Fashion designer and Portland native Michelle Lesniak is what I consider a hometown hero: leaving her presumably stable job in the wine business a few years back to pursue her dream of fashion design, she even endured a grueling season of Project Runway where she ultimately earned herself a well-deserved win after being relegated to playing the role of underdog due to her assignment to a team that lost more often than not. Since then Michelle has opened her own studio here in Portland, has shown her work across the country, and even braved another Project Runway stint in the last season of Project Runway All Stars. Though I thought her All Stars loss was totally whack, it sounds like there was more going on than met the viewers eye.
Still, it seems nothing can slow Michelle as she is busy touring the country with her latest collection, Falling Upwards. An ode to hot air balloons (her father used to race them!), the collection is comprised of airy & beautifully hued pieces – including swimwear – in silk chiffon, pleated silk, nylon ripstop, and wool knits. Having debuted at February’s Fade to Light showcase, Michelle is hitting the road for Austin’s Fashion Week as I type. Thankfully she was able to carve some time from her hectic schedule for a Rad Lady interview first! Read on for what Michelle misses most about ‘old’ Portland, how she approaches her design process, and – duh – where she goes for a great burger -
VGS: I was excited to learn that you’re a fellow Portland native! Which quadrant are you from and what do you miss most about ‘old’ Portland?
M: Yes, I was born and raised in SE Portland. I miss Macheezmo Mouse, smelling beer being brewed next to Powell’s, Ramblin’ Rod on TV, and Roger’s Dry Goods, a little store over in Sellwood where I would go when I got my allowance and buy all kinds of fun beads and buttons and other random things.
VGS: I first became aware of your work at Content 2013. Your Decay dress caught my eye immediately and then you pointed out that the print was of rats, which made me love it even more! What inspired you to design your own textiles?
M: I went to school for printmaking which I feel naturally lends itself to textile design.
VGS: You are committed to local production and ethical business practices, is that the byproduct of being a Portland kid or did that come from any personal experiences you’ve had in the industry?
M: It’s kind of a weird question for me because if you’re a good person, you want to have good business practices. I want to keep it local because I’m proud to be from Portland and love living here.
VGS: I love how creative you are with themes of your collections. What is your process for creating the stories behind each theme?
M: The stories of my collections come from emotion. I take some time to reflect internally and focus on how I’m feeling. I take those feelings, the good and the bad, the highs and the lows, and make a mood board, using words and finding pictures that speak to what I’m feeling. From there I start designing.
VGS: Have you ever felt trapped by a theme or found the need to re-work it?
M: I’ve never felt trapped by a theme but I have had moments of feeling design block, or I’ll make something numerous times and I’ll keep reworking it throughout the process, but I’ve never been trapped. Having a theme actually keeps me from feeling trapped, keeps me on target.
VGS: What are your general thoughts on Portland’s emerging fashion industry?
M: Portland is incredibly creative. People are wanting designs from local designers. The thing that holds us back the most is manufacturing and material sourcing.
VGS: There is buzz about Portland working its way up to being on par with New York or LA – do you think that will ever happen? If so, what do you think it will take?
M: I think it will happen. I think it’ll take really innovative people, innovative design, and a green approach. Portland has it, it just hasn’t happened yet. People are talking about it. At one point in time we had manufacturing here, like Janzten, but that’s kind of gone away. It takes time but I think it will happen.
VGS: What can we expect next from you?
M: A lot more day dreaming, a lot more great stories to tell, a lot more emotive fashion and hopefully more retail presence.
VGS: What’s your favorite spot to grab a burger?
M: Smokehouse Tavern or, if I’m on the fly, Little Big Burger. If you stop by Smokehouse Tavern, make sure to check out the aprons. They’re mine!
You can shop Michelle’s designs here and follow her @michelleiswell on Instagram to keep up on new collections and future shows.