Native New Mexican Gabriel Mendez has been making and mending clothes for years. But his recent move to Taos, along with the launch of his clothing label, has given him a new path for creative expression.
“We make spiritual clothing for spiritual people,” he said.
Mendez, 37, grew up in Las Cruces. As a young man, he moved to San Juan Island near Seattle, Washington, and worked as a tailor. Six months ago, he moved to Taos – where his sister lives – and established El Campo Clothing Company.
“The name pays homage to the fields where the fibers for clothing come from,” said Mendez. “I try to use as much natural-fiber fabric as possible.”
He works with cotton, sheep’s wool – and soon – hemp and bamboo. “In some instances, I use deadstock (leftover fabric) or vintage fabric (found at thrift stores and estate sales) that would have otherwise been headed for a landfill,” he said. “I try not to use new or conventional fabric.”
From it, he makes pants, shirts, shawls, tote bags and more for both men and women. “I specialized in pants for a long time – I made custom jeans, and that ended up being fairly lucrative for me,” said Mendez.
“But since I arrived in Taos, I set a boundary with myself – that I was not going to do any more custom work or alterations,” he said. “The end goal is to be able to produce a collection of clothing that’s inspired by my creativity, and what’s inside of me.”
Animated by Gee’s Bend quilts – created by African-American women in Alabama that feature bold geometric shapes in surprising patterns – Mendez has begun to develop his own visual vocabulary based on similar types of color blocks.
He said their work “speaks to something very spiritual, something very sacred. These compositions somehow become transcendent.” Mendez also finds inspiration in Tibetan prayer flags and the transcendental painters of Taos.
“That – to a large degree – is what informs my process,” said Mendez. “I didn’t go to art school to learn design – I picked that up along the way. I taught myself to sew in the middle of college, specifically to start repairing people’s clothes. It was always from a very functional standpoint for me.”
Mendez earned an undergraduate degree in German at the University of New Mexico–Albuquerque, and later studied clothing, textiles and fashion merchandising at New Mexico State University–Las Cruces. “There, I learned the principles of design, and I was like, 'Oh, I’ve been doing this all along.' ”
About a year ago, Mendez inherited a large inventory of buttons from a friend whose mother-in-law had passed away – she, too, had owned a sewing business. “Some very whimsical, some very utilitarian,” he said.
Mendez said he sometimes starts to design a new garment based on the fabric, buckles and buttons he has, and other times, he’s designing from an inner vision. “It’s an ongoing journey.”
When he moved back to New Mexico, Mendez brought his collection of sewing machines with him. “Moving across the country with nine industrial sewing machines was not easy,” he said.
The gem in his collection is the Union Special 35800 DQ. “It’s called an off-the-arm sewing machine. It’ll plow through three-eighths-of-an-inch thick seams of denim,” he said.
“It’s a beautiful machine, but it’s huge – as tall as I am. It probably weighs twice as much as I do: 250-300 pounds. So it’s just a beast,” said Mendez.
He also has a Singer bartacker, used to put on belt loops, a straight stitch machine, and a chain stitch machine. “None of this is electronic – they’re all mechanical.” He’s even got a machine just for making buttonholes.
“What’s unique about industrial sewing machines – it’s not like a home machine where you can change the dial and have it do a new stitch,” he said. “An industrial machine does one thing and one thing only.”
“It does it fast, and it does it well, and it does it very strong,” said Mendez.
His studio is located in an old church named "the heart of the sacred" building at 522 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, Suite D, at the edge of the historic district. He shares the space with two healing practitioners and an energy worker. “So there’s just lots of healing, spiritual vibes that come out of here,” said Mendez.
Now that he has developed a collection, Mendez plans to sell his work at local festivals and art markets, including Taos Folk this year. He also has a shop within his studio. “I now have two full racks, and shelves, and display boxes.”
“It looks like a shop, and that’s something that I’m very proud to have manifested – that was something that I envisioned,” he said. “These garments have definitely been imbued with some – for lack of a better word – with some Juju – with some spirituality,” said Mendez. “With good, positive vibes.”
For more information, visit elcampo.store.