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Designer Builds Loyal Following With Her “Warrior” Creations

By Mike Irwin The Wenatchee World, Wash.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Tonya Bautista's one-woman company, "Free Warrior Designs", focuses on comfortable, tropical-style clothing for both men and women. Her lines include around 45 items, but she mostly concentrates on producing 12 to 15 popular styles.

EAST WENATCHEE

Sexy off-the-shoulder-swimwear hangs side-by-side with bead-and-feather tribal costumes in designer Tonya Bautista's basement studio.

She says both colorful clothing lines -- along with a series of fantastical masks inspired by totem animals -- aim to empower women of all ages, sizes and attitudes to seek what makes them strong and embrace their warrior spirit.

"That inspiration could be tropical, could be tribal, could be the mystery woman behind the mask," said Bautista, 39, who designs, sews, markets and sells her creations all on her own. "They seek what makes them happy -- and life is better when the heart is happy."

Bautista's one-woman company, Free Warrior Designs, focuses on comfortable, tropical-style clothing for both men and women.

Her lines include around 45 items, but she mostly concentrates on producing 12 to 15 popular styles.

Following her own simple patterns of sometimes just two pieces, Bautista uses soft and stretchy fabrics (most made in U.S. mills) sewn to minimize seams and follow body contours. Think shorts, pants, skirts, tops, dresses, hoodies and kimonos.

"It's all about customer comfort," she said. "Finding comfort in what they wear and how they wear it. And finding comfort in themselves."

Her designs of tribal and warrior costumes -- headdresses, breastplates, loin cloths -- and parallel lines of animal masks emerge from a mixed ethnic background, said Bautista. Part Native American, part Hawaiian islander and part Dutch, she has a feel for "primal artistry" that's inspired by "the power and energy of the natural world."

Raised in East Wenatchee, Bautista said she's been drawing and designing since she was kid. After graduating from Cashmere High School, she attended ITT Technical Institute in Spokane and, from there, nabbed a design job in Seattle.

But the big city's fast pace and crowds left her cold. In 2000, she told her family she was headed to Hawaii for a vacation, and once there decided she was going to stay. She settled on the Big Island in the Kona District, where she opened a store and for almost 12 years sold her designs -- clothing, costumes, masks, jewelry and leather creations -- to tourists and locals.

Then disaster struck. In 2011, she lost her store to a tsunami generated by a devastating earthquake in Japan. Her husband of 12 years died that same year of a brain tumor.

These two events, she said, launched her on a path of reassessment that included her business, art, spirituality and purpose.

That re-evaluation was "a scary challenge where everything changed," she said. "My designs changed. Life changed."

In 2013, Bautista moved back to the mainland -- to Los Angeles -- where she created and sold new clothing designs. But she became tired again of big city bustle and returned home to East Wenatchee two years ago.

Since then, Bautista's business has bloomed. Through appearances at artist markets, festivals and fashion shows, she has built a loyal following devoted to Free Warrior Designs. Each week in summer, she sells directly to "resort wear" customers at Chelan's Evening Farmers Market, has shown frequently at Pybus Public Market's arts fairs and in October will travel east for a fashion show in Miami.

Her slick website -- a showcase of beautiful people, colorful clothing and dramatic primal costumes and masks -- uses local models to promote a casual lifestyle that could be termed "tropical," "tribal" or "bohemian."

So who buys Free Warrior's clothing and costumes? Bautista's peak clothing season is summer, when people are enjoying the outdoors and need cool, durable, fast-drying shorts and tops. The costume season runs September through March, a period that includes the Burning Man festival in Nevada, Halloween, Christmas and Mardi Gras.

"Sometimes I think that everyone's my customer," smiled Bautista. "At some point, everyone wants to express themselves in color or some other dramatic way, and that's where I step in. They provide what's inside. I provide what they wear."

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