Patricia Michaels, Post ‘Project Runway’: Losing Was the Biggest Win

Jennifer Esperanza 'Without our culture, we are really nothing,' says Patricia Michaels. Photo by Jennifer Esperanza.

Native fashion designer Patricia Michaels on Project Runway and more

The last time we brought you news of Taos Pueblo fashion designer Patricia Michaels, she was prepping for Project Runway: All-Stars. In 2013, Michaels had progressed to the finale of season 11 of Project Runway, but her performance in 2014’s All-Stars was hardly as successful—she was eliminated at the end of the first episode. But there’s more to life than Lifetime TV shows. It turns out that Michaels’ reality-TV loss was insignificant in the context of her recent real-world wins. ICTMN’s Santa Fe arts expert Alex Jacobs made the trip to Taos to speak with Michaels in her studio about her post-Runway achievements and her future projects.

In this past Project Runway: All-Stars competition, you were the first to be eliminated—yet you’ve said that instead of being a disaster and the lowest point in your career, it was the best thing that could happen to you as an artist.

Sometimes it’s harder to admit when something isn’t working for you anymore. You have to rethink and reevaluate what you’re doing. There were layers of that with my decision to return, but now it’s over and I feel a thousand light-years happier. I can be my own individual visionary. I can truly say that I felt a sense of degradation when I returned. I had to own what I was feeling and turn it into a positive, in order to be in a place where I felt I could continue to grow with my vision.

The day I was eliminated, I walked to the water, to the bay, where I went to pray for strength and clarity. I asked that in my work, since I have not pursued this with selfish intention, what this elimination means. I wanted to bring light and opportunity to Native Americans and anyone else who may need a self-confidence boost. I thanked the Spirits for allowing me this time to be a voice.

The waves were getting so big that I was feeling them. To be in that competition, you had to shut out the mean and the nasty, to be present in the moment you had to shut out your emotional self if you were going to produce and work without distraction. The waves and emotions were so big that I could truly feel how big and grand life really is and just to know that I’m going on to the next stage. While all the others were still stuck in the Project Runway competition and all that noise, it felt great to be out, but I also knew that the show was such a huge blessing, that there’s got to be something more important.

“It felt great to be out, but I also knew that the show was such a huge blessing.”

I asked my wrangler to walk, and we walked for blocks. At the National Museum of the American Indian [located at the southern tip of Manhattan], I sat there watching Natives from all over, dancing in the Rotunda Gallery celebrating their culture. Nothing like finding your people for a good dose of Happy Medicine! After I returned, I had a message on my computer from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian asking if I would please accept their “Arts & Design” Award during their 20th Year Anniversary Gala Event in New York City on November 12th, 2014. They had been trying to get in touch, and the e-mail said they required an immediate response! Of course I said yes, with great honor! From that point on I knew that the Spirits had me going in the right direction. It felt great, to be blessed, to have our prayers to the spirits answered from all my Indian people and all my supporters.

Patricia Michaels’ NMAI award for Arts & Design. Photo by Bill Curry.

We’re in your Taos studio and you may call it a mess, but it’s a great artist studio, big front table area with tall windows, back production shop to sew and paint with live-in quarters and lofts.

I came home and went to work. There’s no fancy lifestyle here, it’s all work. Since I was the first one eliminated, I was able to check out the New York Garment District, to shop and see everything, learn and have fun like an artist should. All this fabric [in her studio] I had to pay for, I had to work for it, it came from my sales. Eighty percent of sales go right back in to it, the rest goes to bills. I’m talking to possible investors to help get my work into stores; the pop up store last October in New York City went well; I’m talking to my New York team to see what they want to do for my company PM Waterlily. With all these appropriation articles coming out I’m hoping it will be PM Waterlily that can be that contemporary voice this industry needs.

I am so fortunate to come from this family of mine. I was buying ceremonial fabric in New York, we all participate at home. I brought back fabric, buttons, ribbons, leathers, beads, things that no one sees but it’s for my family. All of this goes into having this opportunity as a Native artist. Without our culture, we are really nothing.

You can be contemporary, but be part of your culture or you’ll end up being like everyone else in the world and lose all that our ancestors fought for. Don’t let our youth give up, both lifestyles can be strong. When I see my garments in ceremony from the eldest to youngest, I’m so proud. We worked on these garments one day and with all these issues we were having, we just let go and we all became peaceful. This work is so labor intensive, that we had no choice but to come together, our meditative strength, this whole upbringing, it really does heal.

Recent PM Waterlily designs by Patricia Michaels. Photo by Bill Curry.

Recent PM Waterlily designs by Patricia Michaels. Photo by Bill Curry.

“Be part of your culture or you’ll end up being like everyone else in the world and lose all that our ancestors fought for.”

Recent PM Waterlily designs by Patricia Michaels. Photo by Bill Curry.

Recent PM Waterlily designs by Patricia Michaels. Photo by Bill Curry.

“You can’t give up, you’ve got to put yourself out there no matter how hard it is.”

Recent PM Waterlily designs by Patricia Michaels. Photo by Bill Curry.

Recent PM Waterlily designs by Patricia Michaels. Photo by Bill Curry.

Recent PM Waterlily designs by Patricia Michaels. Photo by Bill Curry.

I’m so lucky to be back on my feet as a designer after Project Runway. It used to be hard, there was little traffic to my studio, few sales, now we’re so busy. You can’t give up, you’ve got to put yourself out there no matter how hard it is. We have to wake up the senses of people. Make them see your creativity and brilliance, don’t waste time with overthinking. These days everything is so immediate for the young generation. Do they really feel life and all its choices? You need to work, just work, just get it done, what’s in your head you’ve got to get it out, not just talk about it. Only an artist knows what’s inside their heads. You have to work to get it out.

You just got back from a Project Runway shoot in LA; and you’re working on your next show.

Just got back from LA, it was so much fun, filming the Project Runway: All-Stars Reunion Show with all the designers. It was fun seeing everybody, but I felt, we all felt, that the art and the designs were not challenging enough, nobody was challenging their own designs, no innovation. Helen Castillo impressed me the most of all the current designers. But the important thing is that we will soon be done with our Project Runway contracts, I’m going to have a show in Palm Desert, California, with Project Runway: All-Stars designers Michael Castelo, Michelle Lesniak, Justin LeBlanc, for The Saxony Group Fashion Week/El Paseo from March 20-28. This is going to be good, even relaxing, the high-end retailers, clients and celebrities will come to us, with none of the Project Runway media hype.

Joan Severance wearing PM Waterlily fashion. Photo by Bill Curry.

“My ready-to-wear collection is about seeds. … You may not see the seeds out there in the desert, but they’re there.”

Joan Severance wearing PM Waterlily fashion. Photo by Bill Curry.

Joan Severance wearing PM Waterlily fashion. Photo by Bill Curry.

I’m having a photo shoot with 80’s supermodel Joan Severance. She’s coming to Taos and we’ll do a 5 page spread in Santa Fe’s Trend Magazine for this fall and one next spring. I’m working toward New York Fashion Week in late February for another pop up store, new fabrics, new collection, very excited. My ready-to-wear collection is about seeds, desert seeds, layers of sheer fabric with seeds in every layer. You may not see the seeds out there in the desert, but they’re there.

It’s all so exciting! I have an appointment interview to do an article in Interview magazine. And NMAI will be purchasing my Project Runway collection, I’m going to reproduce the collection and my son Gabriel will video-document it. There will be so many hands involved. I wanted to show that Native Americans are very much alive, that there are so many people in my art, all the 19 people who will help with this collection. It’s not just one person. When I create a collection I try to incorporate many techniques to make it interesting as well as create jobs and opportunity to talent in the area. This helps shed light on the many valuable and talented hands in Northern New Mexico. I’ve been given a voice and I want it to continue to be what I envision when it comes to the vibrant life of creativity that I see possible in accomplishing my work. It may require teaching my techniques or utilizing someone else’s expertise. Project Runway never responded to my inquiries about NMAI purchasing the season 11 finale collections so we’re going to do a likeness of this collection. You can copyright your textiles but not your garments because they are changeable, you and others can change them.

Aside from Project Runway\**, you have been very busy this past year and are looking to upcoming shows for 2015.**

We did a pop-up store trunk show at Santa Fe Indian Market and another pop-up store in New York. The Abbe Museum show in Bar Harbor, Maine, is still ongoing; it’s called Twisted Path: Question of Balance—a great show, great catalog. Then there’s the upcoming Native Fashion Now show at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, scheduled for mid-November 2015 with 16 Native designers. That will be a major show, it’ll travel to Portland Art Museum and the Philbrook Art Museum from 2016 to early 2017. They’re in talks to find other venues and will know more in mid-February.

Patricia Michaels’ designs on display at the Abbe Museum. Photo courtesy Abbe Museum archives.

We do our annual Valentine’s Day Show here in the studio, a Bridal Show in Taos, New York Fashion Week from February 26-28 with the pop-up store. My daughter and I will be checking out art schools back east after that. This year our ArtSmart show will be at the Gerald Peters Gallery, on February 20. It’ll be a Gala Fund Raiser for New Mexico children and schools, and rather than a runway fashion show, we’ll have freeze models who come out every 15 minutes until all 36 outfits are displayed. Clothing, jewelry, purses, scarves, parasols are all for sale with part of the proceeds going to the charity. There’s the Taos Pueblo Artist Winter Show at the Millicent Rogers Museum in mid-March. NMAI will start carrying my mica, jewelry and scarves, so that’s really encouraging.

Mica earrings by Patricia Michaels. Photo courtesy Patricia Maichaels.

Necklace with mica pendant by Patricia Michaels.

And all of this we are talking about is going into your new studio, eventually?

Yes, we’re planning on building a new studio and home on our beautiful piece of land in the Taos Pueblo El Salto area; we’ll have to do some fundraising to build it, put in much bigger tables, lots more room. Several Project Runway designers want to come here and work, we’ll have workshops in the new studio. Our Project Runway contracts will be finished and it’ll be a business relationship—no more being dictated to.

Alex Jacobs
Taos, NM
February 9, 2015

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