How a certain onscreen blue hat and the well-worn denim of local cowboys inspired one Montana artist to redefine couture fashion.
Working in a style she describes as “a mixture of French couture, Native American, and contemporary,” Celeste Sotola creates one-of-a-kind custom pieces for women and men, using techniques she’s mastered as an artist and textile designer. Her label, Montana Dreamwear, takes as its inspiration Montana’s mountains, rivers, and rugged history. The collection features soft deerskin dresses, generously fringed hand-laced New Zealand shearling jackets, leather vests trimmed in silver conchos, and beaver hats that look like they’ve already been cowboy-broken in. Each piece is made by hand and takes up to two months to create from start to finish. There are no two dresses alike; no two jackets. We caught up with Sotola as she was stitching hand-cut pieces of copper onto deerskin at one of her four studios in the small town of Basin, Montana (population 255), where she lives with her 8-year-old Shih Tzu, Boogie.
Cowboys & Indians: You’ve lived in Tokyo; Lubbock, Texas; and Enid, Oklahoma. You’ve also lived in Chicago, where you owned an art gallery and also worked as a fine artist, and your work was featured in shows in a gallery in Paris. How’d you end up in Montana?
Celeste Sotola: I fell in love with a cowboy, and after four trips, I moved here in 2001.
C&I: What did you do when you arrived to help make the city-to-country transition easier?
Sotola: We would go to these little cafes every day, and I’d see these working cowboys from the nearby ranches, who would come in wearing jeans with oil stains and soil marks and tears. Coming from Chicago, where your clothes are always kept cleaned and pressed, this seemed so strange to me. I used to say, “This whole state needs a good dry cleaning.” But after a while, I could identify when a pants leg came into contact with barbed wire — it was an L-shaped tear. Then I started to hear stories in the tears and frays and rub marks. There was something genuine about each one. I realized there was a certain realness of the people and their garments were an extension of that.
C&I: So observing the locals over coffee became an anthropological study — and an artistic inspiration.
Sotola: Exactly, but I hadn’t figured out yet what form it would take. Then, in 2007, I’d seen the [1995 TV miniseries] Buffalo Girls, with Anjelica Huston, and she wore a blue hat that was the color of the sky. And I said, ‘I want a hat just like that — a cerulean blue cowboy hat.’ My husband told me he couldn’t get one for me like that because they didn’t make them. I have a background in textile design, so I bought 10 beaver hats and I put them on the floor and I started ripping the brims and putting holes in them. I did all these hats, tore them up, soiled them with pigment, and sold them.
The next obvious thing was what would you wear the hat with? So I started making dresses and jackets. I only made what I would wear myself. Native Americans use hides, and hides are incredible, especially deer — it has this presence to it, this softness, and it’s a perfect canvas.
C&I: Your approach is very artistic — free-flowing but also very detailed. Your pieces are elegant and refined yet might combine rustic materials like shearling and rustic leather with sophisticated materials like silk and freshwater pearls. Where does that impulse come from?
Sotola: Paris is where I learned about true couture fashion. Everything was about the beauty and “the hand” and was so intentionally done. You’d see designers in these tiny shops. Everything was precious. And you’d go on to the next thing, even the bookstores and antique stores. It was all honoring the creation, the soul that went into whatever it was they were doing. That’s how I started with my fashion. I was an artist first and I liked that attention to detail and the textures.
C&I: How did this translate to what you’re doing now with Montana Dreamwear?
Sotola: Because the handwork is what I loved about the French, I started learning about French trappers that came across the country with their wives. A lot of them were Native American and I realized [what the women wore] was much like the handwork I’d seen in Paris. I saw the similarity of the details: elk teeth, porcupine quills, trade beads, and metals on deer, elk, and antelope hide. It reminded me of the Rococo period in France in that both cultures worked with the materials at hand, ones they could easily source. So I thought, I’ll fuse the two of them together.
LEFT: Studded leather and horsehair gown (cross necklace by Debbi Lynn Designs, bracelet by Love Tokens Jewelry). RIGHT: The White Arabian deerskin dress (necklace by Love Tokens Jewelry, leather concho bracelets and shawl by J.K. Brand).
C&I: Tell us about your process. How do these hides go from their raw state to an elegant dress that drapes and moves?
Sotola: I invested in industry-standard dress forms, sizes 2 to 24. When a person calls, I ask for all of their measurements, and then I create. I don’t use patterns. I use these dress forms. The hides have a natural bias to them at the bottom, as opposed to the top. I didn’t want to use patterns because I wanted everything to have that same elegance and spirit that the animals have, and I want the person to feel like their essence is a part of their gown. When you twirl, [the dresses] have life, and when you stop, they have silence at the bottom.
At a certain point, I started adding silks to these beautiful leathers, and pearls, too. The leathers were a canvas to build off of and create these wonderful things. Every piece that I’ve made is an experience. When I saw the Avon River, and the way the water traveled under the footbridge, I created a gown with the pearls draping down like water, and on the back, silk organza, again like water flowing down. Everything has to have a reason. I look and see things every day and get inspiration.
C&I: What are you wearing right now?
Sotola: An old men’s shirt so you can create and be messy. I don’t take the time to pick up a rag, so I just wipe glue on my pants — Levi 501s with frayed marks on them and dark marks from gluing leather. Donald Pliner Western slides; I love that sexy toe he does, but these needed adjusting. I deglazed them and painted them in the color they should have been — now they’re a frosty blue like the Montana sky. Every time I wear them, people stop me and ask me where I got my shoes. When I tell them the story, they ask me to paint their shoes.
C&I: When you’re imagining what you’ll create for the next season or the following year, what do you look for?
Sotola: I don’t study what’s out in the world and think, Oh for fall, this is the hot color, or whatever. I don’t do anything like that. I just have to be real to myself. There’s a comfortableness I look for, along with an authenticity. I purposely buy hides that have drag marks and holes in them, and I would amplify that and glorify that because to me that’s what nature’s about. There’s no perfection in nature — and yet it’s perfect.
From the November/December 2017 issue.