By Samantha Navarro
“I have become very solitary,” says Anaheim artist Diane Utley-Aguilar. “I spend most of my time alone almost to the degree that it hinders me when I am in a social atmosphere.
I met Aguilar by chance on a motorcycle ride from Anaheim to Temecula, along with hundreds of other bikers, only four days after my engagement. I rode behind my fiancé, and she behind her husband of 25 years. There, I mentioned my impending marriage, and she suggested that if I was interested in a non-traditional dress created from vintage materials, I check out her store, Mexisoul, on Etsy.com.
“Normally, I don't talk to people,” she told me months later, reminiscing about out initial encounter. “I find myself shying away from these types of events, but you started talking about getting married, and I thought, hmmm…”
Aguilar began selling online about three years ago: wedding dresses handbags, jewelry and rosaries all made from recycled materials. “Second-hand stores are filled with discarded treasures just waiting for me,” she says. “I look for pieces that speak to me, for pieces that have a chance to be worked into art or a new design.”
Some of the items featured in her store include a peach-colored tunic with the bottom part originally a shawl from India, an embroidered tablecloth and muslin transformed into a bohemian taupe-colored two-piece, and a gypsy-inspired four-piece outfit stitched together from a crochet doily, a coin belt, and a vintage multicolored Indian skirt. “The design evolves as I start pulling other items to incorporate and start pinning together on my bodice form,”
Aguilar explains. “My goal when designing is to create beautiful, one-of-a-kind originals. To add details whether in trims or hand stitching that takes that design to a new level.” She has sold her items not just to American brides, but also in Sweden, Australia, UK, and Greece. But working from an online platform can have its drawbacks. “My work always looks better in person,” she says. “I add a lot of detailed work, and sometimes it is difficult to capture it all.” Her dress inventory looks original online, but the detail she adds makes her work look that much more amazing when seen in person.
Though Aguilar is currently working mostly on alternative wedding dresses, don't expect her to do any custom work. “It's too difficult, I think. I work better when I can just create and put it out there. If it sells, it sells. That's like the icing on the cake.”
Aguilar has been sewing and thrift-shopping for over thirty years, but the road to designing alternative wedding dresses wasn't a direct one. “I actually never thought of designing, I had a love for pattern making,” she explains. She received her degree in clothing and textiles from San Francisco State and worked in designing baby bedding. But after 15 years, she quit. “Working a corporate design job became very stressful and was not healthy,” she says. “I left basically to work on my own, to create my own art.”
She designed cards and taught art classes on her own. She also started working on ink and embroidered art and selling at craft shows, sometimes working seven days a week.
“Unfortunately, this was when the economy went bad,” Aguilar says, “This was difficult on my family.”
She tried to return to the design industry, but by then, these jobs were computer-generated. “I enrolled in computer design classes but, I never could grasp the concept of designing on the computer. It just did not seem like designing to me. I have considered getting a job at Target or someplace like that but it would not last long. There is a need in me to create and this is really all I know.”
During this time, Aguilar leased space in a store called Cantera in Downtown Santa Ana. She sold her hand-made items and imported Mexican folk art such as Día de los Muertos skulls and religious artifacts. When Cantera closed, she traded a display case for a mannequin from a friend, and this is when her clothing-creating journey began. Diane works inside the tiniest room of her home, about the size of a walk-in closet. Despite other, bigger rooms in her home more appropriate for turning into a work studio, she prefers her current space. “It's small and it's crowded and it's packed, but I like being next to the kitchen,” only a couple of feet away, she says. “I have my bodice form right there, so I can see it while I'm cooking. I squeeze in a little laundry, and around 3 p.m. I start making dinner. Then clean up the kitchen and work for another hour or two.”
Aguilar also has another Etsy store called Hip Vintage Soul; proceeds from this store go towards her 21-year-old son's college housing at Humboldt State. “When my son left to go to college, I cried for days,” she says. “It would be nice if he was going to college closer.” Aguilar and her husband also have a 20-year-old daughter, whom she uses as a model for her finished products in their backyard. “I love our time together!”
Besides being an artist, Aguilar's home looks like it should be part of a MOLAA exhibit. Hanging from all the walls of her house is a collection of art pieces she's collected over the years. Frida Kahlo paintings surround her work studio, hand-made crosses from Mexico hang in her living room walls, and hundreds of ethnic dolls from around the world sit in a dresser chest. Because of her own Mexican-American heritage, iconic images of Mexican folk art fascinate her. The name of her shop, MexiSoul, came from her love of culture and soul of the arts. It's with her creations that Aguilar feels she can share a piece of herself with others.
In addition to creating designs and running her online stores, Aguilar also designs stitch artwork, some of them featured in magazines such as ALTERED Couture, Belle Armoire, and SEW Somerset. Her Día de los Muertos artwork will be in exhibition at Picture This Gallery in Long Beach beginning November 1st through the 28th.
“I have so many passions,” Aguilar says of her many artistic outlets. “And I want to do them all, but there's never enough time in the day to do them!”