Mechanical engineer finds inspiration in design, Native American culture; will show his collection at Phoenix Fashion Week
There’s really not a polite way to say this — Loren Aragon’s house is a mess.
Not far from the entrance there are several racks of handmade garments, raw fabrics and dress forms. Sewing machines, pattern paper, thread, pincushions, measuring devices, cutting tools and two draft tables dominate what was once the dining and living areas.
His Maricopa residence has been this way for the past year.
That’s about the time he decided to turn his fashion-design hobby into a full-time vocation.
Which might come as a surprise: The Arizona State University alumnus received his degree in mechanical engineering in 2004, but the call of the creative drew him back to the arts.
“My study and practice as a mechanical engineer further fuels my artistic passion and abilities as an artist,” said Aragon, who is from the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico. Sixty miles west of Albuquerque, the pueblo is known for its pottery and long ancestral line of artists.
“My work is a result of a combination of my artistic vision and technological discipline.”
In June, Aragon was one of 15 artists selected by Phoenix Fashion Week to attend its Emerging Designer Bootcamp. Over a four-month period, he learned the ins and outs of the fashion business, including branding, messaging, margins, profits, team building and public relations.
“We have about 40 different things we teach them in those four months, and then they are tested in real time,” said Brian Hill, executive director of Phoenix Fashion Week. “Loren has great designs, which is the baseline for everything.”
This week Aragon will unveil his spring/summer 2017 collection at the Talking Stick Resort in the East Valley, where hundreds of retailers and an estimated 6,000 people will see a dozen of his new designs. Fashion Week takes place Oct. 13-15.
Aragon’s company is called ACONAV, which represents the Acoma and Navajo tribes. The latter is in tribute to his wife and business partner, Valentina, who hails from the Navajo Nation.
The brand’s mission is to represent part of the Native American culture in high-end fashion, with the idea of evoking the empowerment of the female spirit. Their work is resonating with many in the fashion world.
“ACONAV clothing is beyond description and is different from anything else out there,” said Taté Walker, editor of Phoenix-based Native Peoples Magazine. “The passion, the care and culture infused within each piece are prevalent in every stitch.”
ASU alum Loren Aragon shows his ACONAV women’s fashion and accessories at the Phoenix Fashion Week Shop Garment District at the Moxy in Tempe on Aug. 5, 2016. The ACONAV brand — the name is a representation of the Acoma and Navajo tribes — has a mission to represent Native American culture in high-end fashion.Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now
Aragon uses the design of pottery shards to display the new life the broken elements can have, as seen in this jewelry at the Phoenix Fashion Week Shop Garment District at the Moxy in Tempe.Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now
Aragon, who earned a degree in mechanical engineering, says his background results in a combination of "artistic vision and technological discipline." He is the owner and designer of ACONAV; his wife, Valentina, an ASU junior in business, is the operations manager; and his mother, Hilda Pedro, is the master seamstress.Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now
The ASU alumnus learned to make designs and jewelry from many family members. Here, another piece of jewelry is on display at the Phoenix Fashion Week Shop Garment District at the Moxy in August.Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now
Silk scarves are among the ACONAV women’s fashion and accessories.Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now
With his Maricopa living and dining room areas filled with the tools of his trade, Aragon trims muslin fabric that will become the back cover of the prototype pattern for a wedding dress on Sept. 23. The silk dress will be finished in time for an October wedding.Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now
Aragon joins two pieces of fabric that will become the prototype pattern for a wedding dress in his home studio in Maricopa. He will unveil his spring/summer 2017 collection at this week's Phoenix Fashion Week.Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now
Two years ago Aragon and his wife left good-paying corporate jobs to devote their full-time efforts to ACONAV.
“There’s a lot of 20-hour days and all-nighters,” said Valentina, who runs the business-operations side while her husband is the creative force. “We haven’t hosted any dinner parties in a while because there’s nowhere to sit.”
That devotion caught the attention of Hill, who has become one of Aragon’s biggest cheerleaders.
“He’s all in,” Hill said of Aragon. “Loren should be doing this full-time because he’s that talented. He’s bright, focused and he has the talent to get to the top.”
Aragon has spent the past two decades trying to get to the top. In high school and college he started a greeting-card company, designing one-off cards and selling them at craft shows for pocket money and tuition. He was also gifted mechanically and pursued an ASU degree in mechanical engineering.
His artistic side was pushed aside for several years as he pursued a successful career testing vehicles and designing military seats and training weapons — pushed aside, that is, until an August 2008 visit to the Santa Fe Indian Market. He was amazed by the amount of contemporary Native American art for sale and sensed a movement was afoot.
“Native American art is traditionally basket weaving, rugs, pottery and silversmith jewelry,” Aragon said. “When I walked around I discovered graphics, painting, photography and sculpture. People were taking their culture and putting it on their art in a lot of different ways. I wanted to find a way to do that, too.”
Aragon was inspired by that visit and renewed his dedication to his once-dormant company. He branched out into illustration, jewelry and sculpting, and he even created a line of street wear. That eventually morphed into women’s couture evening wear when he created a traditional dress with a modern twist.
The polychrome-patterned dress, which he still keeps at home and loans out for special occasions, won first place at the Santa Fe Indian Market in 2013. Since then, orders for his work steadily came in through street fairs, trade shows and his website.
Most of Aragon’s collections display the influences of the pottery designs of the Acoma people with traditional elements as highlights to modern looks. He uses mostly high-end silks and cotton sateens because “they give off a symbol of elegance.”
Aragon hopes Phoenix Fashion Week will be the launching pad for brand success, as each piece of clothing is “an extension of my life, love, creativity and prayers.”
His hope is to eventually have a brick-and-mortar store with a studio, where patrons can buy made-to-order bridal wear, evening attire and cocktail dresses.
Valentina says that idea is appealing on many levels.
“I’d like to host a dinner party again in my lifetime,” she said. “For once I’d like to wake up and not see a dress form or rack of clothes in my entryway.”
Phoenix Fashion Week
What: A series of runway shows at the leading fashion-industry event in the Southwest.
When: Oct. 13-15. The ACONAV show will be at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 15.
Where: Talking Stick Resort, 9800 Talking Stick Way, Salt River Reservation (near Scottsdale).
Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now