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Handmade Fashions and How to Get Your Hands on Some

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If you can wear your heart on your sleeve, why not your soul? After all, style is a window into a person’s character and essence. How do you feel when wearing a mass-produced, made-in-China item versus a one-of-a-kind piece of art? With handmade clothing, the artists’ stories, talents and vision are passed along to those who wear their creations. At some of Santa Fe’s unique shops, you can find one-of-a-kind, custom items and learn about the extraordinary people — and hands — behind them.

DANCING LADIES

Catherine “Cass” Schuck always wanted to wear something different. During the more than two decades she lived in Southeast Asia, she designed clothes for herself as a hobby. When her family moved to Santa Fe, Schuck brought back her fashion savviness, her connections with the local artisan women there and a determination to do something bold. With no formal training, Schuck took a risk and opened a shop on Canyon Road called Dancing Ladies.

“It has been one of the most fabulous things I’ve ever done in my life. I always get a little choked up when I think of the people I’ve met,” Schuck says. “The customers have become our friends. They are wearing art. They are wearing history. They’re wearing culture. The women making the textiles can’t read or write,” she adds. “Their work is not validated as much as men’s work, but their pieces are gorgeous, and they’re also culturally very significant.”

Schuck selects handcrafted textiles from around the world, mostly Southeast Asia and Africa, where women are creating masterful patterns using ancient techniques. She transforms them into functional clothing, such as jackets, blouses and tunics.

“The textiles are so fabulous. I use every inch of them. I can’t improve on them.” She hastens to add, “I want to wear them, [but] they aren’t flattering; they don’t hang correctly. [So] we make them wearable,” Schuck explains. “Even people who are very well traveled come in the shop and say they haven’t seen anything like this. I believe there’s an energy in every piece. I think you feel it. You know how special it is.” She continues, “I want women to feel fabulous in it, because, my goodness, they are! I think every piece is made for a person. I believe it will be in the shop until its person finds it. And when she does, I can genuinely say, ‘This was made for you.’”

DESERT SON OF SANTA FE

Mindy Adler can’t talk about the items in her store without touching them. She doesn’t just place the jewelry in her palm or sling a purse over her shoulder. Mindy massages the leather of a handbag and fingers the metal of a pendant. All the while, she is thinking about the person who made each piece, often longtime friends, and recalls their mutual passions and exuberance when creating their crafts. “For everything in the store, I know the designer personally. I don’t work with buyers. I know the person who actually makes this,” she says. “When I see these pieces, I think of my friends. It’s about relationships and connecting.”

Mindy’s iconic shop has been a staple on Canyon Road for the last 25 years. Inside you’ll find coats, bags, belt buckles, shoes, jewelry and accessories from international artists. The cozy, narrow space is bursting with creations by European designers, showcased side by side with local Native American pieces.

“I dress that way,” says Mindy. “I wear a concho belt with other jewelry from New York and Italy. It all works well together.” She adds, “When it comes to the Native American contemporary jewelry, I always remember this is their art, their passion, their families’ stories. When you appreciate what they’re making, you’re appreciating what they are about.”

Mindy herself works with her hands, both in terms of design and making custom leather belts in the workshop in the back of the store. “People who I made belts for 25 years ago are still coming in, and now I’m making belts for their kids, and even collars for their dogs,” Mindy laughs. “I love the texture of beautiful material. We all want to touch things that feel good. We want to hold things that have stories.”

RAMBLIN ROSE HAT CO.

When you walk into Samantha Toney’s studio, you discover the first thing she’ll do is put a tape measure around your head. The last thing you’ll do is walk out with a custom handmade hat.

“When one of my hats goes on your head, it should feel like an old friend,” says Toney. With an education and experience in hat making for theater and film, including the Santa Fe Opera, Toney learned a thing or two about creativity and comfort. When she opened Ramblin Rose Hat Co. out of her Pojoaque studio, she made a vow to her customers: to make something that will last forever.

Every aspect of a Ramblin Rose hat is made by hand. “There’s something special about being able to talk to your customer about how we’re going to build something specifically for them,” says Toney. She and her clients select styles, materials and trimming. She does her own leather work and beading. Toney even uses tools from the 1800s that make an exact template of a client’s skull and head shape, which can then basically be baked into his or her hat.

“A hat is an extension of your personality. It should feel and look comfy on your head. It shouldn’t ever look forced,” she explains. “A custom fit allows you that base level of comfort. From there you build your own personality out of it. We eliminate the breaking in. Your hat is broken in from day one.”

CYNTHIA JONES JEWELRY

Perhaps it was the constant creative stimulation of growing up in an artistic family or the fine-arts training she received at school. No matter the reason, Cynthia Jones always knew she wanted to work with her hands.

“I knew I loved jewelry, and I knew I loved making it. You can turn nothing into something. I like that handmade thing. I will never get away from that,” says Jones. “There’s more of a real connection when you know your piece of jewelry was crafted by someone’s fingers. You see the hammer marks on my pieces. It’s a little bit not-perfect. You can tell it’s been made by hands.”

Jones says her loyal local and national customers appreciate the fact that no two pieces will ever be exactly the same. Take, for instance, her signature Saturn ring. Each one has slightly different curves and flow, making it important to try several on to find the right one. Jones’ jewelry is made of sterling silver, gold and rose gold, and accented with turquoise and diamonds. Jones says she often bumps into people around Santa Fe, both friends and strangers, adorned in her works of art.

“That’s the best part. When I see it being worn or someone taking an interest in something I made, that’s the clearest satisfaction as an artist I can get. They see me. They see my talent and abilities. They’re expressing themselves with it, like I would.” Jones sums up what is unmistakably clear: “I am so passionate about what I do.”

HYPERCLASH

Clothing doomed to the landfill is given a second chance at Paloma Navarrete’s Hyperclash on Baca Street. The Taos native is dedicated to a movement that believes the fashion industry doesn’t have to be so darn wasteful. “I wanted to do something bold, knowing the fashion industry is so [inclined toward making] disposable [items]. I really believe we must care for nature and the Earth. That’s always been a big part of my life.”

Consequently, everything in the store, from the clothing to the jewelry and other accessories, is handmade from recycled materials. The bonus is the rich stories behind the whimsical, sometimes droll products and the talented people making them. For instance, customers are drawn to the silkscreened old t-shirts and are often amused at the bracelets from Amsterdam made out of measuring tape.

“You really feel the connection to the person who made it,” says Navarrete. “Our items are infused with some sort of energy the artists put into it.” She also points out that no one else will have anything like it.

Navarrete concedes that it takes the right person to understand her shop and mission. She says that some people come in and walk out because they just don’t get it. She adds, “When people really get it, their faces light up.” Navarrete smiles, recalling two girls who recently walked into the store and couldn’t stop saying “I can’t believe this even exists!”

SANTA FE WEAVING GALLERY

One customer said it best when she walked into Santa Fe Weaving Gallery and declared, “Artists making handmade clothing infuse their garments with love.” There must be a lot of love flowing through this shop, because the vast majority of the clothing, jewelry and scarves are handmade one-of-a-kind pieces.

According to Shirley Bradley, “The artists create from their own vision and then someone else finds it. For the customer, there’s a direct connection with a creative source.” She also notes that one-of-a-kind clothing is relatively rare because large department stores have caused retail to become homogenized. With special handmade pieces, however, she says that you’re not going to see yourself coming and going.

So much about the experience of shopping for and wearing handmade clothing is the sensation of feeling the materials. That’s good old-fashioned shopping. “There’s something about coming in and touching the garment, seeing how it’s woven or painted or dyed, and actually feeling it,” explains Bradley. “That’s a different sensation. It has a different tactile experience when you touch it.”

Bradley says the Galisteo Street shop has found the right balance between serving their clientele at their brick-and-mortar store and online, where their following is substantial. “Our loyal customer base trusts us to curate lovely pieces, so that gives them the confidence to purchase comfortably online,” she says. “We send out weekly emails. We have gotten many new customers when friends forward [our email] and say, ‘You’ll love them.’ They may never have been in the store, but they’re still part of our community.”

In addition to clothing, the shop offers jewelry made of nontraditional materials, such as neoprene and paper. Some, quite funky and unique, are made of crushed records, and even old recycled skate boards. Their intriguing array of scarves includes ones made from old Indian saris.

“Bold colors and texture are big things for us. We don’t do flat materials,” says Bradley. “Everything we carry has to have some sort of texture, and that’s so magnetic, it comes across in person and on [the computer] screen.”

LAURA SHEPPHERD ATELIER & STORE

Laura Sheppherd was just a small child when her mother taught her to sew. Sheppherd says that childhood experience started her on a journey that ultimately led her to study fashion and to work in New York City. Eventually, she migrated to Santa Fe, where she’s been making clothing since 1999. In 2001 Sheppherd opened her acclaimed Marcy Street shop. Over the years, she has outfitted countless locals and travelers with custom, handmade clothing and accessories.

“The city of Santa Fe embodies creativity. I feel like it’s been a great opportunity for me to contribute to that creativity. I am so grateful for all the clients who have embraced what I’ve done,” says Sheppherd.

Working with exquisite textiles and vintage and new fabrics from around the world, Sheppherd transforms them into dresses, jackets and other articles of clothing. She specializes in couture wedding dresses and also sells other artists’ work, including shoes, boots, scarves and handbags.

“When I find some beautifully woven or dyed fabrics or an embroidered textile, it inspires me to make a garment people can wear,” Sheppherd says. “My clients are looking for something that reinforces their individual expression in the world. The garments help to encapsulate that for each person, so when they’re wearing my pieces, they feel it’s a personal expression of themselves.”

She notes that many people tuck gorgeous textiles and fabrics away in a drawer because they just don’t know what to do with them. She would much rather see them enjoy the beauty of those materials out in the world.

Sheppherd shares the news, that with many mixed emotions, she is closing her beloved shop in September 2019: her next adventure awaits. While it’s difficult for her to close the shop doors, she’s excited about new opportunities to share her work online through laurasheppherd.com and etsy.com. Whether they be loyal local customers or new online connections, Sheppherd has a wish for every woman who walks away with a little piece of her work and her heart: “I hope more than anything, she feels beautiful.”

MALOUF ON THE PLAZA

A stroll through Malouf on the Plaza offers a snapshot of a shopping spree around the world. Inside the historic Santa Fe Plaza storefront, you’ll find handcrafted clothing and accessories from many international artists. “Our customer is a very well-traveled person [who has been] exposed to a lot of things, and still, when they come into our store, they’re impressed by the uniqueness and specialness of our pieces,” says owner Karen Malouf.

You’ll discover blouses from a women’s coop in Mexico that are adorned with embroidery and beading of folk-art imagery on the collar and cuffs. You’ll also discover Italian lambskin wraps from Bali, where members of the whole village participate in making them. Lace-like, hand-cut designs, which look as though they were cut with a laser, are embellished with shells, turquoise and brass studs. The shop also carries hand-painted calfskin boots from El Paso, Texas. Customers can opt to have personalized images painted on their bespoke boots. Another discovery: one-of-a-kind purses and purse straps, made from hides and with fur trim. The purses feature hand beading, and sterling silver and turquoise accents.

“When people come to Santa Fe, they experience such a unique environment. We want that to be supported by what you’ll find here. We want the wow factor!” says Malouf. “We love to know the artist’s hands were on this. That makes it such a meaningful purchase. There’s a connection between artist and customer in a real, direct way.”

Getting dressed is much more than deciding what to wear. What we wear speaks to our relationships, stories and moods, and how we express them through our clothes and accessories. For many shoppers, the apparel and adornment we choose has as much to do with our sense of connection to those who made them as it does with the items themselves. Much of the joy and pleasure we feel when wearing them can be attributed to their creators’ gifted hands.

By Alana Grimstad

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Leah Pinkus