A young woman wearing Southwestern-themed apparel and accessories.In the fashion category, fiesta blouses never seem to go out of style for women, according to the owner of Bazaar del Mundo.
prawling vistas, vibrant colors and dry, hot weather make the Southwest region of the United States a popular tourist attraction. The region’s diverse culture has also inspired an unmistakable style that’s been adopted into fashion, home goods and art. More recently, top designers have even been inspired by these uniquely American style cues, featuring the "Southwest look" on runways as far flung as Milan and Paris. For shop owners in the region where it all got started, appealing to tourists, as well as blossoming Southwest aficionados, it’s become a big business.
Just ask Marcia Wenbert, chair of the Mesa Arts Center’s MAC Store Artists Cooperative in Mesa, Ariz. “We are a new artists’ cooperative that opened September 9,” Wenbert said.
The cooperative is housed in a building that was previously the Mesa Arts Center Gift Store. “The gallery opened with 56 artists and we are currently holding our second Jury Call for up to 18 additional artists," she said. Not only does the facility give artists in the region an opportunity to display their work, but it’s also become a popular place for tourists to purchase authentic, one-of-a-kind goods made in the region.
“The MAC Store Artists Cooperative Gallery features unique local art sold by the very artists that created them,” said Wenbert. “The one-of-a-kind items found in the store range from paintings and sculptures to jewelry and fiber. With the local artists staffing the gallery while giving art demonstrations, we provide answers by knowledgeable and passionate staff members.”
That means guests can get to know the artists personally, creating an experience much different from many other gift shops.
And while the cooperative doesn’t emphasize traditional Southwestern art that the mainstream has come to know, it does focus on local art inspired by the region – with bold colors and unique uses of native materials.
The setting is elegant and airy at Bazaar del Mundo. “Accessories made out of mesquite or other beautiful hard woods — and wood in itself — is a really good look for Southwestern style,” the store’s owner said.
“Handcrafted jewelry is a big seller for us in varying mediums,” she said, like glass, beads, silver, copper and gold. “Our ceramics, glass, fiber and paintings have so far had good sales, as well,” she admitted.
A Chain in the Know
At Xanterra Parks and Resorts in Highland Ranch, Colo., Meg Kenney, retail buyer in the corporate division, is responsible for 26 different stores in five different demographics. The smallest souvenir shop is 800 square feet – and the largest is 2,000.
“Because of our proximity to Native American artists, we carry a tremendous amount of arts, crafts and jewelry,” said Kenney. “Also, because we are in an area that’s surrounded by historic Native American icons, we portray a lot of those graphics on the products that we sell.”
Kenney features a lot of Southwest-type fabrics in both the apparel and home décor categories.
“We’ve actually seen a trend in Native American jewelry sales,” she admitted. And she said some of the buzz can be attributed to trends in fashion. “Some of it has trickled down from fashion magazines,” she explained. “Ralph Lauren has made a big return to his Southwest native routes.”
And for the Xanterra gift shops, that means an increase in interest among a much wider demographic. “For us, we are not so influenced by trends in the normal marketplace,” she said. But the trends certainly have an impact on the bottom line.
An outfit put together with merchandise from Bazaar del Mundo in San Diego, Calif. Ponchos, ruanas, sweater wraps and shawls with Southwestern motifs are popular for the store.
“Right now there’s a big trend in ladies apparel, and for scarves and hats,” said Kenney. “And a lot are in Southwest-inspired colorations.”
There’s also a renewed focus on the native arts, crafts and pottery being sold that she said really embody the Southwest experience and culture – something customers have come to expect from the gift shops.
“They’re immersed in the experience on their vacation,” she explained. “People come here for a reason. It’s a destination. Their whole reason for traveling here is to experience the Southwest. I think that’s why we do so well with Southwestern goods. I’m not sure they would have the same appeal on the East Coast.”
However, designs like Aztec can be seen in the latest fashion and home furnishing lines from some of the world’s most famous designers. Even Urban Outfitters, a typically city-based, large retail chain around the country, is featuring apparel and home goods featuring the Aztec style.
“There are even two or three designers out of L.A. who are putting Aztec in their clothing,” said Kenney. She’s also seeing it in carvings, jewelry and paintings.
“We do a lot of jewelry all sourced from Native American artists,” she said. “Many things are one-of-a-kind because of colorations of stone. And there’s a line of handbags that I carried on and off that have increased in Southwest appeal. They’re very bohemian-looking.” And she admitted they’re also very popular, particularly the smaller bags featuring textile and rug-like patterns that are made in the United States.
On the higher end, said Kenney, the appeal for Southwest style is more apparel-driven and accessory-driven. There are also plenty of people who have incorporated the looks into their homes over the years.
Catching Customers on the Go
Teresa Curl is the CEO of Avila Retail, which operates the 1,500-square-foot Fiesta Market at the Albuquerque International Airport in Albuquerque, N.M., a haven for Southwest-inspired merchandise attracting world travelers.
“Some of our top-selling items are in the regional food category,” said Curl, like red Chile chocolate bars, New Mexican Pinon Coffee and red Chile pistachios. “Chile pepper boxer shorts are one of our best novelty items,” she admitted.
When it comes to Southwest goods, Curl admitted there’s staying power for even the oldest trends. “Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) has been around forever,” she admitted, “but it feels like a hot, new trend. We carry ornaments, tiles, T-shirts and quality talavera sculpture.”
What attracts many visitors to the store is a huge front window that showcases colorful, exotic goods with bright fiesta-themed displays – everything from a 6-foot-tall sculpture to small Hispanic folk art items.
“We also have books that talk about the traditions of the Day of the Dead and signage that explains it,” said Curl. “And we do a strong business in Southwest regional sports team products.”
A West Coast Take on Southwest Style
At Bazaar del Mundo in San Diego, Calif., it’s all about the Southwest. “Southwestern food-inspired gifts are very popular right now,” said Diane Powers, the shop’s owner. “We sell some wonderful gourmet salts flavored with various exotic flavors like chipotle and different Chiles. We have one group of four different salts packaged in beautiful glass bottles that’s been very popular as a gift.”
Powers admitted that Southwest-inspired goods really do sell well – like cookbooks. She said they are especially popular in the fall “because they have all these delicious recipes for soups, beans, salsas and salads with chicken, fish and beef,” she explained, “just real warm-your-tummy-type meals. We have a great assortment of cookbooks.”
Food isn’t the only popular category at the Bazaar, however.
“Fashion-wise, ponchos and ruanas are popular,” admitted Powers, “as well as sweater wraps and shawls with Southwestern motifs. Hand-tooled leather purses and handbags with fringe and textile appliqué details are in style now, as well. We just got in a collection of very upscale leather purses that are each one-of-a-kind and unique.” The shoulder straps are actually made from western horse bridles.
Repurposing familiar items into fashion has become a popular trend not only for Southwest style enthusiasts, but also the eco-conscious. Serape jackets and vests are inspired from vintage Saltillo serapes with vibrant colors.
“Accessories made out of mesquite or other beautiful hard woods – and wood in itself - is a really good look for Southwestern style,” she explained. “We’ve brought on a whole new wooden bowl collection for fall [that are] handcrafted by artists. You can put them on a shelf for display or use as salad bowls and serving bowls. Also rustic and exotic wood cutting boards, these all make very popular gifts.”
And then there’s jewelry.
“We’re noticing a lot of feathers right now,” said Powers, like earrings and hair ornaments with feathers. “Southwestern silver and turquoise continue to be popular, as well,” she said. “Designers like Ralph Lauren are using Concho belts and different Southwestern accents in his casual line.”
Powers said animal themes are also eye-catching for shoppers at the 7,000-square-foot shop. “We’re also seeing a lot of snake themes popping up,” she said. “We just got in some wonderful glass snakes and people love them. The glass design so perfectly interprets that natural fluid motion of that reptile.”
As much as Southwest goods are inspired by the natural world, the market also seems to thrive on classic interpretations of the region and its colorful culture. Powers said pottery is a great example of this.
“There’s a lot of beautiful new creative pieces of pottery and ceramics with Southwest style and inspiration that we have,” she explained. “Gourd art is becoming more and more popular, both large and small pieces, and what they’re doing with beautiful stains on them and designs. They even paint them to depict Native American ceramic pots.”
In the fashion category, she said fiesta blouses never seem to go out of style for women. “They are a classic Southwest look with the longer skirts, fun jewelry belts and boots that are still in style,” said Powers. “These shirts are having a real resurgence and they’re something we always carry. Another classic style trend we continue to carry are leather-embellished belts with large buckles.”
Add to this list woven area rugs with traditional Zapotec designs in rich colors. “Colors seem to be evolving and changing into rich color palettes with oranges, golds, greens and deep crimson reds,” she said. “Native American jewelry is still big, particularly the silver oxidized Navajo pearls - all handmade - and can be worn adorned with a gorgeous big pendant. And all throughout the Southwest we’re seeing small bead chokers made of multi-stones.”
The richness of the colors and style of the merchandise begs for creative display. Powers said she groups everything to tell a story.
“Our cookbooks are surrounded by the salts and seasoning, dips, breads and soups,” she explained. “On the fashion end, we might tell a complete Southwest fashion story with a fiesta blouse, long maxi skirt, leather Concho belt and turquoise jewelry, or we might just take one Southwestern item and use it as a bold accent, sort of blending styles for a more eclectic look.”
It’s all about keeping with the natural style of the objects. “We are in Southwest, so it’s very natural for us, and the merchandise is very accessible to us in this area. People living here in San Diego find that the Southwest style accommodates so beautifully to so much of the décor they enjoy. And it pairs so well with the architecture and lifestyle here,” she admitted. “People are also becoming more conscious of the arts and in the Southwest so much of what is available is handmade; people love handmade items now. We’re going back to having a better appreciation for unique work, quality work, so much of that is seen in Southwestern art. It’s a very creative area.”
Bringing the Southwest to the Northeast
A Connecticut Shop Thrives with Unique, Themed Merchandise
Mystic, Conn., may be more well known for that movie with Julia Roberts and the region’s longtime nautical history, but for Lu and Les Lupovich, it’s all about the Southwest.
The couple owns Southern Exposure, an outpost with two shops (one in Mystic and the other in Old Saybrook) for all things Native American and Southwestern, like apparel, jewelry, art and home goods. It may seem like an unlikely locale, but both shops are very popular among tourists throughout the year.
“Native American jewelry has always been a focus of our 17-year-old business,” said Les Lupovich. “It continues to be popular for our customers who do intend to buy and like Native American jewelry.” He admitted the jewelry is also appealing to tourists who like “pretty turquoise and other stones” commonly featured in the pieces.
Southern Exposure owners Lu and Les Lupovich. “Display is everything,” Les Lupovich said.
But the rise in silver prices has taken a toll on how the couple buys nowadays. “It has severely impacted many of the artists we buy work from,” said Lupovich. “And as buyers, we have had to be much more concerned with perceived retail value with the rise in the finished product prices.”
Almost two years ago, the couple decided to add more and different inventory to the shop to make up for some of the expense in the jewelry category. “We added handmade cowboy boots from Lucchese, Old Gringo and Justin to our stores,” he said. “Many of our long-term customers encouraged this because they wear boots already, however, fashion trends have also made cowboy boots much more of a mainstream fashion statement and we are happy to offer them to those folks, too.”
The couple spends a lot of time balancing the Southwestern heritage they so admire with the need to also appeal to tourists who flock to the region. To keep up with the spikes in tourism, they often introduce new goods in the shop.
“This is our job - to be on the lookout for new and unique handmade items that we think our customers will appreciate,” said Lupovich. “The most recent rendition of horsehair pottery made by Navajo and Acoma artists, including turquoise cabochon stones, is popular for us.”
Native American jewelry is always a best seller, too. “We have developed a relationship with many artists who will send us new work in between our buying trips to their homes,” he explained.
The shop has also explored more home goods. “We have some gorgeous new pieces from Pendleton and have expanded our offering of throws, pillows, blankets and other home décor items,” Lupovich said. “Fun fashion clothing is clearly a bigger percentage of our business since the downturn in the economy. Folks will allow themselves to purchase clothing on a need basis versus Native American art or other none-need items.”
Over the years, the couple has learned a thing or two about what always sells – and what to avoid.
“Native jewelry has an extremely strong following with regular and new customers,” said Lupovich. “Same with good native art. We are not selling the volume we did years ago, however, there are still collectors who come to us for one-of-a-kind native art.”
It’s all about quality, not quantity. “Things to avoid would be items of less-than-stellar quality,” he admitted. “We just stay away from that. Our customers have grown to expect that we buy unique items from individual artisans or reliable traders of one-of-a-kind items. We do carry some gift merchandise, as well, some of which is manufactured, and we try to keep it special just the same.”
Many times it comes down to how it’s displayed.
“Display is everything,” Lupovich said. “Items that do not call for education are attractively displayed in various locations in our 2,400 and 1,300-square-foot shops. Items requiring explanation or education, or of a particularly valuable nature, may be in lit, locked cases or may be on shelving available for eye-viewing but requiring one of us to safely assist the customer.”
However, he said, most times he’d rather err on the side of “danger,” providing people with a way to feel, touch and experience items.
“We believe people need to be able to be near and touch things they are considering purchasing,” he said. “Lighting is extremely important, as well.”
The shops also send announcements to customers to generate return business. “We do four or five full, four-color postcards a year to our mailing list of 3,400 people,” Lupovich said. “We will feature a particular artist’s work, or many different photos of fun, new things in the shop. We also bring in artists several times a year from the Southwest to demonstrate and show their work.”
Past events have focused on everything from pottery and jewelry to Zuni fetish carving. — Natalie Hope McDonald