Project Runway's Michelle Lesniak Brings Her Sexy Style to Carmen

The award-winning local designer teams up with NW Dance project to update the classic story of passion and murder.

By Eden Dawn March 14, 2017

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Northwest Dance Project company members in Michelle Lesniak designs: (left to right) Franco Nieto, Andrea Parson, and Elijah Labay

The traditional ballerina tutu might be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of dance, but, in fact, fashion and dance have been married from beginning. From the Black Swan’s goth vibes to the tiered ruffle skirt of a flamenco dancer, the costume guides the viewer's eyes and adds another layer of movement to the characters. Clothing matters.

In NW Dance Project’s Carmen, resident choreographer Ihsan Rustem, known for forceful and often dark work, transports Bizet’s opera of passion and murder to modern-day hair salons and barbershops. For this incarnation, the company enlisted famed Portland designer Michelle Lesniak—known to casual fashion observers for her win on Project Runway and the locally obsessed for blowing away viewers at nearly every runway show in town—to bring her sexy, modern aesthetic to the show.

In advance of the show—it runs March 16–18 at the Newmark—we caught up with Lesniak about designing for dance, sex appeal, and driving the costume bus off the cliff.

How did you get hooked up to design this show?

I met artistic director Sarah Slipper and executive director Scott Lewis a couple of years ago. Since that meeting I have been able to dress them both! I think our artistic expressions matched right off the bat and our relationship was kismet. We chatted about doing a collaboration, and when Carmen came around it felt like a perfect match—an age-old story of lust, love and jealousy set to modern times with a modern edge. Because this storyline has happened to us all.

How free could you be with your designs? Where did you draw your inspiration? 

Well… how shall I best put this? I slapped the choreographer in the face at first, via sketches. Talented choreographer Ihsan Rustem came to me with a very specific mood board and storyline for costuming. Since he was overseas working in Europe at the time, all of our meetings were via Skype, and my sketches were sent in e-mails without a whole lot of discussion. I slapped him in the face. Let’s just say I drove the costume bus off the cliff and luckily, after much coaxing, it landed in a pillow of great collaboration! Look for 1950s and 1960s silhouettes using modern materials, a whole lot of sex appeal, and even more skin. I am lucky my sales skills helped to pitch my designs, because I have never been so proud of a collaboration. 

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Elijah Labay and Andrea Parson

What special considerations have to be taken when designing for dance?

The hardest thing when designing for dance is movement. I can barely touch my toes, so when I am designing my ready-to-wear it isn’t something I consider. With dance, movement is key. Lightness is important, but so is volume and flow. No garment stands stationary, so it needs to be exciting from all sides as it moves. It also can’t stick to other fabrics, because partnering is key. Elaborate partnering and the knot-tying of bodies is something that NWDP is known for, so I had to design something that wouldn’t get caught up, tangled or look trying…but then it still has to look like design. That is the challenge. 

Is there a character within the show you were particularly excited to dress?

I didn’t feel more drawn to one character over another. I was more excited to dress an entire stage performance, to make them relative towards one another, yet still giving them individual character without having it be so obvious. I used very dramatic color stories to tell the tale of good versus evil, pure versus devilish…. but they also combine. Golly, it has been fun.

Does it feel different than designing for a ready-to-wear customer? 

The biggest difference I have felt in designing for dance as opposed to designing for ready-to-wear is that I have so much more freedom. It sounds silly, because there are still strict parameters, but I get to design for fantasy when doing costuming, whereas when designing for boutiques, I have to think of what sells. I feel much more free when designing costuming, like I'm in a sappy tampon ad or euphoric antidepressant commercial. I feel free!

Your runway shows have historically been incredibly story-driven and theatrical. Does costuming feel like a natural evolution to you? 

I think clothes tell a story. I think your outfit tells a story of how you are feeling that day, how you want to be perceived, who you are… I like to tell a story through my design, because I think it will stay in your closet longer at the end of the day. So I do think that I naturally want to tell a story and gravitate towards that in my design. My first few costuming projects were scary. I had no idea the difference between costuming and women’s wear design. I was so out of my element I was designing safe. Now that I have a few years of costuming under my belt, I feel much more confident and experimental, which is a good thing. I’m not only pushing myself but pushing costuming in a different direction. When I see a performance, whether it is dance or theater, I am looking at the costuming, not only the performance, to take me away. I am looking to “sail away, sail away, sail away”… and I am hoping I give that to the viewer.  

Got any future costuming plans?

I just worked in NYC on an off-Broadway show and am hoping to do some more work with a choreographer in Seattle. I think costuming has sat in my saddle and I am looking to giddy-up. It feels like home.

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