Innovative. Eco-Friendly. Avant-garde. Distinctive. Fashion-Forward. Organic. Unique. Leader. Showstopper. These are just a few of the words that come to mind when you hear the name Patricia Michaels. Her Label, PM Waterlily, LLC. is a thoroughly modern, beautifully original fashion design company that creates Contemporary Native American Clothing and it’s the first of its kind. From New York City and her home in Taos, New Mexico, Patricia produces custom tailored garments, high-end limited edition apparel and casual lines for men and women; incorporating artistic hand-dyed and hand painted fabrics using earth friendly algae pigments and production methods in-tune with as well as inspired by nature. Patricia is best known for her appearance on the Emmy Award-Winning Season 11 “Project Runway” and she finished strong, claiming the Runner-up title. This was the first time ever that a Native American Contestant had competed in the history of the show’s run. As a Finalist, this also marked, that in 2013, Patricia became the first Native American Designer to show a collection at Lincoln Center for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in NYC. Her Fall/Winter 2013 “TREES” Collection wowed the audiences so much that she was invited back in 2014 to compete on the show’s popular “Project Runway All-Stars.”
Full Name: Patricia Irene Michaels
Waterlily (Native Name)
Current Title/Company: Owner/Designer PM Waterlily
Educational Background: Santa Fe High School
1 year apprentice at Santa Fe Opera costume department
3 years Institute of American Indian Arts
4 years The School of the Art Institute of Chicago
1 summer with Italian Tailor
What was your first job and how did you land that position?
My first job was as a Taos Pueblo Tour Guide.
At my beautiful ancient village our Governor Tony Reyna had put out an announcement that he needed the youth to show up clean and dressed nice for work to be tour guides.
When we showed up he gave us a book to read on what we could say so we wouldn’t share any sacred knowledge that is taboo.
After a couple weeks went by he asked me to be head of the tour guides and I took on the responsibility to give each individual equal time to make money with private tours.
We all worked on a tip bases so my added work didn’t give me extra money but I loved being with my peers while representing my beautiful Taos Pueblo.
How have your designs evolved since your first sketch?
I feel that I have more liberty to try new work without being inhibited.
I allow myself to create unique garments that have strong aesthetics which puts me aside from other designers.
I won’t give you something of a trend which I used to try and follow instead I allow myself to fully explore my vision.
What have been the biggest challenges or obstacles you’ve faced in your career and how were you able to overcome them?
When I first started to design I had a lot of people from the fashion and art industry tell me what people wanted in a Native designer. That the looks had to be very Hollywood or anthropological. I was also told that my work was not Native enough, by Native or non- Natives. That the material choices and silhouettes I used were not that of Natives. I really had to keep my visions and work on what my heart understood as being Native. I grew up around a family of championship Native dancers and a grandfather who was in Hollywood films. A brother who took me to the Opera at age 5 and continued to well in to my teens and adulthood. A mother who opened a gallery the night before I was born. Then, as I was only 5 years old, I started to attend openings in downtown Santa Fe where natives were doing extremely contemporary art. I wanted patrons to wear contemporary clothing that wasn’t a fringed buckskin dress or a broom stick skirt. I started to visualize garments by the dozen by the age of 8 years old. I can remember this because I thought if they can buy modern native art they can buy Modern Native clothing, it’s just not available. So I started experiencing in my room as a little girl on my dolls and anything that I could change, fabric, bead work, leather, silk, velvet, paintings with different pigments and textures. I was working on my work in my room almost every day there after as I still do to this day.
We want to hear about your inspiration as a creative! Where does your inspiration come from? Do you seek it out? How would you describe your design style?
My creativity comes from my heart and the love of nature and culture. My passion lies in what opportunities bring me. I’ve been given a life with many cultural exchanges and this comes with materials, textures, meaning, life styles, song, dance, ceremonies and lots and lots of work. Work that puts all these influences together to bring our ever changing existence not only in our present time but as individuals who grow to understand and further appreciate who we all are individually and simultaneously living together. If that seems like a lot, well it is and that is what goes into all my detail and long hours of work. I love the vases cultures that I have been fortunate to share with one another. So I take what I can, create the scenario that will bring my women into my collection and then go with it.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed juggling various events and guest appearances? How do you handle that stress? What do you do for “me” time?
I do get overwhelmed at times, when there is very little me time. I try to spend more time with my family. My children Gabriel & Margeaux. My mother and father and then James my companion.
It can be laughter, crying, art, prayer and meals with my children, conversation, going to art shows and ceremonies with my parents and with James all of the above and then out doors in Nature. I love correspondence with my employees, friends and clients. I want to know I can improve and make my work better. That can be humbling at times but that is how I was raised, we are always learning. No one knows everything and when you become stubborn and set in your ways, as if you are perfect, then that is where you are wrong. We are all always learning. This is how I rejuvenate by knowing there are always new feats to have.
From securing funding to writing a business plan, managing employees, and operating the day-to-day aspects of your label, running a business takes time and commitment. How did you learn the ins and outs of owning and operating your business?
I’ve had to listen to my clients and then look inside of myself to see where it fits into what I’m trying to accomplish. If I want to change the look of a story line that has come from a non-Native and many times not a woman, then I have to stay strong. I mean real strong. If I’m not willing to take the chance, no matter how alone sometimes I feel, then it’s not worth it to me. I’m not comfortable being comfortable. I like a challenge as long as I know it will be good food for thought. I leave it once it’s done and move onto the next vision. I will always still nurture what I have out there but just as well as all humans constantly changing since birth so are ambitions. Fashion celebrates the ability to change. This is an art I can identify with so it’s not something that I first could use as a template for mass production. I have to first honor the beauty that I see in individuals, so I go with couture and then ready to wear. I have to follow that because I’m doing this to be me, not to be what another may want to see me as. This is where I am different and in business you want something unique.
As a business owner, how do you achieve a work/life balance?
I have a lot of laughter in the studio. I don’t have a huge flow of income coming in so I have to be resourceful. Remember, I started to do Modern Native fashion when it was not recognized as fashion for Native patrons and/or because I was native, it was kept in the Native realm and told by Non-Natives “Oh, you’re Native? Well you are doing this all wrong.” When the whole time I’ve just been a designer that happens to be Native. So part of the whole business to kept work/life balance in there is you have to have compromise so you don’t forget yourself in the battle. You can have liberty to still go out in nature, with family to art shows and ceremonies, and cook and feast. I love a good meal and to feed whoever is around me. You can ask anyone who knows me. I love to cook and feast too!
What do you see in the future for PM Waterlilly, LLC? How do you hope to grow the business?
I hope to get finances to build my beautiful studio on my property in Taos Pueblo by Spring/Summer 2016.
I will have workshops there 6 times a year. 1 & 2 week classes.
I want to mass produce accessories that will be in Museum shops and boutiques.
I also would like a small line of ready to wear, some with signature PM Waterlily looks and some new comfortable looks.
I always want to have my couture pieces because this is a part of my creative new fabrications that make PM Waterlily the special atelier that one thrives for in the realm of true fashion.
I would like to eventually do some short stories with my fashion that are some of the scenarios that come into play of how I create my collection. This would be wonderful to collaborate with my children on. We have already done a short film of my son Gabriel Mozart Abeyta’s story, Beginnings of My Heart. He did the filming, editing, writing. Margeaux my daughter did the set design and I did all the costuming for the short film. I love working with them. Gabriel graduated from Vancouver Film School and Margeaux is in her first 2 years of college at MICA in Baltimore where she is a recipient of a 2 year fully paid scholarship. We are so proud of them both!!!
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I love seeing my children and parents proud of me. When my children tell me that they are proud of me for not giving up and that I’m a true artist. I appreciate when people reach out to me to share their passion for my work, by way of becoming clients and friends along the way as their garments are created.
I enjoy the laughter and crying when people tell me how I have impacted their lives by staying true to who I am as a creative person. I love knowing that when I go to bed at night and when I wake up in the morning that I can work doing what I enjoy doing. I feel blessed to be able to create what I vision and finally have an audience for.
I get excited when fresh new boxes of silk are opened so I can paint, texture, distress, and create new fabrications. Then after experimenting with some of the techniques for years and I finally get it and then seeing it on the beautiful model and then amazing photos I get overwhelmingly excited. There are many facets to my work that I love and the hours are long. I can’t even begin to figure the time in some of the pieces but the results are like that of a butterfly once is on the runway and it’s fluttering – all the hours are forgotten. Laughter and joy comes in.
What advice can you give women who want to break into the fashion design business?
Listen to your inner voice of what you know woman to want and be like. Our nurture nature can’t be off or human race wouldn’t exists.
Take the time to learn the craft and know the difference in materials and how they are used. It’s OK to have constructive criticism as it is important to be constructive.
Waste no time in trying to please everyone, get your vision across and the rest will follow. Your aesthetics will evolve into something brilliant as long as you trust your vision.
We are just as capable as the next person because as women we have great endurance and tolerance for long term pain and the fashion industry requires that you are capable of both.
Keep in good communication with your clients. Treat everyone as an equal and don’t create unnecessary barriers. Just make sure you get good references for who you work.
What is a typical workday like for you?
In business there isn’t a typical work day because sometimes shipments don’t come in on time and you have to shift gears.
I can say I wake up anywhere from 3:00 am to 5:00 am so I can have quiet focus time. This is important for me to always reassess what is being created in the studio.
I then can organize the rest of the day’s activities. When being creative you have to be flexible and have ideas for your vision to be accomplished. If it were your typical studio it might be different but in the PM Waterlily studio there are new fabrications that are taking place with every collection so I have to always be mindful. Then as the day goes on as it is nearing sunset I like to go out into nature before the day is over to clear the mind and get fresh air. The horses are nice go to or the mountains, this gives me insight.
Best moment of your career so far?
My children coming to see me during the filming of Project Runway in my studio in NYC, while working on the NYFW collection.
What advice would you give to your 24-year-old self?
To go with your vision of what it means to be a designer. Let whatever response you get be what it is and then move onto the next collection without any worries or attention to the past collections. They will stand as valuable works of fashion important in their time. Be forgiving for those who need to catch up. This is what makes the world interesting and different.
Patricia Michaels is a Chic Gal…
Go-to coffee order?
Starbucks, Tall Late, Soy Milk with Honey.
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
Audrey Hepburn; Native cuisine of Deer meet cooked in Bear fat and caramelizes onions, blue corn bread, spinach cooked with wild onions, baked corn stew in a micaous clay pot, chokecherry juice over wild rice with blue berries, hot Native tea with honey, a side of Native Red beans with crushed mint and a clay backed fresh mountain stream trout with fresh mint inside the trout. More Native salt and honey with the meal if need be.
Best advice you’ve received?
To know your craft. It should be as beautiful inside as outside.
I wish I knew how to SAVE TIME!
My perfect day off would be spent:
With my children, parents and James having a wonderful meal in nature.
Then relaxing in any beautiful body of water.
Going to an art show modern or antique.
Ending the day in a ceremony.
Who would play you in the movie of your life?
Younger Patricia Michaels Native actress, Qorinauka Kilcher
Older Patricia Michaels East Indian actress, Neena Gupta
Favorite shoes you wear while running errands?
MODEL – Joan Severance
Photo – Bill Curry