Creole Wild West: Meet the Jewelry Designer Harnessing the Magic of New Orleans

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There is a certain magic that exists in New Orleans, a soft slow sweetness that is almost impossible to shake off, that curls its way around your limbs and keeps you coming back for more. It is a deeply textured city, overflowing with raw spirit, with secrets and stories around every corner, a dynamic mosaic of history and culture that vibrates at a different frequency than the rest of the world. It’s the kind of place that you can’t stop dreaming about, that feels feverishly pulled from your imagination: plants swallowing up entire sidewalks, leaves as big as your face, an old man on saxophone dancing into the crowd as he dips with the low notes, that smooth wide curl of brass, graceful and swiveling like the hips of a woman. New Orleans is a multi-faceted gem, a proud and resilient city that wears its heart on its sleeve.

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Porter Lyons, the jewelry and accessories brand created by Ashley Lyons Porter in 2012, is rooted in the idea of conservation of culture through design. Porter, whose family roots in New Orleans stretch back to the 1860’s, aims to preserve its rich culture and unique lifestyle through her designs. Each collection is filled with beautifully bold, visually arresting pieces that spotlight a distinct aspect of New Orleans, and Porter gives back to the city that inspires her, donating a portion of the proceeds to causes that benefit it. Her creations focus on the many elements – artistic, natural, and spiritual – that shape the city’s fascinating character and luminous appeal. The history of New Orleans is steeped in mysticism and spirituality, and Porters’ designs allude to this, channeling the surreal and unforgettable aspects, such as the hauntingly beautiful bayou and the traces of voodoo that can be found throughout the city. Porter draws inspiration from locally sourced materials (crocodile vertebrae!), transforming unusual elements into statement pieces that are simultaneously ethereal and deeply rooted in nature.

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This August, Porter Lyons launches their newest collection, Creole Wild West. The line is inspired by the fierce beauty and fascinating folklore of the Mardi Gras Indians. The Mardi Gras Indians were tribes of historically African American revelers who created their own parades, practices, and festive traditions because it was socially unacceptable for them to participate in mainstream Mardi Gras celebrations. For these brave celebrations, they dressed in wildly elaborate, hand-sewn beaded costumes to honor Native Americans. To produce this collection, which includes tribal symbols and native materials, as well as a limited line of breathtaking dream-catchers, Porter learned intricate beadwork techniques from Big Chief Harold Miller of the Creole Wild West tribe. We caught up with Ashley Porter in her NOLA studio to ask her a few questions about Creole Wild West, her creative path and process, and her dream day in New Orleans (a gator roast is involved).

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P.S. S.F. babes! Don’t miss the chance to see Porter Lyons’ dreamy pieces in person at their San Francisco pop-up, open until July 30th! Check them out at 3255 Sacramento Street, San Francisco, CA 94115.

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Live FAST: Hi Ashley! Tell our readers a little bit about Porter Lyons. What is the inspiration behind the brand, and what motivated you to create it?

Ashley Porter: Porter Lyons is an edgy but classic accessory brand that believes in preserving culture through design.  My motivation started when I realized how removed companies are from their end products.  I know when I was working at a large organization, I felt like my job lacked importance and was saddened by the disconnect throughout the company. There is a strong movement in America to favor products that are inspired by local artisans. The level and quality of work is greater and people feel more connected to their community when they can see the person that makes the products they consume. Life is richer and better for it.  

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LF: Your collections are steeped in the rich, unique culture and history of your native New Orleans, and often use locally sourced materials. What inspires you about New Orleans?

AP: How rad, raw and real it is. I heard a great story recently, about the juxtaposition and interconnectivity of New Orleans from a fellow Pacific Crest Trail hiker. He went to church and saw old ladies in their pearls amongst the black gospel singers radiating emotion from the front, and a homeless man sleeping in rags in the back pew.  The majority of people are so different from one another in New Orleans and it brings a certain truth to the city.

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LF: Your brand is founded on the concept of conservation of culture through design. How do you achieve that? 

AP: Each non-profit we work with relates directly to a collection theme, or it’s an issue we want to gain exposure for. The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana was our first partnership and a natural fit, since saving our wetlands is fundamental to New Orleans geography. When I learned we lose a football field of wetlands every 30 seconds, I was shocked. I shared this sentiment when learning Louisiana has the second lowest literacy rate in the nation. It drove me to design a pair of light bulb earrings, for which 50% of the proceeds went to the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Prime Time reading initiative. When the Deco Bohemia collection launched, ticket prices went to the George Rodrigue Foundation, which supports art programs for lower income children in Louisiana. And for the latest collection, Creole Wild West, a percentage will go to the Jazz & Heritage Foundation. It’s always been personally important for me to help my community and to build my business with this in mind. I hope that my jewelry will have a lasting impact on the community further than just the aesthetic beauty of each piece.

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LF: Your newest collection, Creole Wild West, is inspired by the fierce beauty and the mysterious history of the Mardi Gras Indians. What fascinates you, both historically and visually, about the Mardi Gras Indians?

AP: Their history is fascinating, and their transformation into practicing the visually extravagant costuming is inspiring. The craftsmanship put into each piece commands such respect for the hundreds of hours that has been dedicated to making their traditional costume so special for just one day.

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LF: What was your creative process for this collection? What materials did you work with?

AP: I analytically approach my inspiration and try to learn as much as I can about that aspect of Louisiana’s culture. I visited Robert Lewis at the House of Dance and Feathers in the Lower Ninth and he was a wealth of information, educating me about subjects ranging from the hierarchy to the bead techniques of the Mardi Gras Indians. I use labradorite throughout the collection, bone and horn imagery as well as seed beads, all tribal mystic elements. I sketch for hours upon hours and have a huge tack board to hang all of my ideas, inspiration, feathers, bones, you name it. 

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LF: You worked with Big Chief Harold Miller of the Creole Wild West tribe to learn their intricate beadwork techniques. What was that experience like?

AP: I was so honored to spend time and learn the uptown technique from the Big Chief. He has a very calm demeanor, keen eye for color selection, and light heart.

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 LF: What is your favorite piece in the collection, and why?

AP: My favorite piece is the Big Chief pinky ring embedded with emeralds. A few of the Indians have placed special orders for them, which is such an honor.  

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LF: How did you get to where you are today? Did you always know you wanted to become a jewelry designer?

AP: Haha, I wish! I’m always so jealous of those people that know what they want to be from a young age.  I always knew I loved creating since I was a little girl, however my path to becoming a jewelry designer was pretty untraditional. I minored in Art Studio undergrad, and after getting my Masters in Finance, I took a major career shift from my job with Merrill Lynch to take night classes at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. After slowly graduating with my Associates in Fashion Design, I worked in New York for Balenciaga, always knowing I wanted to design my own line. What began as an exotic skin belt company quickly turned into a jewelry collection comprising alligator teeth and bones.  Although I still do classic alligator belts, as that’s the heritage of the brand, I find jewelry has more creative license.  

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LF: What advice would you give someone looking to pursue a similar creative path?

AP: Start with a business plan, it will be your roadmap and guiding tool throughout.

LF: Who or what influences you creatively?

AP: I’m influenced deeply by the aesthetics of my past two design jobs with Ralph Lauren and Balenciaga. I also love the Bauhaus movement. The vibrant New Orleans culture and its people inspire me; it reminds me that we are all interconnected and to embrace our idiosyncrasies. New Orleans people are raw at times, and unrestricted in their costuming and style, which is what fashion is all about.

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LF: Describe your dream day in New Orleans.

AP: I’d wake up at 5:30 AM to run to watch the sunrise over the Bayou in City Park, and do yoga afterwards. In the afternoon, my whole family would be in town and we would have a big alligator roast at my home.

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LF: What’s next for you?

AP: This fall, we are launching our first brick and mortar store and our first collection in Fine Jewelry. Swing by if you’re in NOLA and come check it out! 631 Toulouse Street, 70130

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LF: How FAST do you live?

AP: Fast enough to still enjoy the moments and details.  Life is all about the moments and details.

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