Closet Space: Patricia Michaels: Nature & Heritage as High Fashion


(Interviewers: Katherine and Angela Sloan, CS Editors for SPACES)

You don’t want fear to negate the brilliance that you have inside.~Patricia Michaels

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Patricia photographed in her hometown of Taos, New Mexico

This is an old tape recorder,” Katherine says as she fishes a small black, plastic Panasonic from her handbag.

A lot of journalists have a love for their old recorder; it works. It gets the job done,” Patricia says. We can already tell that the three of us are going to have a great conversation.

My twin sister, Katherine and I met Patricia Michaels for a lunch date on a lovely, early September afternoon at the Bryant Park Café in New York City. She’s a fashion designer (one of the top three contestants to compete on season eleven of the hit television show Project Runway), a mother, a sister, a proud Pueblo woman, and most importantly, an artist with a message of identity and integrity. When it comes to being categorized as a fashion designer and artist, Patricia tends to stray from labels such as “Native American” and “female.” She’s simply a designer.

Over several cups of coffee we discussed subjects as varied as fashion, art, nature, the process of creativity, staying true to one’s own voice, and Heidi Klum. Somehow, there was such a natural cohesion to our conversation; it was as if we were old friends, when in fact, we had just met moments before.

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Katherine, Patricia and Angela at the Bryant Park Café in New York City

We began our interview by having a bit of girl talk: we spoke about Patricia’s exquisite handcrafted bracelet of turquoise and silver, a piece actually meant to be worn by a man, which was given to her as a gift after a peyote prayer ceremony in Taos, New Mexico, which is also her hometown. She informed us that the emblazoned image on the small turquoise and silver ring that Katherine wears on her pinky finger is that of a peyote bird (something neither of us had been sure of before). Patricia’s tribe is the farthest northern Pueblo along the Rio Grande. Her Native heritage and the abundance of natural beauty in New Mexico have both been hugely inspirational to her in her life, especially while designing and creating her exquisite garments. Having grown up in a competitive family, the competition and time limitations essential to Project Runway didn’t cramp Patricia’s unique style.

Designing under pressure with constraints and criticism did not inspire fear but only fueled Patricia’s creative fire: “You don’t want fear to negate the brilliance that you have inside. When fear becomes part of your language, just go to bed. Why bother? If you go ahead and take that step and you go out on a limb and allow fabulous things to happen, then you’ll be reaching high into those avenues that you’ve envisioned.”

She spoke in terrific detail about the importance of staying true to one’s roots as an artist, as well as the importance of not being afraid to be progressive and forward-thinking: “History wasn’t written about our culture by us, so it was really important for me, having been raised by a traditional family, not to sell out my culture and just recreate everything everyone’s familiar with because that’s not our story: our story is the here and now. I speak a 2,500 year old language; that’s great, but I also speak English, and we can communicate.”

Katherine and Angela:  The intricacy and detail of your beadwork is exquisite. How is the use of beading very high-fashion, while also being a fundamental element of Native design?

Patricia: When I was little and my mother was making us outfits to dance in at powwow, we were always given little saucer plates filled with leftover beads, so there would be an assortment of sizes and colors, and I just started to experiment with making strands of beaded necklaces, and then beading on fabric and then onto leather, and pretty soon I started to make designs. For me, I decided that I wanted to make designs that had different meanings other than just traditional designs, and so I started to think of images of Anasazi pottery, because it was mostly a Northern Plains influence on the design imagery up until then. I come from a family of great singers and dancers, but I found my passion in the dressing room.

K and A:  Your use of color and painted textiles (especially in the garment you created for the flower and hardware challenge on Project Runway) remind us a lot of the works of the painter Frida Kahlo: has her status as an art and fashion icon influenced your work as a designer at all? Would you say that she’s an inspiration for you?

Patricia:  Frida is a woman’s woman. She taught me to follow my passion and to not let anything stand in my way. She defied men’s controlling factors: she didn’t let it bring her morale down. She stayed very strong to express who she was as an artist, regardless of Diego’s (Rivera) behavior. She still was a very beautiful, passionate woman. She didn’t become bitter. We all have feats that we have to battle day to day: that’s why it’s important that you recognize people who are sitting next to you and you don’t put yourself above them because they have their own issues that they’re struggling with. It may not be the same as your issue, but maybe, in ten years, you’re going to have the same issue that person had. And how you deal with it is your choice.

Frida dealt with her pain and emotions and struggles through her work and she was honest about it; some of her paintings show a lot of terror and violence and fear but she was able to express it and move on and keep working it out. She didn’t put it upon anybody else: it wasn’t anybody else’s problem. She took care of it. And she still kept herself so beautiful through it all. She was able to see the beauty in herself, even after being cheated on, lied to, and maybe even discriminated against for being a female artist. Even though she was in a competitive relationship with Diego, she didn’t let it become her issue: she left it as his. She continued to be brave enough to express all that was going on inside of her emotionally, and that’s not easy because people then may not accept you, because you’re telling the truth.

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Mexican-born painter, Frida Kahlo

K and A:  Your own personal sense of style and way of dressing is very interesting and beautiful. Long hair, especially for a woman, is very much tied in with the ideas of beauty and identity. Do you feel that way about your hair?

Patricia:  My hair, to me, is sacred, and represents the Corn Maiden. We respect our rites of passage and in ceremony we give homage to Mother Earth; she provides us the fruits of life, and we recognize the purity of keeping her resources intact without pillaging any of her. Her blood is oil and all of the natural resources: those are vital parts of her existence and those are her functioning organs. It’s about keeping nature as pure and simple as we can. I don’t fuss a lot with my hair.

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Patricia exemplifies feminine strength: she is a woman whose power is gained through compassion.

Katherine and Angela: We’ve noticed that your designs include a lot of natural elements, such as eagle feathers and water; why are these features important to include in your designs?

Patricia: Well, I’m water clan, and the Pueblo were the first native tribe to pass three laws in Congress: one of them was to preserve natural resources, and that helped us to get our sacred blue lake back. We can still drink the water and it’s about twenty or thirty miles through the mountains; we’ve kept it all pure. That’s so important because water is our life, and if we don’t recognize and appreciate what’s important, then we’re not living. The eagle feather is significant of honor and it’s healing and graceful, and there’s endurance: anything that comes with honor takes time. Our prayers with the eagle feather have been around forever. I’ve been raised with the eagle feather as something that is cleansing and purifying and gives strength to that which is peaceful.

patricia michaels signature b&w eagle feather scarf

One of Patricia Michaels’ signature eagle feather scarves

Katherine and Angela: We’ve read that you have horses; they are the most magical, beautiful creatures: how do they inspire you as a designer?

Patricia: Horses are amazing. After my divorce, I met my companion, James, who had many horses. I was having a hard time in my transition with my self-esteem and going through the divorce. My daughter and I began spending time with these horses, and we would talk to the horses and pet them. Stray horses came into my life, and to my land. My grandfather said that horses talk through the wind, and their voices carry from pasture to pasture. These horses knew that if they came to me, I would take care of them, and all of a sudden I had twenty horses I was taking care of. It was so healing for me; I needed them and they needed me. A lot of them were injured and underfed.

We also talked about the importance of fun and whimsy in fashion, and how women should be allowed to be playful and free in their appearance, and not just in a sexually provocative way either. Observing the playfulness of her mares (without the company of the stud horses) encouraged Patricia’s sense of fun while designing clothes for the modern woman.

Patricia’s blue horsehair headdress featured in the finale show of Project Runway at Mercedes- Benz Fashion Week in New York City

Patricia’s blue horsehair headdress featured in the finale show of Project Runway at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York City

Katherine and Angela: As faithful viewers of Project Runway, would you be kind enough to regale us with your favorite anecdote about the beautiful host of Project Runway, Heidi Klum?

Patricia: I love Heidi. When you see a woman who takes her children to work – I saw her children more than once on set, and they’re so respectful and supportive – you just know that her heart is in the right place. She’s sincere. She embraces her children; they’re there with her, and my heart is pouring out to her because she’s a real mom, you see them interact with one another and it’s beautiful.

When we asked how attending the Institute of American Indian Art helped Patricia to find her voice as a designer, she replied that, even though there was no heat in the wintertime and working conditions were not always luxurious, all of the students were grateful just to have sewing machines to use, as well as a big work table. She was there to create and learn, and nothing was going to stand in the way of her creative vision.

We talked about originality and progression in fashion. Patricia’s musings were very independent and incredibly focused on meaning:

I don’t want to make clothing that doesn’t have some kind of awareness or meaning behind it; everything gives a message and, within that message, there’s (sometimes) something as simple as the acknowledgement of your self-worth, and when you acknowledge that, then you’re able to accept other important things that factor into all of our existence. Clothing is a necessity and there’s an abundance of it out there, but, when I make something, just like a ceremonial garment, I can do it in a contemporary, modern way where people appreciate Native American art. Everything that we wear has a meaning behind it.”

I’m not going to go out and do a show that’s going to be passive aggressive and conservative. If you don’t do something dynamic, you’re not going to get that phone call. There were a lot of times when I was doing Native American fashion that was so contemporary in the Native American art world that I wasn’t allowed in the shows.”

In the “Fashion as Art” challenge for Project Runway, Patricia created a dress complete with a white veil (very reminiscent of Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood) to obscure the model’s face, making her androgynous. Her hands are constricted and immobile because she is portraying a woman who, according to Patricia, has lost her identity (every garment has a story behind it). (Photo courtesy of Lifetime)

In the “Fashion as Art” challenge for Project Runway, Patricia created a dress complete with a white veil (very reminiscent of Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood) to obscure the model’s face, making her androgynous. Her hands are constricted and immobile because she is portraying a woman who, according to Patricia, has lost her identity. (Photo courtesy of Lifetime)

The first piece from Patricia’s finale show on Project Runway, with the upside-down flowers and organic cutouts, crinkled pink chiffon and silver crystallized beads, is a totally new look at winter-wear. Every detail that went into the making of the garment was planned and had a narrative behind it. It was also progressive and avant-garde. Patricia explained that even though most people don’t always consider pink to be a winter color, it is actually seen very often during the colder months of the year, especially if you’re hiking in the mountains at sunrise: the snow literally glows pink. It was inspired by one of those sacred moments in nature that we’ve all experienced. Patricia explained that the upside down flowers depicted in the garment represent the dormant flora beneath the ground in winter, and were also inspired by the organic shapes that form on the snow’s surface each morning after old snow has melted and new snow has fallen in its place.

One of Patricia’s designs featured in her show at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week: a pink dress with exquisite floral beaded designs

One of Patricia’s designs featured in her show at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week: a pink dress with exquisite floral beaded designs

A recurring theme in our conversation was that of passion. Love is what should fuel your work, certainly not fear or deadlines. Patricia explained, “If you don’t feed your passion, then you’re losing the excitement and the thing that you absolutely love, which is being able to execute every facet of your imagination and really letting it flow.”

Heritage is something that may not obviously strike someone as high fashion. But, for Patricia Michaels, becoming jaded to one’s ancestors and to nature is very harmful to the creative process and one’s well-being.

“This is the modern Native. We still have our culture, and there’s all this which our ancestors gave us: it’s just an extension of our ancestor’s voices and the recognition of nature and the balance of our existence today. That starts with you appreciating and loving yourself, finding the beauty within yourself, and never being afraid of it. Harness it: thank God you can love yourself.”