SANTA FE, N.M. — Taos Pueblo fashion designer Patricia Michaels is breaking new ground on TV’s popular “Project Runway.”
For the season starting with a Jan. 24 broadcast, Michaels will be the first Native American designer to appear on the show during its 11-year run.
It all started last March when Michaels visited the website ModelMayhem.com to surf for models visiting New Mexico who might be willing to work with her. That led to a casting agent from “Project Runway” visiting Michaels’ website and asking her to apply for a slot on the program.
“I had not seen ‘Project Runway,’ ” Michaels said in a telephone interview from her mother’s Santa Fe home. “I don’t watch a lot of TV. I rented (the program) a few back seasons and I loved it.”
First, she filled out voluminous questionnaires asking about her creative direction and sense of self.
“It’s a lengthy process to be sure,” she said, “to see if you’re well-grounded in what direction you’re going in.”
Michaels tidied up her archives searching for samples of her work, then flew off to Dallas to audition before a selection committee. She girded herself with five different looks.
Michaels is known for weaving her own fabrics from silk and felted wool, rejecting the Native fringe and buckskin stereotypes.
“My inspiration comes a lot from nature,” she said. “I spend a lot of time outdoors. I also love to travel.”
In 2009, she created a Native version of Chanel’s signature three-quarter-length tops and flouncy bows for an exhibit at Santa Fe’s Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.
Michaels said that, as a young child, she knew she would work with fabric when she sat transfixed watching a black widow spin its silk. For the museum, she paired hand-painted silk organza decorated with feathers and a burnout velvet top in a basket-weave motif.
That same year, she and fellow designer Dorothy Grant made history as the first Native designers to show their work during New York’s Fashion Week.
At the Dallas audition for “Project Runway,” she spotted Mondo Guerra, a Denver designer and past winner on the Lifetime show.
“He said, ‘You didn’t even have to show me more than one of your looks; I was sold,’ ” she said. “I was so honored.”
“I got great feedback,” Michaels continued. “They told me it was a new look for Native American design –– it was refreshing to see something Native and new.”
She flew to New York in July to begin six weeks of filming.
Michaels said she couldn’t reveal what she made or what her “challenges,” or assignments, were for the show’s episodes, much less who had won. Each week, one competitor is sent away after a challenge until a final contest determines the ultimate winner.
Michaels did say the critiques she heard during her “Project Runway” experience were helpful.
“You realize this is something you couldn’t possibly pay for and you just try to absorb it all,” she said. “They’re coming from an arena where they’re honest and they’re really going to push you.
“It’s sometimes a hard pill to swallow,” she acknowledged. “You don’t ever want to be misunderstood as being defensive.”
Besides, she studied at both the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, so she’s used to critiques. Her avant-garde fashions never screamed “native.”
For the first time, in season 11, the “Project Runway” producers asked participants to work in teams. Michaels said she was used to pairing up. When she decides she needs metal fabrication for a garment, she gives her designs to her stepfather, an ironworker.
“That’s teamwork,” she said. “Basically, you are always working on a team. That’s how I tried to treat my team members for ‘Project Runway.’ It’s different because you have very little time and you’re a competitor.”
The show stars host and model Heidi Klum with Marie Claire fashion director Nina Garcia and the featured judge, award-winning Zac Posen. Designer Michael Kors is the final guest judge.
This year, the guest celebrity judges also include Bette Midler, Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon, country music star Miranda Lambert, singer/songwriter John Legend, Joan and Melissa Rivers, Emmy Rossum, “Sex and the City’s” Kristin Davis and others.
Between shopping for fabric, running errands and grabbing lunch, Michaels says she had only about five to seven hours to produce her designs daily. She says she’s used to the pressures of competition.
“I was raised dancing at pow-wows,” she said. “All my family were championships dancers. I didn’t look at it as competitive; I viewed it as an honor to be with them.”
She says she just wants to represent her culture well and make her children proud.
Legends gallery is hosting a viewing party for Michaels at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 24 at 125 Lincoln Ave. in Santa Fe. Call 983-5639 for information.