Native Awakening

Lloyd Kiva New revolutionized the design world by incorporating Native motifs into midcentury fashion. Three Santa Fe exhibitions reflect on his art and legacy

By Ashley M. Biggers

In the 1940s and ’50s, Lloyd Kiva New (pictured) infused his successful fashion line with native symbols, Southwestern colors and bold, graphic prints. Photo courtesy of IAIA.

A supple plum leather handbag with a metal sun medallion. A structured dress cut from an original textile blending desert colors as though shimmering in summer heat. These are the physical legacies of fashion designer Lloyd Kiva New, but his influence as an educator and co-founder of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) stretches far beyond the tactile.
“Lloyd’s ultimate influence was based in his concept of taking Native art out of this preconceived box and opening it up to 20th-century people,” says Ryan Flahive, a co-curator of one of three exhibits in Santa Fe, celebrating the 100th anniversary of New’s life this year.
Born Lloyd Henri New in 1916, New grew up in Oklahoma, the son of a wiry Scotsman and a stalwart Cherokee mother. His mother was his tether to Native culture, though he struggled with cultural identity walking in two worlds. He followed his nascent art talents to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, from which he was the first Native American to graduate. His brief stint teaching at the Phoenix Indian Boarding School that followed disillusioned him about the traditional methods of art education.
In 1946, he adopted the trade name Lloyd Kiva and established Kiva Studio, his Scottsdale, Arizona, showroom. Here customers found contemporary 1950s fashions — full, midi skirts for women, tailored button-down shirts for men — with Native touches, whether they be Kiva’s vibrant textiles, or belts and buttons with Native symbols.
Reaching an acclaim never before seen in Native fashion design, he left a lucrative creative career to become the first art director of IAIA in Santa Fe in 1962. The move coincided with a sea change moment in the history of Western art, when ethnicity, culture and personal narrative were more readily welcomed not only as means of expression but also as mainstream contemporary art. He taught his students textile design as an entré to experimentation. Bolts of the colorful results hang in a Museum of Contemporary Native Art exhibit. According to Flahive, New overthrew the notion that Native American students must restrict themselves to making “roadside trinkets” and even traditional art forms.
“At IAIA, Indian youths have the opportunity to study what is artistically the best, what is artistically enduring, and what is artistically transferable to the modern world from their unique traditions,” he said.

Photo by Jason S. Ordaz, Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA).
Lloyd Kiva New Centennial Exhibitions