Native-Inspired Haute Couture Fashion Prepares for a Big Year

SANTA FE, NM — In the fashion world, it’s “taboo” for a designer to share details about a collection that has yet to hit the runway. So when I spoke with fashion designer Patricia Michaels, or Water Lily (Taos Pueblo), she spoke carefully but excitedly about her design company PM Waterlily’s collection for this year’s SWAIA’s Santa Fe Indian Market fashion show. Since 1922, the Santa Fe Indian Market has been the premiere venue for artists coming from tribal nations throughout the United States to show and sell their work. Historically founded to combat the erasure of Indigenous peoples and their cultures, the event transforms the Santa Fe plaza for one weekend in August in celebration and support of Native artists.

Water Lily, who has maintained a presence at Indian Market since birth, says, “I feel like the team that I’m building and the team that I’ll continue to work with is right on board with me. They’re excited… my couture looks that will be on the runway will be exciting, but so will the ready-to-wear.”

PM Waterlily, SWAIA Indian Market, 2019 (photo by Gabriella Marks Photography)

An alumna of the Institute of American Indian Arts and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Water Lily’s training also includes apprenticeships with the Santa Fe Opera’s costume designer and a tailor in Milan, Italy. In 2014, she received the prestigious Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian Arts and Design Award. And although Water Lily had been designing for nearly three decades prior, including gaining national recognition for her work in the 2015 Peabody Essex Museum show Native Fashion Nowshe found mainstream recognition as runner-up of Project Runway during Season 11. This pop culture appearance brought the designer’s Native-inspired haute couture fashion to New York and audiences around the world — a historical first.

PM Waterlily’s original and innovative designs for the Santa Fe Indian Market centennial incorporate her handmade signature detailing such as dying, painting, felting, and beading that reference — and sometimes reframe — the Southwestern landscape and textiles of Northern New Mexico’s Native Pueblo cultures. Her previous collections have featured wools from local Taos farms, sheer fabrics with gestural brushstrokes, black geometric patterns inspired by Anasazi pottery, bright red and rich fuschia of mountain berries and desert blooms, and metallic detailing informed by the micaceous pottery of the region. Glimpses of her designs can be seen on her TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook accounts and at Malouf on the Plaza in Santa Fe.

“It definitely is exciting…the honor of being able to be at Indian Market — it’s such an important centennial [and] time in history that I feel a responsibility to heighten my expression,” she says.

PM Waterlily, SWAIA Indian Market, 2019 (photo by Gabriella Marks Photography)

Currently working outside of Santa Fe, Water Lily joked about the chaos happening in her studio as she juggles the collection for Indian Market and alongside her other projects. For example, she’s been creating costumes for performances by Opera Lafayette (Washington, DC) of André Gréry’s Silvain, which tells a story of farmers in the 1860s in the territory of what today is northern New Mexico. She took on the project in part to incorporate a part of New Mexico culture she has been eager to explore through fashion. Informing her designs for the opera is the art of Spanish colonial New Mexico, ranging from carved and painted woodworking of santero artists (makers of religious imagery) to wool and cotton techniques of colcha embroidery, offering a contemporary interpretation of life and fashion during the state’s territory period.

When I asked her specifically about this year’s centennial Indian Market, she became overwhelmed by what the milestone means for her and for the numerous artists and families that have participated in the market for decades. Thinking about the number of artworks that Indigenous artists have made over 100 years, she says, “When you go into Indian Market, just remember that there are prayers in every single piece of art on the plaza.” Adding to this, the artworks at Indian Market are testaments to cultural survival and community resilience, which she and her family carry on with their work.

PM Waterlily, SWAIA Indian Market, 2019 (photo by Gabriella Marks Photography)

While reflecting on her inspirations, Water Lily was candid about the early pushback she received at Indian Market. “When I first wanted to do a fashion show and [market organizers] wouldn’t let me because, they said I was taking away from tradition, and I had my booth protested … I [remained] headstrong about doing a contemporary fashion show.”

Despite the resistance to include a fashion show in 1992, she continued to advocate for the opportunity to debut her designs the way they were intended to be shown: on a catwalk. As a fashion designer who is Indigenous, Water Lily refused to conform to rigid demands defined by “traditional” and “authentic” Native American art — labels that were invented and implemented by non-Native organizers. Instead, she, like many Native artists, celebrates her culture through dialogues with the past combined with innovation grounded in the world today and in the future. Thirty years later, Indian Market would seem incomplete without the annual fashion show that she adamantly pushed for, and that will hopefully continue for the next 100 years.

In anticipation of this year’s market, Water Lily mentions that she and her team are celebrating the people they have worked with over the years. The designer says, “The honor is beyond words of the people who came before me to allow me this space.” Mindful of the Native women that preceded her, she explains, “I have a lot of admiration for women of the past. They were really able to stand their ground in a world that was changing.” And, in the face of such change, “Our cultures were being policed ​​so that we wouldn’t speak the language, we wouldn’t participate in ceremonies,” which then led her to the bigger picture of her creative endeavors. “To me, that’s part of my inspiration. [The fact that] I can still go home and still be in ceremonies and still bring something contemporary to the market so that I’m not selling my tradition, but I’m making enough so that my tradition still exists.”

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