From culture to couture

By The Active Age | December 29, 2023

To say that Wichitan Hazel Stabler, perhaps best known as a member of the Wichita school board, is currently experiencing some of the highest and lowest moments of her life is an understatement.

First, a pinnacle of achievement for the fashion designer: She’s been invited to present a show at Paris Fashion Week. The Milan Fashion Week invited her, too, but she can afford only one trip. Naturally, the Paris show — a crowning achievement for any designer — has to be it.

Stabler also received wonderful local recognition at a Wichita Art Museum event earlier this year. A particularly posh crowd marveled at the stunning outfit she wore, a creation that emcee Bonnie Bing explained that Stabler had whipped together in a mere hour the night before.

Then there are the lows.

Stabler’s 46-year-old son, Derek Edmonds, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year.

Then Stabler was diagnosed with lung and kidney cancer in May. As she was recovering from having half her lung removed in September, her husband, Hollis Stabler, was diagnosed with glioblastoma.

Hazel Stabler cared for her husband in the midst of her own recovery, but three weeks later, he died.

“I’m still in shock,” said Stabler, who also is having a kidney removed in January.

“It’s overwhelming . . . My doctor recommended I go to a counselor because I’m really having a hard time.”

She’s got to start preparing for Paris, though, which is coming up next fall.

If the show Stabler presented at New York Fashion Week in 2019 is any indication, it could help her take a step toward healing.

She said it was a memorable moment “because it told a story.”

Stabler is American Indian. She is a member of the Yaqui and Ojibwe tribes. Both of her parents’ families came to Kansas to work on the railroads.

The show required a lot of thought, she said.

“I knew I had one chance to be able to create a narrative of who I was and where I’m coming from.”

For the show, her husband modeled a traditional men’s buckskin outfit. Her three daughters dressed in traditional Wichita tribe clothing, which included red buckskin, elk teeth and Stabler’s hand print as a statement about missing and murdered indigenous women.

Stabler’s heritage is especially important to her, and she said her fashion is an expression of that.

“It’s enabled me to share my culture through fashion and bring awareness to my culture . . . in a good way and in a true way.”

She said she’s hardly the only American Indian doing that.

“Actually, our culture’s rich,” she said. “We have a lot of great artists and designers. . . . I kind of take it to the next level to what I’d say is couture.”

The hard way’

Stabler, who has always been interested in clothing, received a degree in apparel design and fashion merchandising at the University of Louisiana.

Stabler has five children (four with her first husband, from whom she’s divorced, and one with her second husband, who died in a plane crash almost 20 years ago). She began sewing Native outfits because of her children.

“I grew up knowing about my culture, going to powwows (and) traditional ceremonies, and so I raised my kids the same way.”

She drafts her own patterns, paying particular attention to the comfort level of the garments. 

Stabler works from her two-story home on North Market Street, the Edward M. Kelly historic house that she calls a “mini White House.”

In the basement, she has a cutting table and fabric, but she does her sewing in a renovated — and messy — bedroom on the second floor.

Every scrap that falls to the floor stays there until her project is complete, just in case she needs it.

“I’ve learned the hard way.”

‘A long shot’

When Stabler submitted work to the New York Fashion Show, she said she didn’t tell anyone, including her husband.

“I thought it was a long shot.”

She got in, and that’s how she ended up being invited to Paris and Milan, but various things conspired to keep her from going, including the pandemic.

Stabler said she is determined to make it to Paris in 2024, despite everything.

“It’s on my bucket list,” she said. “If I can do that now, I really feel like I’ve done everything I want to do professionally, I guess.”

It’s quite a leap from her first fashion show in the 1980s.

For a conference at Harvard University for women who held prominent positions in tribal nations, she was invited to come and show her work.

“I was like, ‘A fashion show? I’m not a fashion designer.’ ”

She started getting invited to festivals and conferences and pageants.

Stabler has lived all over the United States, including Louisiana where she had a retail store, Bayou Stitching.

She and her husband were retired when she started getting involved at Pleasant Valley Middle School in several different roles. Hollis Stabler suggested she run for the school board, and she finally decided that’s what she wanted to do.

Though she came in with a wave of conservative board members, Stabler said that wasn’t by design, and that wasn’t her decision.

She said it’s a nonpartisan position, and “it’s real important to me that I keep it that way.”

“I do make decisions based on what I think is right for students.”

She said the board is a steward of a lot of money.

“We have almost a billion-dollar budget.”

Stabler added that each member is different.

“We don’t think exactly the same, and we don’t agree on everything.”

She said she tries to do a lot in the district and be visible and transparent. Stabler said she wants to create trust with people “so they know that my intentions are for the betterment.”

There are lots of other things she’s involved with as well, such as Designing Women at Mark Arts, the Wichita Grand Opera board, the Sedgwick County Mental Health Advisory Board and Botanica.

That along with 30 to 40 hours a week of work for the school board means she has to sew early in the morning or late at night.

“Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night and work.”

Stabler, 66, also walks daily, and she said her doctor told her that’s what’s helping her rebound from cancer. She doesn’t need radiation or chemotherapy at this point.

Even though she has at least one more surgery to go, Stabler said she hopes to be cancer free after that.

“I’m looking forward to being healthy and moving forward.”