type, the center needed additional petite mannequins.
Osborne loaned some of the Avenir’s mannequins to the center, and when she received photos of how Dugi’s dresses looked on them, she found them striking. She was introduced to Dugi by a mutual friend, and asked him if he’d be open to showing his work at the Avenir. His answer was yes, but it would be five years before Osborne’s vision for the exhibition would come to fruition.
The centerpiece of the show is a long runway displaying groups of Dugi’s dresses in the chronological order he made them, showcasing how his style has evolved.
“It turned out just as I envisioned it, which rarely happens,” Osborne says.
In his first fine art competition at the 2009 Utah State Fair, Dugi won Best of Show in the handmade category for a beaded evening clutch. The next year, with Williams’ encouragement, he created his first gown, which earned a first place in the Santa Fe Indian Market and is on display in the Avenir. He continued to make a name for himself in the fashion world as his work was featured in several major exhibitions.
In 2016, Dugi closed his studio, sold his jewelry-making equipment and began attending Santa Fe Community College to receive formal design training and learn more about the business side of his craft. After completing a fellowship at the Institute of American Indian Arts and graduating with an associate’s degree in applied art in 2018, he was finally ready to organize his premiere solo exhibition at CSU.
“When Megan asked me to do this, initially I was flattered and a little embarrassed, because many people have done this a lot longer than I have,” Dugi says. “I’ve only been making clothing for seven years, so it’s kind of hard for me to believe.”
The surface of the Avenir runway where Dugi’s dresses are displayed is covered with black material dotted with sparkles. Osborne says it represents the night sky, which has played a key role in Dugi’s beadwork. As a child, he’d lie on his back, staring up at the stars as his grandparents pointed out constellations, shared creation stories and sang ceremonial songs. Dugi says each bead he stitches reflects light, sparkling like a distant star.
“Those memories are always with me,” Dugi says. “The inspiration for a lot of my work comes from the stars.”
For more information about the exhibition, visit https://col.st/SsNOW. The Department of Design and Merchandising is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.
Avenir extends visitor hours to Saturday
Colorado State University’s Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising has expanded its visitor hours to include Saturdays.
The museum recently hired a new visitor services and venue coordinator, Heather Gottschalk, who is staffing the museum Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Gottschalk came to CSU from Vail Resorts after holding positions at the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce in Montana, the Walt Disney Company, and Loveland-based Group Publishing Inc.
The museum is located at 216 E. Lake St. in Fort Collins. For more information on the museum’s offerings, visit avenir.colostate.edu.