Arizona’s fashion industry not just for cowboys anymore

A woman styled in local Tucson designer, Laura Tanzer’s, designs. (Photo courtesy of: Paul Davis)

As the birthplace of the squaw dress, Tucson was once a major player in the fashion industry. During the height of its reign, Tucson was considered a place of major style influence, one to even match the likes of New York City or Los Angeles.

The squaw dress was a major staple in the wardrobes of many women and maintained its coveted top spot for 20 years. But, as the famous saying goes, all good things must come to an end, and as the squaw dress declined in popularity so did the influence that Arizona had on the fashion industry.

For many years, the Grand Canyon State has tried to revive its influence on the industry, and with many ups and downs along the way it seems that there finally may be legitimate plans to make that hope a reality. In 2017, Arizona is inciting a revival of its fashion roots that moves far beyond cowboy boots and bolo ties.

The classic squaw dress. (Photo courtesy of Chronically Vintage)

With the growth of social media and a push in resources for budding designers and creatives, Arizona is taking advantage of this and quickly becoming an incubator for new talent trying to enter the fashion industry — beginning with educational opportunities, because the growth and success of an industry is only as strong as the budding talent that is entering the market.

For prospective fashion students, most opportunities for education in fashion are located in either New York City or Los Angeles, polarizing these necessary opportunities to break into the mainstream market, while also stifling people that do not live in either place.

As a result, both the University of Arizona and Arizona State University have picked up on the growth of the fashion industry and the need to offer educational options for students interested in industry opportunities.

“The fashion industry is the fourth largest industry in the world, which means there are a lot of jobs and careers created by it,” said Charlette Padilla, when asked why having a fashion program at UA is critical.

Padilla is the lead professor of the UA fashion minor, which is for students who want to go into the business of fashion, by taking classes specializing in retail, designers, silhouettes and styling. The minor provides a base for students who want to apply their major to a career in fashion.

While UA has started to incorporate these educational opportunities on a more micro scale, Arizona State has approached this need with a more macro approach. Beginning in fall 2017, ASU will provide students with the opportunity to earn a bachelors degree in fashion design. The program is setting itself apart by utilizing other university resources such as engineering, business and sustainability to tackle industry issues head on, and provide students with a competitive advantage among other design students worldwide. By fostering a place to grow talent, next steps toward growth in the industry can be made, providing opportunities for businesses to bridge that gap.

One of the many reasons Los Angeles and New York City are hubs for innovation in the industry is because they have facilities that can capacitate emerging designers. Like Tucson and Phoenix, many other cities see a market in the fashion industry, but a majority of them don’t have a resource past the education stage that can keep the talent local instead of losing them to the likes of L.A. or NYC.

“Unlike what a lot of people think, Arizona has a tremendous amount of very talented designers,” said Sherri Barry, owner of the Arizona Fashion Source. The Arizona Fashion Source is a business that provides manufacturing and space use to designers.

“We wanted a fashion incubator, to have a resource to take an idea to a manufactured product,” Barry said, “because never before has there been a better time for small independent designers.”

The facility provides a physical location in Tempe, where people can create, source, manufacture and market their designs. So instead of having to leave the state to manufacture a product, all business can be done in Arizona, localizing the industry.

One of the rooms in the Arizona Fashion Source facility in Tempe, Ariz. (Photo courtesy of Arizona Fashion Source)

With the ability to now manufacture the products locally, the next step is retention, giving the designers a reason to stay in Arizona even after production. A place has been provided for education and application, but another step is promotion, which led to both Tucson and Phoenix Fashion Weeks. They provide a place to showcase the talent that is being grown in the state.

Great things could be happening in the Arizona market, but in order to compete with promotional sinkholes occurring in other cities, Arizona had to do something to be a competitor.

In the few years both fashion weeks have been operating, they have garnered not only local attention, but nationwide hype — providing local designers with the ability to promote themselves, and also to sell their product.

Take Laura Tanzer, local Tucson designer, or “clothing engineer” as she likes to call herself. Tanzer is the most recent winner of the Phoenix Fashion Week Emerging Designer of the Year, and since participating in Phoenix Fashion Week has seen incredible growth to her brand.

And, just like Tanzer, there are many designers, store owners and models who hope to see the industry in Arizona grow, so they can sustain careers in the place they love.

“I love living here … and there are people who are doing the same things that I am doing; we talk, and we are all trying to lift the whole industry here in Arizona,” Tanzer said. “We all have hope that all of the crazy regulations in California are going to bring people here, because we don’t have that kind of infrastructure, and that will help us.”

Arizona is taking all the steps to regain the coveted influence it once held on the world of fashion, moving out of the era of the bolo tie and into the future. If the market continues like this, only time will tell just how far the industry will go next.

“I think Arizona has the right location, job market, right cost of living to grow a fashion business,” Barry said.

Gisele Smith is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News service, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at


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