Fashion Forward: Indigenous Designers Weave Tradition, Trend

Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo) will receive the 2024
MIAC Living Treasure Award at the 20th Annual Native
Treasures Art Market. Photo courtesy New Mexico
Department of Cultural Affairs.

“Santa Fe is the hub of the Indigenous fashion world,” wrote Vogue magazine in August 2023. And over the years, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture has played a central role showcasing Native fashion in multiple exhibitions.

This year, two Indigenous fashion icons are being recognized by the museum: the internationally acclaimed Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo) and ascendant designer Jontay “Kahm” Kahmakoatayo (Plains Cree).

Michaels is being honored with the prestigious 2024 MIAC Living Treasure Award at this spring’s 20th Annual Native Treasures Art Market. As with other recipients before her, the award recognizes Michaels' outstanding artistic contributions to the field of Indigenous arts and culture. “What an honor to be amongst accomplished artists,” she says. “Taw-aw/Thank you.”

Michaels will also be celebrated with a solo exhibition, Painted by Hand: The Textiles of Patricia Michaels, opening at the museum on May 5.

A turning point early in Michaels’ career was her appearance on "Project Runway" in 2012. Afterward, she says, “People finally accepted my work.” From there, her collection has paraded the runway at New York’s 2013 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week and graced the 2023 Cannes Film Festival’s red carpet, where she dressed actress Tantoo Cardinal (Cree and Métis) at the Killers of the Flower Moon movie premiere. Conquering fashion's biggest stages, she proved her talent belonged on the world scene.

Michaels’ bespoke couture is greatly influenced by her Taos Pueblo heritage. Describing her fashion style as “very textural, colorful, fluid,” she uses organic, hand-dyed and painted materials as her canvas.

“I grew up in a traditional family in my grandparents’ Pueblo home. He [Michaels’ grandfather] was in charge of our village’s traditions,” Michael says. “I evoke my own history and culture as part of a larger timeless narrative.”

Visionary Native artists like Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee) paved the way for today's Native artists. In 2016, the museum honored his significant impact on contemporary Native art with the exhibition, A New Century: The Life and Legacy of Cherokee Artist and Educator Lloyd Kiva New. New believed that even the most avant-garde designs were rooted in tradition. And as an artist and educator at IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts), he urged students to embrace innovation alongside their heritage.

Michaels’ teacher at IAIA, Kimberly “Wendy” Ponca (Osage), also urged her to experiment. Michaels embraced her studies and created a fashionforward ensemble called "Pueblo Chanel." It was included in the museum’s groundbreaking exhibition, Native Couture II: Innovation and Style, in 2009.

Influenced by groundbreakers such as Michaels, a new wave of younger Native artists is staying true to their cultural heritage. Some are tapping pop culture imagery to reframe experiences, identities and perspectives—weaving together tradition and trend.

One such artist is Jontay Kahm, the 2023-2024 recipient of the Goodman Aspiring Artist Fellowship. Established in 2016 through the Museum of New Mexico Foundation by longtime museum supporters Malcolm and Connie Goodman, the fellowship provides financial assistance to promising Native artists at an early stage of their career.

A 2023 IAIA graduate in Studio Arts who Vogue declared a "rising star to watch," Kahm saw the award as a springboard to complete his senior thesis collection, titled "Regalian Bodies," of pow-wow regalia reimagined into high-fashion masterpieces. The collection debuted at this past summer’s Indian Market, where the Goodmans bought a miniature red feather/ribbon dress. “The work is impeccable, down to the tiny zipper on the back of the dress,” says Malcolm Goodman.

Kahm's journey began in high school, when he became mesmerized by Lady Gaga's flamboyant music videos and theatrical costumes. “As a kid from the rez, she opened a door to a world I didn’t know existed,” Kahm says.

Teaching himself to sew, he staged his first fashion show in a high school talent show. He is now pursuing his MFA in fashion design on a full scholarship in New York at Parsons School of Design.

“He is a one-of-a-kind artist with a very bright future ahead of him,” Goodman says.

This article and image are from the Museum of New Mexico Foundation’s Member News Magazine.