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Navajo fashion designer continues to adapt to challenges of pandemic

Jolonzo Goldtooth isn't letting COVID-19 stall his career

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • Goldtooth is a Piedra Vista High School graduate and member of the Navajo Nation.
  • He lives on his family's ranch on the Navajo Nation's Huerfano Chapter south of Bloomfield.
  • Goldtooth said he hasn't taken part in a fashion show since December 2019 because of the pandemic.
Jolonzo Goldtooth

FARMINGTON — It was nearly a year ago when Farmington native Jolonzo Goldtooth was eagerly looking forward to his first trip to Italy to take part in Milan Fashion Week, an annual gathering where many of the world's top clothing designers unveil their new lines.

Goldtooth, a Piedra Vista High School graduate and member of the Navajo Nation, had burst onto the international fashion scene in 2015, taking part in the PLITZS New York City Fashion Week. Since then, he had become a regular on the fashion circuit, returning to New York several times and taking part in shows in Canada, Australia and Paris.

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But the visit to Italy would have been his first. Goldtooth had spent months designing a new line he planned to show in Milan, and, as usual, he wasn't traveling light. In addition to the trunks carrying his latest fashions, he was planning on bringing along a full entourage of models, stylists, makeup artists and family members from San Juan County to help showcase his designs.

But those plans came to a screeching halt when a COVID-19 outbreak hit Italy. Goldtooth watched in dismay as Milan became an epicenter of the outbreak, leading him to cancel his travel plans and delay the unveiling of his new line, which he reluctantly hung back in the closet.

Recent designs by Farmington native Jolonzo Goldtooth are featured during a fashion shoot at White Sands National Park.

As the months have flown by and the calendar has turned from 2020 to 2021, Goldtooth is still waiting for the right opportunity to present his new designs on the runway. He last participated in a fashion show in December 2019, and with the end of the pandemic still nowhere in sight, Goldtooth, like so many other folks, is growing increasingly restless.

"I'm used to traveling, I'm used to going places," he said, describing the adjustment he has had to make from a globetrotting lifestyle to a sedentary one. "This is the first time I've never flown anywhere in a year."

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At the same time, Goldtooth is grateful to be in a position in which he and his family have remained safe from the virus. Despite his status as an internationally acclaimed designer, Goldtooth continues to reside happily on his family's ranch on the Navajo Nation's Huerfano Chapter south of Bloomfield. In fact, he recently inherited his grandmother's house and has spent much of the past year renovating the home with his aunt.

"I have no plans to move," Goldtooth said. "This is where I come from. I have my family to thank for keeping me so grounded. My entire family is so accepting."

Jolonzo Goldtooth says his work is rooted in traditional Native designs, although it incorporates modern influences.

Goldtooth said he draws inspiration for his work from the striking landscape that surrounds his home, and he's afraid of losing that link if he ever moves to a metropolis more closely associated with the fashion industry. As much as he loves jetting around the world and rubbing elbows with other designers, life in rural San Juan County with his family makes him feel complete, he said.

"Love your home, love where you come from," Goldtooth said, describing his approach to finding happiness. "That's your backbone, that's your inspiration."

Finding a new path

The pandemic has certainly impacted his finances, Goldtooth said, but he has found a way to adapt. His first step was to design and manufacture a line of contoured, fashionable, triple-layered facemasks, which proved so popular they were picked up and offered for sale through the San Diego Art Institute. They also are available for purchase at Stitch, a Durango, Colorado, boutique.

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The designs for Goldtooth's masks reflect his Native and southwestern leanings, he said, explaining that he produced dozens of concepts, giving them names that reflect regional geographic features such as Painted Desert and Hesperus.

But the market for facemasks has become almost saturated over the past year, Goldtooth said. That has led him to concentrate on designing new clothing and accessories, and marketing those products online. These days, he works mostly with private clients or offers his work online through the website of his design company, JG Indie.

His customers don't seem to have had any trouble following him into the digital realm, Goldtooth said, noting that when he completes a new design and posts images of it online, it usually sells within a day or two. His work remains rooted in traditional Native concepts, he said, but it also has a distinctly modern flair.

As he and his aunt continue to renovate his house, Goldtooth said his long-term goal is to convert part of the space into a home studio and later construct a manufacturing facility for his designs. He hopes to provide work through JG Indie not just for the members of his family, but other Navajo people in his community so they don't have to commute to Farmington every day.

But Goldtooth is taking a cautious approach to returning to the fashion circuit full time. He continues to be invited to fashion shows around the world, but he has declined all those opportunities, believing the dangers presented by the pandemic remain too great.

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"Whenever I go to a fashion show, I like to bring along my special models," he said. "They're my muses. I don't want to put them at risk. They're all part of my entourage — models, their moms, makeup artists, hair stylists. It's a team effort at every show I'm a part of. I can't do that right now."

But Goldtooth relishes the opportunity to take the members of his "fashion family" from the Farmington area and expose them to life in some of the world's more cosmopolitan places. He wants them, and other young people from San Juan County, to resist the inclination to place limits on what they are capable of.

"You can make it — you can travel the way I do," he said. "Just because you're from a small town, that doesn't mean that's all you are. They world is your oyster. That's what I teach my models and everyone I work with."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.