Live From the 'Project Runway' Premiere With Patricia Michaels

On January 24, the 11th season of "Project Runway" got underway on the Lifetime network, and at a gallery in Santa Fe, a packed house showed support for Patricia Michaels, the first Native designer to be featured on the hit show. Poet and artist Alex Jacobs, Mohawk, ventured to the Legends Gallery to soak up the scene and get the scoop from Michaels herself. Jacobs reports:

The doors to Legends are locked, it’s VIP hour, Santa Fe style: clients and family members only. But soon the public is let in and there is no space anywhere, it's non-stop. There’s young and old, artists, curators, clients, press, and more Indians. The Project Runway show is projected on a large empty wall. The crowd packs in, spilling out onto the street. Patricia introduces it all ... and the crowd reacts, cheers to every Patricia image and statement, everyone laughs when Patricia shouts out a lulu to NYC while the whole PR team is cruising the river on a boat. Patricia gets detailed critiques, they look at everything, all the parts, the whole design, with good response, other competitors are slammed. Her team wins the first round.

The view from outside Legends Gallery. Photo by Alex Jacobs.

"I’m so glad to come full circle, to land on my feet, to show that this is who I am and where I’m from," Patricia tells me. "I don’t have to worry. I’ve shown I can compete at a high level, my designs and concepts can be respected. Fashion always changes, we change with it. Just get out there and tell your story, your music, your movies, your dances. Never give up."

I don’t get out all that much to the gallery openings anymore, but this is a big night for Patricia Michaels, for her brand PM Water Lily, for her family. It’s also a big night for Santa Fe. I feel the love for her as a local hero. 

In the early 1990’s, we all took part in a fashion show at the Institute of American Indian Arts, called “Native Uprising” during Indian Market. So many things Patricia said she wanted to do with her studio back then have now come to pass.

She's right: Never give up.

Patricia, you’ve been doing this for a long time, what advantages as a Native artist and Santa Fe designer did you feel you had going in to this competition?

The house was packed, with guests in the back straining to catch the 'Project' action projected on a wall. Photo by Alex Jacobs.

I had confidence, we’ve been at this for 20 years, just doing so many shows in Santa Fe. It’s always been hard work, as an artist you work until the last minute, no sleep. You’re always thinking about the show, it will be better, there’s always a better. So sometimes the stress gets to you and you think: We’ve been doing this so long and nothing ever happens. I got the email in March 2012, I started praying there at Taos Pueblo and wondered that this must be what these prayers are for. To take this challenge, don’t ignore it. I had one month to do it. There were 1200 questions and 40 essays. We were living the Taos Pueblo lifestyle and only had one hour a day to deal with this, on the internet. It helped to pray, to be focused. Clearing the clutter and being with your family. 

Were there any disadvantages?

There is that challenge that they don’t quite understand who you are and questioning your characteristics as a Native American. If I said something in Tewa, they thought maybe I was doing witchcraft or voodoo. They felt a bit threatened and maybe insecure. They didn’t know our culture and went right to the stereotype. They may have also expected the stereotype to be produced and they didn’t know that I knew how to work with other materials. As far as being from Santa Fe, my Mom opened a gallery the night before I was born, she was dancing in her buckskins. I was born into this, I went to the Institute of American Indian Arts. It’s no disadvantage to be from Santa Fe.

In fashion, anybody who’s intelligent knows it’s always supposed to change. They’re looking and waiting for that change. When they saw that my stuff was a whole different new take, they were enthusiastic and excited. They saw Native American Design be something they never expected to see.

Any big surprises?

In addition to a viewing party, Legends was also showcasing designs from Michaels' latest collection. Photo by Alex Jacobs.

Yeah, I cried a lot. And I was constantly educating. They didn’t expect me to be so well traveled, knowledgeable, sophisticated. So I guess they were more surprised than me.

Last words to all the people out there?

I just love all the Native American cultures for being strong and please just help to get our cultures out there, to go where it’s not always comfortable. Get out of the mainstream, because we are just fabulous, beautiful people and the world hasn’t even begun to see who we are. We need our youth to be proud of us, proud that tradition isn’t stagnant, that the environment changes and we change too. You have to get out there, it won’t come to you. We can’t neglect our culture. We can’t give up -- you better not give up.

Paticia Michaels and family. Photo by Alex Jacobs.