Native Couture: Patricia Michaels

Apr 29, 2013


Patricia Michaels
Credit Photo Courtesy of Project Runway

In the season finale of Project Runway, Taos Pueblo Fashion Designer Patricia Michaels came in runner up.  Her collections on the show incorporated horse hair and hand worked silver, creating quite the buzz amongst the judges, one of whom endearingly called it “techno pow-pow.” Her placing is being hailed as a major step for Native America and the designer says at this point, there's no holding back.   Patricia Michaels grew up on Taos Pueblo, being the youngest of several children naturally meant,she was stuck with tattered hand me downs, but the designer says even at a young age, repairing the used garments didn't bother her.


Patricia: I saw my grandmother sew and I sewed on her peddle machine…


Michaels also watched her grandfather tan and work with leather in the home, making traditional boots.


Patricia: Learning all the different techniques has been rewarding 


At 18, Michaels says she was considering whether or not she wanted to pursue garment making and design in college, so she took a job hand sewing for the Santa Fe Opera as the lowest of the seamstresses.


Patricia: Our hours were long, it was hot and there was a moment definitely when my supervisor found me asleep and I was hand stitching three layers of a nine yard skirt and she found me sleeping and still sewing, and my stitches were okay, that to me I was like, you know I just love doing this, I love it.


She says there comes a moment in her process when a rhythm is created between the work she is doing with her hands and her breathing, and all of the sudden the creation starts to dance with a life of it's own.


Patricia: My garments are very alive and everything I make has a prayer inside of it.    


After the Opera experience, Michaels studied at several schools and even apprenticed in Italy for some time. Fast forward a few decades, Michaels found herself back in the States, trying to peddle her wares at Native Craft Fairs, often feeling as though her designs were  misunderstood.


Patricia:  Im not entering the category of traditional garment making, I'm entering the category of clothing by a native designer so (Tiwa) which means I'm the native in this so don't tell me it's not native enough.


Last spring, Michaels was scrapping by and had just been issued an eviction notice by her landlord.  She stopped by the Public Library to check her email, and there in her inbox, was an invitation to audition for Project Runway from the shows casting agent. Even though Michaels had never seen the show, she watched a few episodes and decided to give it a shot, telling herself...


Patricia: If you make it then this is your chance to have that audience and be seen by the industry, so don't give up.  


Michaels told me one of the most challenging aspects of the application process was that she is a severe dyslexic.


Patricia:  For the Project Runway application it's like 40 essay questions and like 500 photos and images, so filling out these applications I was just like I hope they understood what I just said (laughs) you know, I really hope that I made sense in this application.


It took her almost a month to complete the application and she did it by going to the town library, using those two free half hours on the internet, every day


Patricia: And every time that I committed to ok don't get frustrated because the computer shuts off at a half an hour and you're in the middle of a thought and then you lose everything, I said don't get frustrated, just believe in yourself. 


Before long, the call came to audition in person, and Michaels was skeptical of how she would be seen.


Patricia: I thought, do they want me to be this certain type of native designer and will the industry understand where I'm coming from? I really had no idea how I was gonna be perceived.


Armed with a rack of her latest designs, Michaels walked into a room full of Project Runway judges and rather nervously unveiled her fashions.  Within moments, the first judge jumped in, saying…


Patricia: You had my vote the minute you walked in the door.  I've never seen Native American design look like this.  It is so forward thinking, you're a yes and I was like OH MY GOD (laughs.) It was good.


And just like that, Michaels joined the cast of Project Runways Season 11. Overall she says, it has been a tremendously useful experience for her professional development.


Patricia: I appreciate 100% what the judges critiqued me on and I really utilized that time to better understand myself.  


When asked what advice she has for Native Youth that are populating her social media pages with messages of adoration and support, she wants them to know…


Patricia: It doesn't matter what your passionate about. If you have that passion just follow it and don't second guess yourself. I mean seriously, just embrace what you know how to do, and do your best. 


Michaels believes her best is accentuating a woman's grace.


Patricia: Fashion couture should be about the beauty and strength of a woman. We're supposed to be tough.  Well you know what we are tough, and I want to bring the beauty of the woman's soft side because no matter how hard it is out there in the real world, we do tend to tame that harshness.  And why fight that???


Now, with a national audience following her work, the designer says she's not holding back. For KUNM, I'm Rita Daniels