January 26, 2013

Patricia Michaels - Project Runway Top Contender

Last Thursday, Season 11 of Project Runway officially kicked off with a diverse cast of new designers, and one is our very own Miss Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo).

Michaels is the show's first Native American designer, and people are very excited about this simple fact. Her ethnicity is touted in show reviews and announcements - and rightfully so, because we as Native people are vastly underrepresented in both the fashion industry and in mainstream media.

So with Michaels' participation in this popular Lifetime reality show, we get greater recognition for Native people on both fronts.

Michaels is a rather experienced designer in the sense that she has received formal education and training in fashion design, has actively participated in fashion events since the 1990s, and has won various important awards and recognition for her garments designs. I think she makes for a great choice for Project Runway.

In the videos that introduce us to her, we learn that Michaels is inspired by the world around her. This inspiration point is incredibly important because this is what grounds her as a Native artist - her understanding and perspective of her environment takes shape as beautiful patterns in her hand-painted fabrics that she constructs into versatile and creative garments. They are artistic, yet wearable - two qualities that will prove to be very beneficial in this competition.

For example, for the first competition, designers were challenged to create a garment that shows their personalities and is inspired by a view of New York City (they must also incorporate input from the rest of the designers on their teams - a new challenge added to Season 11). Michaels immediately takes to painting her fabric. 

Other designers look at her with question - possibly since most purchase their fabric with patterns already inscribed, and they don't think to take their designs one step further and actually 'create' the fabric patterns themselves. One designer states that Michaels' fabric looks like a student craft project, while Emily (who gets voted off) remarks that Michaels shouldn't be painting since the designers have limited time (meanwhile, it's time that becomes Emily's worst enemy).

Yet, when it came down to judging, Michaels' shift dress was in the top 3 - a major coup for us Indians on our couches watching from our tubes (or laptops). Here was a strong Native woman who is connected to her community and has sacrificed a great deal to pursue her dreams of working in the fashion industry. She is in the top 3 for the first competition, AND her design was modern with not one shred of Native American stereotypical mumbo jumbo to rely on for kiss ass points.

This last point is important for me to note and discuss, because sometimes people lead us to believe that we are only included in certain programs for the sake of diversity, and not because of legitimate talent or skill. This can cause a person to second guess themselves or doubt their abilities. When we get to that point, we feel obligated to play the 'Indian role' and out comes the cheap feathers, tan leather, and old lady turquoise to live up to the expectations. But it is so incredibly important to push past that, and to know that you are pushing past it, to accept the challenge, and to do it in a respectful and good way (because, hey, feathers, leather, and turquoise can be rather fabulous if done right!). We have seen Michaels use these items in a good way: she wore beautiful turquoise jewelry throughout the episode, and brought garments to the casting audition that featured painted feather patterns. Indeed, even this shift dress was made using gorgeous white leather! Michaels doesn't resort to stereotypes, and represents Indian Country well.

I appreciate Michaels' work because much of it is concept-based, environment-based, or story-based - which are some of the core entities of Native American creativity.

For her Episode 1 dress, Michaels' explains, "I'm creating the 'New York window cityscape' look," and she achieves this look by handpainting partial squares using a silver grey paint and cutting slits into the leather dress.

The judges loved the fabric manipulation and appreciated the artistic qualities brought forth. They also applauded the cut slits because they gave the dress a tactile quality. The simple sheath form, they noted, allows us to appreciate the hand painted details and the pops of cobalt blue that make it electric. Finally, the adorable Zac Posen noted that he liked her strong female perspective.

Official statements on Michaels' debut design by Project Runway bloggers are below:

"I was nervous when Patricia first started to work on her fabric, but the end result, with the incorporation of the cobalt blue detailing and cut-outs, was very strong and totally wearable. She's the designer I'm most excited to follow as the season goes on." - Project Runway Official Blog

"[Her] painted tunic was sleek and gallery owner-esque" - Nick Verreos (Project Runway contestant, Season 2)

Teammate, and Episode 1 winner, Daniel 'moustache'  Esquivel gives Patricia a compliment as her dress goes down the runway during competition.

"And good for Patricia! Her innovative print and textile really worked (and smart of her to use a simple silhouette to balance it). There were some nay-sayers, but from the minute I saw her working on her print, I thought it had a lot of potential." - Mila Hermanovski (Project Runway contestant, Season 7)

"Patricia Michaels aka "Water Lily": she'll kill me if she uses too many Aztec prints due to her Native American descent.That print is beyond overdone. But that being said, I have to say I'm kind of obsessed with this lady ! I love her already." - Michael Costello (Project Runway contestant, Season 8)

Watch full episodes by clicking here. View Michael's Project Runway portfolio by clicking here. Rate her Cityscape Shift Dress by clicking here. Use hashtag #DesignerPatricia and join the discussion on Twitter @ProjectRunway and @BeyondBuckskin. Shop the PM Waterlily couture collection by clicking here.