The dress is at once slinky and impossibly elegant, sewn of flesh-colored, lacy mesh that skims model Kyler Brooke Chenault’s svelte form. A short train swirls at her feet, and delicate strands of tiny glass beads loop around her shoulders.
Watching Kyler work the look in front of the camera during a recent photo shoot, Jolonzo Guy-Goldtooth became emotional.
“You work so much on a mannequin,” explained the 28-year-old self-taught designer of Dine’ tribal descent, “but seeing it on an actual model, the way it flows, it translates into an awesome, beautiful art form.”
Guy-Goldtooth calls the dress “Woodland Goddess.” It is one of 25 looks from his Native American Urban design line, JG-Indie, that he’ll be showing Feb. 19 at the PLITZS New York City Fashion Week Designer Showcase Presentation.
Co-designer April Ledford of AL Couture will be accessorizing Guy-Goldtooth’s designs. A visionary feather artist and accessory designer, she’s based in Colorado Springs but traces her heritage to the Lumbee tribe on the East Coast.
By the time this dress hits the runway, “it’s going to look way more dramatic than it does right now,” Guy-Goldtooth promised. “We have a necklace made of deer hide, and a tiara of antlers – the whole look.”
An affordable platform
The PLITZS Designer Showcase will occupy the 18th floor of the Hotel Pennsylvania – right across from Madison Square Garden – during the exclusive three-ring circus that is New York Fashion Week. PLITZS offers a select few talented emerging designers of diverse backgrounds the opportunity to affordably showcase their collections in a professionally produced presentation.
This year’s showcase will feature designers from Ukraine, China, France, the United Kingdom, Barbados, Mexico and diverse corners of the United States, including Farmington, where Guy-Goldtooth makes his home.
“On the mainstream commercial level, New York Fashion Week can be monolithic in regard to racial makeup and certain nationalities,” said PLITZS Founder and Chief Creative Director Wayne Shields. PLITZS counteracts that by presenting a wide diversity of designers and models. Guy-Goldtooth will be the second Native American designer to ever participate in the show.
Shields learned of Guy-Goldtooth through Chenault’s mother, Sherrie Chenault. (Sherrie and Kyler have traveled several times to New York from their home in Farmington, so that Kyler, 15, can take modeling classes at PLITZS.) Shields was captivated by Guy-Goldtooth’s designs – as well as his life story – and ushered him through PLITZS’ vetting process to get him into the upcoming show.
“When we interviewed Jolonzo, what we were impressed about was his creativity and the way he was able to incorporate his historical ancestry and vision and still be very fashion-forward,” Shields said. “I’ve dealt with some designers who try to infuse their heritage, but they were so heavy-handed, it wasn’t fashion-forward. It’s very important for Native designers to convey their historical cultural influences without hampering their creativity.”
Once he found out he was accepted into the show, Guy-Goldtooth sent out a call via social media for a troupe of Native American models to join him to New York. A total of 35 models from across North America responded, sending in video auditions to PLITZS.
Out of the 35, eight were accepted into the show – including Chenault.
A former model himself, Guy-Goldtooth is thrilled to be paying it forward, helping fellow Native Americans to get their foot in the door of the fiercely competitive fashion industry.
While proud of his heritage, Guy-Goldtooth resists attempts to categorize his designs and concepts as strictly “Native American” – or anything else. He describes them simply as “random concepts” that come in dreams or during a run on the Navajo reservation in northern New Mexico, where his grandmother Elizabeth first taught him how to sew.
The designs take inspiration from both the natural world and the traditional Native American aesthetic.
Guy-Goldtooth can take just about anything and turn it into haute couture.
“Fashion is what you make it. I mean, look at this dress – it’s made of sticks and ripped-up fabric,” he said of one recent design, “Salt Willow,” that incorporates a spray of willow branches fanning up from a silky apricot corset – an ode to the desert oasis of his native land.
Sometimes, he worries that some of his looks are “too over the top, out there, different. That someone will not like it.”
That’s where friends like Sarah BlueEyes come in. A fellow Navajo who went to high school with Guy-Goldtooth, BlueEyes spent several years working in the New York City fashion industry with the likes of Indian designer Bibhu Mohapatra (a favorite of Michelle Obama) and Natori, a Japanese-Filipino designer.
BlueEyes left behind a thriving career in the big city to come back to Farmington and focus on developing her own line.
“She has helped me so much with my concepts,” Guy-Goldtooth said. “She told me, ‘The concepts you are thinking about are outlandish, but at the same time, do it!’”
Guy-Goldtooth and BlueEyes are part of a millennial movement of Native American designers. Prominent in that movement are Orlando Dugi, a Navajo from northern New Mexico whose intricate and striking evening wear has been featured at New York Fashion Week and in the pages of Vogue Italia; Lakota Sioux designer Edison Ritchie, whose “wild native,” biker-inspired Revolution Couture is making waves; Project Runway’s Season 11 runner-up, Patricia Michaels from Taos Pueblo; and another edgy Pueblo designer, Virgil Ortiz, famous for his highly successful collaboration with fashion mogul Donna Karan.
Guy-Goldtooth describes the movement as “Native Fever.”
“This entire time, the world thought we were extinct. But no, we are survivors, and we have made these connections,” he said.
Back at the photo shoot, Kyler Chenault pokes her head out of the photo studio where she is changing into her next look and asks, “Do you have two-sided tape?”
The dress she’s modeling now is little more than a few strategically placed scraps of silk – or is it satin? Guy-Goldtooth is not quite sure – attached to a tiny black skirt. The main attraction is a piece of fur stitched to one side of the collar.
The dress is called “Foxtail.” It can be worn as-is or transformed by the addition of a frothy, floor-length, tulle overskirt sashed around the waist.
Either way, it’s a stunning, dramatic confection of a dress.
Guy-Goldtooth’s grandmother gave him the satiny scraps. As for the fox tail, he trapped the fox and tanned the hide himself – not a big deal for the self-described country boy who has to wake up early to feed the yearling calves on his family’s ranch. After calves, he can get to work on finishing up the wedding dress that is going to be part of the grand finale at the upcoming show in New York.
The show promises to be a spectacle, with a French masquerade theme for some of the dresses, in which the Native American models will wear hand-crafted Mardi Gras masks with “feathers galore.”
Guy-Goldtooth relishes the prospect of worlds colliding on the runway.
“Everything is a huge fusion,” he said. “That’s what sets us on the edge. We are Native American. We are still here. We are not living in tipis. We are not extinct. We have progressed with society. This is who we are.”