Pueblo Style Takes New York

Pueblo Style Takes New York:

Photos by Eva-Maria Guggenberger

Patricia Michaels might not have won the popular cable-TV fashion competition show Project Runway when she reached the final round in 2013, but she is making the work of Southwest Native designers a constant presence at the heart of the nation’s fashion industry.

Michaels (Taos Pueblo) returned to the New York catwalk recently with a spectacular show presented by Style Fashion Week. At least 1,200 fashionistas attended in the cavernous Hammerstein Ballroom, with 800 on folding chairs, the rest standing in the ground floor and the balcony. A smattering of Project Runway veterans came to show support. Although Michaels has been a leading figure in Southwest design for decades, her appearance on the show was a national breakthrough, both for her and for Native fashion.

Along with Navajo designer Orlando Dugi, Michaels introduced a collection imbued with the colors and traditional culture of Native New Mexico. As her models strutted down the runway for the sophisticated New York audience, they paid tribute to the berry-gathering women of her home community.

Her presentation, called The Wildberry Collection, reflected the wild plum, chokecherry, currant, rosehip, blueberries and strawberries that Pueblo women would collect in season from the mountains. “So those are the fun wool berries that are just dancing!” she says. “People may think, well, you’re working, but, when we’re in the mountains, believe you me, we’re having a blast gathering berries.”

Michaels wanted to show this aspect of traditional life. “We need to have that female bond, to be honest about how we protect one another and to make sure that’s not lost. These works and their representation celebrate the way my grandmother raised us.”

Southwest color also dominated Dugi’s Red Collection, which was entirely dyed in cochineal derived from the female cactus-dwelling cochineal insect. The dye is derived by drying the entire insect and then crushing it into a powder. It bonds best with protein-based fibers, such as silk and wool. The powder can produce a variety of colors – different shades of red, pink, orange, green, purples, silver and black. Dugi says The Red Collection was inspired by the pre-Columbian, matriarchal, civilization of the Southwest. “With this matriarchal monarchy, the women are more empowered, but there’s still a balance between masculine and feminine,” he says. Significantly, the red color is derived only from the female insect, not from the male.

Style Fashion Week

The venue for Michaels and Dugi, Style Fashion Week, began in March 2011 when its director, Veronica Kerzner, set up shop in the back of a friend’s office in Los Angeles with six interns. Nearly six years later her company, with her husband as partner, hosts shows in New York, Palm Springs, Miami (Art Basel), Dubai, Santa Fe, Boston and Washington, D.C.

Kerzner was introduced to Santa Fe by a photographer from the area, who had been attending Style Fashion Week for years. When she finally travelled there, she met with governors from different pueblos as well as the mayor and governor of the city. On a side-trip to Taos she met Patricia Michaels through mutual friends. “She had us over to her house where we got to see all of her work and everything that she’s doing and really hear her story; it’s such a beautiful thing.”

Michaels was also able to connect her with Orlando Dugi (Diné). Kerzner invited him out to New York as well. “I remember looking at his pictures and pieces of his art,” she says. “He’s obviously an incredible artist.”

Patricia Michaels: The Wildberry Collection

With only four weeks to create The Wildberry Collection, Michaels and PM Waterlily, her company and Native namesake, turned out 33 pieces. Her first pieces, literally painted on canvas, paid homage to Anasazi pottery. “I chose canvas for two reasons,” she says, “one, because I paint so much, and two, since it technically takes the shape and form of a vessel.” Her first model on the runway wore a dress accompanied by a parasol in a variety of colored handprints. 

Theresa Barbaro is a frequent contributor to American Indian magazine.