This season Project Runway welcomed its first-ever Native American designer, textile artist Patricia Michaels. The show raps up tonight and the Taos, New Mexico designer is one of the final three competitors.
But whether Michaels wins or loses tonight, having her viewpoint and hand-crafted talents highlighted on one of the most popular shows on TV has been, quite honestly, a welcome change from several recent factory-made fashion appropriations of Native American culture.
Michaels made waves on the show in the very first challenge by hand-painting and cutting slits in white leather. While other designers complained her design looked like an art school project, the garment landed Michaels in the "top three" for that challenge. For inspiration, Michaels says she bases her designs on natural and Native elements: "water, circle of life, and eagle feathers." All her designs on the show have handmade elements—fabric manipulation, braiding, painting—and she has received a lot of kudos from the judges for doing what they want all designers to do: Show them something they have not seen before.
In an introductory video for the show, Michaels says that the woven blankets worn for ceremonies in her community are one of the first things that inspired her to get into fashion. "You cannot find these in a store," she says, holding one up.
And the "fashion faux pas" that drives her crazy? "Another headdress on the runway and another typical fringed jacket."
Ah! Maybe she's speaking directly to Victoria's Secret. Who could forget how the company decked out model Karlie Kloss in a turquoise-studded bikini and floor-length feather headdress last year?
Or maybe the barb is directly at Urban Outfitters. That company is currently fighting a lawsuit filed by the Navajo Nation for slapping the name "Navajo" on 21 products, including flasks and hipster underwear.
Now that Patricia Michaels is in the mainstream, the fashion industry may be less likely to co-opt Native names and designs. We can hope, right? Even if the industry is slow to change, Project Runway viewers this season could take Michaels' perspective to heart and spread the good word to their friends, "Hey, knock off the 'Native American' Halloween costumes."
Native fashion blog Beyond Buckskin has been covering Michaels' every design on the show so far. To get a feel for Michaels' style, check out their writing, as well as this video recap of her season: