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Originally published Sunday, February 14, 2010 at 10:00 PM

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Fashion footwear grounded in Coast Salish art

Over the past year, using sharpies and pencils, Louie Gong has transformed Vans shoes into culturally inspired works of art. Now his shoes will be part of a runway show during the Olympic Games.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Over the past year, using sharpies and pencils, Louie Gong has transformed shoes popular with the surf and skate crowd into culturally inspired works of art.

Gong, of mixed-race heritage and raised on Indian reservations in Washington and British Columbia, combines the traditional crescents and form lines of Coast Salish art with the contemporary styles of Vans shoes.

The result is eye-popping custom-designed footwear that sells for $200-plus a pair and on which customers are free to express their own identities — like the Irish customer who wanted to incorporate a clover leaf into her shoe design.

This week, the 36-year-old will be one of eight Native designers from across North America participating in an aboriginal fashion show during the Olympic Games.

In fact, the educational-resource coordinator at Muckleshoot Tribal College in Auburn is one of only a few Native people from the U.S. who will participate in a slate of events over the next two weeks organized by the Olympic Games' Four Host First Nation coordinators.

The Aboriginal Fashion Showcase is scheduled for Vancouver Community College; it started Friday and runs through Tuesday.

The show is a big deal for Gong. He's president of the United States' leading mixed-race organization, MAVIN Foundation, and says he's "still getting used to this idea of being an artist, a fashion designer."

Gong was raised mostly by his Chinese grandfather and Nooksack/Squamish grandmother on reservations — first in Ruskin, B.C., where he was born, and later near Bellingham.

He is quick to point out that he has no training or background in art — unless you count his occasional doodlings. It wasn't until he helped the Muckleshoot Tribe prepare for a canoe journey by painting handmade drums four years ago that a skill for the art began to emerge.

A year ago, when he finally bought a pair of Vans — something he'd coveted since he was a child growing up on the reservation — Gong took sharpies and pencils to the shoes' plain gray surface and set about to make them his own.

That first pair — which Gong now says was poorly designed — represented "a merger of the traditional image ... onto a contemporary shoe."

Michele Rodarte, a Native American co-worker at the college, immediately recognized the design and ordered a pair for her son. "I thought it was a really new, contemporary look," Rodarte said.

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With Gong's star now apparently on the rise, Rodarte jokes that her son is hanging on to the shoes in case they become valuable later on.

"There are Native people from our community doing this same kind of artwork," Rodarte said. "Louie has a rare talent for merging Coastal art with a contemporary look."

Within weeks his work had attracted a steady following through word-of-mouth and social-networking sites — including a Facebook fan page that now numbers more than 3,100 fans.

The first day he began taking orders, he said, he got 35 in the first two hours — an unachievable goal, he jokes, for a one-man sweatshop. Gong quickly gave up trying to keep up with the demand.

"I don't tell people what to order," said Gong, adding that in the past year he has custom-designed about 100 pairs of Vans.

"The design must reflect who each person is."

He encourages buyers to choose styles that reflect their own identities, which, he said, are then "filtered through my own interpretation."

That interpretation is an expression of Gong's own multicultural heritage — Nooksack, Squamish, Chinese, French and Scottish. He sometimes incorporates the Native styles with graffiti and Asian vinyl art. It's a merger of old and new, he said: "What I'm doing is being true to the cultural influences that I have in my life."

In January, Gong was invited to join seven other designers — five of them emerging designers such as himself — to promote their products in an aboriginal fashion show during the Games.

"We wanted to provide an area, a place for emerging artists and fashion designers to showcase their wares," said Ryneld Starr, communications coordinator for Four Host First Nations, a partner with the Vancouver Organizing Committee.

"We've invited fashion media from all over the world."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

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