The New Mexico city’s fashion sensibility epitomizes the Southwest: eclectic, artistic and individualistic.
This story first appeared in the October 10, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Walk down the street in Santa Fe and you’ll pass some incredible women who see dressing as an art form. They wear everything from the traditional Southwestern look with long skirts, boots and lots of turquoise, to a flowing tribal-print caftan or all black from head to toe with one accessory: a colorful beaded cap.
“Here you see people combining a lot of individual pieces into something beautiful,” said Santa Fe interior designer Jane Smith. “It’s not so much one outfit by one designer. People have fun getting dressed, and that’s what so great about this town.”
With its rich culture and history — a mix of Native American, Spanish and the Wild West — Santa Fe encourages creativity, diversity and individualism. For that reason, it’s also a place where artists live and create one-of-a-kind treasures. Visitors who like to shop can find intricate high-karat gold jewelry by Luna Felix, they can order custom-made boots from Back At the Ranch, pick up a sculpted piece of chocolate covered with edible gold leaves at Todos Santos or buy high-end crafts at Patina Gallery.
The shops and galleries tucked inside adobe buildings that line the main plaza attract mostly tourists, but locals prefer to hunt for bargains at the Tesuque flea market. For casual dinners, Santa Fe natives like the New Mexican cuisine at Tomasita’s. For more elegant dining, they head to Ristra or Geronimo’s, then stop for a drink at the Dragon Room. The Santa Fe Opera offers a cultural experience, along with an incredible view of the Sangre de Christo mountains in an open-air amphitheater. North of town, the high road to Taos has some of the most beautiful scenery in the country.
Santa Fe is home to celebrities like Ali McGraw, Robert Redford and Tom Ford. Other designers, such as Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan also come to Santa Fe for inspiration and raw materials, such as vintage lace from Ann Lawrence Antiques. “That shows me that Santa Fe style is still a little ahead of the rest of the country,” said Smith, who used to have a retail clothing shop in Santa Fe and now has an interior design studio on Canyon Road.
Santa Fe women don’t go for uniform dressing, showy diamonds and Prada bags, Smith said. “People dress more in earth tones, a lot of jeans, great jackets, suede and turquoise — it just looks right with the sky and the buildings.” Because customers are more creative about their wardrobes, it’s a good environment for small specialty boutiques. “There are so many people in retail who are doing their own thing instead of buying everything from a showroom,” Smith said. “That’s what makes it so special.”
For merchants who have settled in Santa Fe, the steady influx of tourists ensures a healthy bottom line. But local Santa Fe women also keep store owners busy. Denise Mills, who works at a boutique called Simply Santa Fe, said the locals really do wear cowboy boots and long skirts most of the time. “We have a lot of dirt roads here. Most of us drive a truck and a lot of us have horses,” Mills said. “This isn’t the kind of town where you’d want to run around in high heels and a miniskirt.” That said, here is a sampling of the shops that cater to all sorts of Santa Fe women and tourists alike:
Simply Santa Fe
When native Santa Fe residents have guests from out of town, this is usually their first stop during a day of shopping. The shop is located right in the center of the plaza, with a good view of downtown. It’s located in a charming historic building and it has the best selection of clothing and jewelry in the Santa Fe style. The three-story, 14,000-square-foot store also has Southwestern-style home furnishings on the top floor and gifts on the lower level.
Co-owner and buyer Sarah Wilson said sales are up 30 percent over last year. She believes it’s because more people from out of state are visiting Santa Fe and trying to copy the bohemian cowgirl look that is back in style. “That whole peasant look, with all the fringe and the ethnic jewelry — that all started here,” she said. Wilson estimated approximately 70 percent of the store’s business comes from tourists and people who own vacation homes in Santa Fe.
Simply Santa Fe is known for carrying Double D Ranch, a hot new western line. A brown suede jacket with miniature vintage photos by Edward Curtis along the hem retails for $615. The store also carries blouses and jackets by Sharon Smith, a local designer who makes tops out of antique linens for $300. Sterling and turquoise jewelry by another local designer, Don Lucas, also sells well. Retail prices range from $80 for sterling hoops to $2,800 for a coral choker with a cross pendant.
Wilson and her husband Armand Ortega have owned Simply Santa Fe for about 10 years. She buys clothing for Simply Santa Fe in Dallas, Los Angeles and Denver. The store has been a mercantile since the 1800s. The interior has a cozy Victorian cowboy feel. Rumors of a ghost in the elevator add to its charm.
With goddess statues, a shrine to the Dalai Lama, African masks, fragrant orchids and silk dresses hanging on the racks, Origins is a feast for the senses. “Santa Fe is famous for being spiritual and spacey and we fit right into that,” said owner Judy Margolis. “Our goal is to have interesting and unique things in every price range. We especially try to support artisans all over the world.”
Origins carries everything from an embroidered Mexican peasant top for $90 to antique gold beads from India for $1,150. Top selling items include flowing dresses and tunics by Catherine Bacon, a designer from Los Angeles and beads by Susan Green. Bacon’s black bias-cut silk “Fortuny” dress, with hand-painted prayer mandala print retails for $775. Another strong seller is local designer Marsha Wiener, who makes a pieced silk hat with tribal textiles, embroidery and amulets for $195.
Margolis opened her 2,300-square-foot store near the plaza 26 years ago after working abroad as a social worker in Mexico and India, where she discovered her passion for handmade ethnic textiles. “We helped create the wearable art movement in the West,” she said. Today, Margolis dresses Hollywood stars and brings in annual sales of $1.5 million, but she has not forgotten her need to help others. Margolis produces her own line, Fire by Origins, to create jobs for women in Third World countries.
Believe it or not, there are some people in Santa Fe who don’t like to wear flouncy skirts with cowboy boots, and would rather take a pass on the ethnic look. When they need a simple, tailored pair of black pants, they turn to Spirit, an understated boutique in business for 20 years. “We have a very loyal following of local people,” said co-owner Brenda Sales. “Some of our best customers have second homes here.”
In a land full of pink coyotes and Southwest kitsch, Spirit offers an interior that is defiantly minimalist. The 3,000-square-foot store has warm yellow walls and antique mahogany tables. The racks are full of simple clothes, including a pair of gray stretch wool trousers by Allan Waller for $388, a silk top by Peter Cohen for $575 and a pair of black cotton sweatpants by Diesel for $78. Other lines include jewelry by Me and Ro, sweaters by Lluis Genero and bags by Kate Spade. Sales and her partner, Merrie Martin, do most of their buying in New York. “We’ve always been different and much more European,” Sales said. “Our look is kind of contemporary and hip but not too trendy.”
Most people buy a piece of turquoise jewelry when they visit Santa Fe. Often, it’s from the Native American merchants who spread out their blankets along the plaza. But when Santa Fe residents need a gift for an important birthday or an anniversary, they usually splurge on a special ring or necklace from Packards. “We only buy the best,” said buyer Kendra Rohrer. “We have high-end Native American jewelry and fashion like you see in Neiman Marcus or Saks Fifth Avenue.”
Located on the plaza in a historic adobe building that used to be an old dry goods store, Packards has been in business since 1921. The store has a reputation for honesty and quality. Recently, they have been selling a lot of sterling flag pins made of inlaid opal, lapis and coral stones by Native American artists Valerie and Benny Aldrich of Durango, Colo. The Aldriches made the pins, which retail for $450, after Sept. 11 and sent one to former New York mayor Rudolph Guiliani.
Packards also carries jewelry by artist Scott Diffrient, of Galisteo, N.M., who makes a green pixie turquoise necklace that retails for $18,000. Other popular artists include Santa Fe designer Lawrence Baca, who makes mix and match twisted chains and pendants for $150, and Stephen Dwek, a New York jeweler known for collectible one-of-a-kind pieces such as an opal and freshwater pearl necklace for $3,900. Rohrer said fewer Native American artists are making jewelry, so Packards has sought out more designers from New York and elsewhere. The store also sells carved wooden Hopi katsina dolls, Navajo rugs and fine Native American pottery.
After working in fashion merchandising in Los Angeles for several years, Rosalie Rosenberg relocated to Santa Fe in 1987. “Back then, it was all the Santa Fe look — there was nothing contemporary,” Rosenberg said. “I came here and there was no place for me to shop.” So she decided to open her own store. Rosenberg started gradually, becoming a freelance buyer for Bodhi Bazaar. In 1992, she took over the whole operation. Apparently, lots of Santa Fe women felt deprived too. They thanked Rosenberg by voting for Bodhi Bazaar as the best women’s clothing shop in the Santa Fe Reporter’s “Best of Santa Fe” section for the past eight years. “It was obvious people were hungry for the fashions they would see in big cities,” said Rosenberg, who buys exclusively in Los Angeles. “I take that big-city look and translate it for the Santa Fe customer.” Unlike the shops on the plaza, Rosenberg says 95 percent of her customers are local.
A peek inside the store, located in the Sanbusco Center, shows why it’s so popular. The grey walls, Buddha statues and elegant silk lanterns give the interior of the 2,100-square-foot store a serene, inviting feeling. And lots of hip, young, trendy surprises are hanging from the racks, including such lines as Sharagano, Trina Turk, Tark 1, Seven Jeans, Juicy Couture and Betsey Johnson.
A display on the wall typifies the look Rosenberg is going for: washed out jeans and a hippie-inspired red silk tunic by Vivienne Tam for $262, a long black sweater coat by Joie for $274 and a pair of pointy black ankle boots by Sancho for $170. To finish the look, she added a wire-wrapped cross hanging from a suede cord by a local artist, Kastner Otte. “We are a bohemian community here,” Rosenberg said. “We get into texture and ethnicity and exotic fabrics in unexpected combinations, so it’s a perfect match with what’s going on in fashion now.”
Cowgirls are cool again, and Nathalie is the kind of boutique for people who are ready to invest in the best quality, most collectible western wear that will offer a timeless fashion statement even after Madonna stops wearing a cowboy hat.
Owner Nathalie Kent has always been into the cowgirl look, ever since she was a girl growing up in France watching old Westerns on television. “For me, it was definitely a huge passion. I was always dressed in cowboy boots and cowboy hats — I felt I was part of the movie,” said Kent, who went on to become an editor at French Vogue. She later married an American photographer and moved to Santa Fe. After working in retail, she decided to open her 1,200-square-foot store amidst the art galleries on Canyon Road in 1995.
Kent sells a lot of traditional snap-button western shirts by Denver-based Rock Mount, along with more embellished shirts by Rifle Range Couture. She carries Stallion boots, recently shown on the runways by Christian Dior and high-end belt buckles by Houston silversmith Clint Orms, who outfits President Bush, and Lee Downey, who designs for Dolce & Gabbana. Prices range from $66 for a gingham cotton Rock Mount shirt to $1,020 for a Lee Downey belt buckle in ivory, sterling and 22-karat gold. “My dream is to become the Hermès of the West,” said Kent who dresses socialites who want something different to wear to gala events like the Buckaroo Ball and the Cattle Baron Ball in Texas. “My customers are people who love elegant Western wear but they don’t want to be a victim of the Santa Fe style.”