Fashion Fridays: Q+A with Michi Designer Michelle Watson

Words and Interview by Emily Shapiro Portraits by Martei Korley

We first met Michelle Watson in New York, on the dancefloors of parties like Rice and Peas and the late Re-Opened at Santos Party House. She was working for Ralph Lauren and picking up dancehall dancing with the DancerzBlvd and Blackgold crews. Now, back in her native Canada, the former pro-golf player and ex-medical student with roots in Jamaica is making a name for herself in the fashion industry. Her line, Michi, is an activewear line that mixes functionality and sexuality. Whoever said, “beauty is pain” did not know the joy of Michi’s luxurious, yet totally comfortable clothes. Michelle recently showed at fashion week in Toronto, creating major buzz for her line by encouraging her models to drip with personality as they walked the catwalk. We talked all about her journey into fashion and where her line is headed in the future. Read on, and visit www.michiny.com to find out where to buy.

LargeUp: Tell us about your journey from Canada to New York—where you grew up and how you decided to get into fashion…

Michelle Watson: I always wanted to get into fashion but my parents kind of brainwashed me into getting into other careers. So I studied a lot of different things. I tried out pretty much every industry from finance to advertising to sales. And while I was working in finance, I decided I really have to go into fashion design. I was in Toronto at the time. So I just started saving money and looking into schools. I even tried advertising to see if that might work instead of fashion but it didn’t. I ended up moving in with my parents for a year when I was 25 to save money, back in Calgary, and then came straight to New York and started fashion. I knew I had to do it.

LU: What were some of the other things you tried?

MW: First, I majored in biology. I was going to be a plastic surgeon. I did the MCAT and everything and I was on my way but then I decided, Nah, I’m going to do business instead so I could have a fashion design business knowledge later in life.  So then I switched into business and have that degree. And then later I did my fashion degree. I have three degrees.

LU: I know that you are an athlete. What sports did you play and did these experiences influence your line?

MW: I grew up as a competitive golfer starting when I was about six. When I was old enough to play on the course I entered whatever little tournaments there were. I started to win all the time so I would get gift certificates for the pro shop and trophies. So I thought, oh this is great and I just kept up with it.  I never really loved it so much but I liked the idea of being good at something. I kept doing up ‘till I was 18. I did lots of tournaments like Nationals. I played in the US at America’s Cup and won my cup championship three times in a row against people that played tour. So it was pretty competitive. I also played badminton, competitively [in] high school. I also ski raced in high school, which I loved. That was my favorite. I never really did dance until I was older. Initially, I wanted to start a golf line because I hated golf clothes and having to wear golf clothes the whole summer. So I thought about that but then I thought that’s too much of a niche and I can’t do anything super cool in golf clothes. That’s what got me thinking that I really wanted to do an athletic line.

LU: At what point did you realize that there was a need for a genre like the one that you’ve created?

MW: It was when I was working for RLX, Ralph Lauren and it was athletic clothing mostly. It started out with skiwear and golfwear. Then we re-branded ourselves to be a little bit less expensive and a little more streetwear—kind of stuff for the gym and for after. When we would research and come up with designs, I was always thinking oh, I would have done this a little bit differently. I saw a huge market for this but maybe more feminine. I was thinking, I would love to design a line like this and then it just kind of hit me… Also, I was taking dancehall classes and a lot of different dance classes. I felt like I was always wearing yoga clothes and it felt really ugly. It felt like you needed something a bit more edgy and fun to get into it…to catch the vibes. I mean you have a purple waistband with black flared pants, it just felt weird.

LargeUp: Since your mom is from Kingston, was dancehall something you were raised on or did you discover it later on?

MW: Well, I used to do Capoeira and everyone used to tell me that I would love dancehall. I guess, the way I liked to dance, I was inspired by Krumping a lot, and I have always liked Latin dance. So finally, when I went to Jamaica for the first time, I was there with my family; my mom, my dad and my brother, and I just fell in love with dancehall. It’s so much fun, the names for all the moves and the different steps. I pretty much grew up with Jamaican food, Jamaican sayings and a strict Jamaican upbringing. And also there are certain cultural things you grow up with. Learning street smarts, always watching your back and “watch yuh frenz who yuh smoke with and run joke with.”

LU: So then when you came to New York you were already into dancehall?

MW: So I came to New York in 2004 and I wasn’t into dance as yet. All I could really focus on was school and then I needed a dose of testosterone because I was with all girls in my classes so I started Capoeira. I actually found Hanna [Herbertson] accidentally because I was googling a Vybz Kartel song but I wrote the wrong name and then Hanna popped up and then I saw her class and I thought this girl is amazing. After taking Hanna’s class for a while, I started taking classes with DancerzBLVD and they asked me to join their group so I worked with them. The year I joined, they were nominated for an IRAWMA award for most outstanding dance group.  So, we performed at that show.  Everyone in that group was a great dancer and then of course, Blackgold are amazing dancers too. (Korie Genius of Blackgold was sitting right next to me during the interview-Emily).

LU: Some of your stuff really looks like it kind of belongs at a bashment party. I personally want to wear it to go out.  Was your line inspired by your dancehall experiences?

MW: I would say it was indirectly inspired. When I started to design I did do a few dancehall-inspired pieces but they didn’t really fit. There was too much mesh and too much exposure. So I cut those pieces out. This is more inspired by high-fashion and edgy design lines. Dancehall is more color and its also mixing so many things up. Dancehall looks great in Jamaica or at a party because it’s too much, its excess, so it looks awesome in that situation. But in other situations, it just doesn’t really work.

LU: Do you wear your own clothes to the gym and to parties?

MW: I wear my stuff to every party and I also wear my bras everyday. To the gym, I have certain bras that are more athletic than others so I always wear those. My leggings are great for any kind of sport. They are totally athletic leggings. The waistband doesn’t ride down ‘cause that’s one thing that I have noticed with every brand. If you have a bit of a gut, it sucks it in. And the fabric is also four-way stretch, wicking and quick dry. You never need to adjust.

LU: Who would you describe as the Michi client?

MW: I’m designing for somebody that likes to be different. They are very fashion-forward. They pick out pieces that they like based on design and put their own outfits together. They don’t need to look around and see what everyone else is wearing. They’re multi-faceted people. It’s also somebody that has a higher income bracket because my stuff’s not cheap. But my buyers think that my prices are excellent, given the quality. So it’s definitely someone that marches to the beat of their own drum.

LU: You just showed at Toronto Fashion Week.  Was it a deliberate choice from the jump to have all of that extra personality on the catwalk or was that something that formed over time?

MW: Well, it was my intention to have a show like the 90’s. I was inspired by the music video “Too Funky” by George Michael. I stumbled upon that video one day while I was looking at supermodel walks and outfits from the 90’s. I wanted the models to exude what the models exuded in that video. Very over the top, in love with themselves, pretending the audience loved them so much. The normal model walk for today is very stiff, pelvis forward, no arm movement. And all the models kind of get sick of it. So when I pulled models aside to see them do sexier type walks, they were so excited. And then the models that I did choose, when we did the fitting for my show, I got them to watch the “Too Funky” video and I practiced with them and showed them what I wanted. They were all so excited and it made me so excited. They looked it up and practiced at home and some of them were just natural, amazing walkers. It’s not like I had a proper collection with 50 looks. It’s a small, athletic line so I wanted it to be fun and dynamic. I’m really happy with how the models pulled it off.  Everyone brought something different to the table.

LU: Moving forward, where do you see your aesthetic going?

MW: I’m actually going to add some more conservative pieces. I never really intended the brand to be so sexy. I just wanted to have a more edgy, active line. I just naturally make things sexy, I guess. I want to add some more pieces for people that don’t want to have a mesh cut out in their leg, maybe a totally solid legging with an interesting style. But on the other side, I’m going to have pieces that are even edgier and add more mixed materials. It would be attracting more musicians, and pieces to wear out at night. It goes to opposite sides of the spectrum because I can sell in lingerie stores and sports stores or high-fashion boutiques. I’m just seeing where my customer takes me.

LU: Speaking of your customer, do you see a menswear line coming any time soon?

MW: Everybody that asks me, I know is not even my customer.  They say, “Oh when’s the men’s line coming?  Well, I don’t really work out but I’m still interested.” Or guys ask me and then— so many guys, I can’t even begin to tell you how many—have said, “Well, you know, when the men’s line comes out I’ll model for you for free.” No girls have said this but every guy is very confident and thinks, I’ve got what it takes to be a model.