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ASU alum fashions a new path

ASU alumnus has designs on the fashion world — and on @PHXFashionWeek.
October 10, 2016

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.”

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

Reporter , ASU Now


ASU alumni find success by impacting others

3 distinguished alumni named College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Leaders, to be honored at Homecoming

October 11, 2016

Driven by a desire to succeed and make a difference in the lives of others, three distinguished alumni from Arizona State University have persevered to overcome obstacles and accomplish personal and professional goals. 

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has invited these three remarkable alumni back for the CLAS Leaders program during the university’s homecoming festivities, Oct. 16-22. ASU alumnus Dan Kolk with two lab assistants at Hologic Arizona State University alumnus Dan Kolk (left) works with laboratory assistants Artemio Saucedo and Kristina Young at Hologic, a global health-care and diagnostics company. Download Full Image

“It’s a great privilege being named a CLAS Leader,” said Najla Arekat, a political science alumna. “I just want to be a role model people can aspire to … one who kept trying no matter what.”

These distinguished individuals – Arekat, Daniel Kolk and Nick Lambesis – reflect the breadth of the arts and sciences and represent a growing network of successful alumni in prominent positions of influence.

“The college was a huge component of my career path,” said Arekat, wealth advisor and vice president of BBVA Compass. “I realized I had a natural talent for finance and turned it into a lifelong career.” 

Arekat pursued a Bachelor of Arts in political science with the intention of attending law school. After graduating from the university in 1997, she changed her career trajectory and decided to enter the workforce. Her college courses in economics and finance steered her toward the finance industry.

“It’s been about 18 years now – I guess, I can’t believe that – since I’ve been in this industry,” laughed Arekat. “There have been lots of ups and downs and many challenges, but I think I made the right decision going down this path.”

Since graduation, Arekat has worked for several top-tier investment banking and wealth management firms such as Charles Schwab, Merrill Lynch and J.P. Morgan. She has managed multi-billion dollar funds for institutions, family offices and high-net worth individuals in the U.S. and Middle East. She also founded and served as CEO of ADL Capital, a registered investment advisory firm. 

“There are so many pieces to running an investment firm,” she said. “It was much bigger than I ever anticipated but well worth it.”

Currently, Arekat works as a wealth advisor and vice president of BBVA Compass, a banking franchise in the U.S. She’s also one of just 235 people in the country who have the NFLPA Registered Player Financial Advisor designation, which helps ensure NFL players are being treated fairly by financial advisors.

“The reason I’m where I am today is because of all the chances I took,” said Arekat. “Just don’t give up.”

Similarly, alumnus Nick Lambesis found success in the corporate world after having to switch his career from teaching to freelance writing, which eventually led to the creation of an advertising agency.

“My passion was education,” said Lambesis, who acquired two master’s degrees in humanities and English literature from ASU. “I had to put it on the back burner to make sure I could support my family.”

After lecturing in the Department of English for 12 years, Lambesis became a freelance writer and later joined the creative advertising market. Currently, he’s the chairman and founder of The Lambesis Agency, which creates iconic brands by establishing a deeper emotional and cultural connection with consumers.

“I get to take all the very same elements of the humanities and apply them to the creative development of a brand,” he said. “In the advertising/brand world, we call them strategy instead of philosophy, copywriting instead of literature and of course music, film and art.”

Lambesis’ methods of merging the icons of culture with the principles of humanities to brand clients, including Bebe, Coke, Hitachi, Guess and Tacori, has led to many new developments in marketing such as the creation of buzz, viral marketing and the use of short films on the internet. The work of his agency has been publicized extensively in trade publications, movies and college textbooks.  

“I want to be a part of the vision and genius of Neal Lester,” said Lambesis. “I think he is taking the humanities in the direction it needs to go. We need the humanities to be, well, more human in a decent way. And all that creative stuff fits in but none of it matters if we’re not pulling it all together.”

When thinking about finding success, Lambesis encourages students and recent alumni to consider what they want to be remembered for after they’re gone. For himself, he said he wants his legacy to be that he made a difference in the lives of people: personally, professionally and in serving them.

Alumnus Daniel Kolk has also committed himself to serving people through health care. He has utilized his knowledge from his doctoral program in molecular genetics to make a difference in the field of in vitro diagnostics — tests used to detect human diseases, conditions or infections. 

“The interesting thing about in vitro diagnostics is you can start developing something and see it on the market at four years or less,” said Kolk, who graduated from the university in 1992. “I was attracted to this industry because I knew the turnaround time was faster and we can make a difference quicker.”

Since 1995, Kolk has worked in assay development at Hologic, a global health-care and diagnostics company formerly known as Gen-Probe. The company just received European regulatory approval for a molecular test to confirm Hepatitis C.

As the senior director of product development, Kolk helps create premium diagnostics for a variety of infectious diseases and makes sure they are ready for clinical trials.

“We’re in the golden age of molecular biology,” said Kolk. “I always wanted to contribute to people’s wellbeing through science so it’s very inspirational to know people are making health care decisions based on results I helped generate, design and get into the laboratory’s hands to help their patients.”

Kolk said he learned a tremendous amount about molecular biology and virology at ASU, which has been essential to moving forward in the in vitro diagnostics industry. He believes his perseverance in difficult times has been the key to acquiring both personal and professional success.

“Everyone goes through periods of ups and downs,” he said. “If you really want to achieve your dream, you have to be willing to buckle down and solider through the down times because it’s inevitable that you’ll have them. But in the long run, it will ultimately be more satisfying to know that you stuck with something through the tough times to achieve your goal.”

Amanda Stoneman

Copywriter, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences