The Life of a Locally Designed Dress

Follow one of Project Runway winner Michelle Lesniak's signature garments from inspiration through its appearance at the Museum of Contemporary Craft.

By Eden Dawn July 1, 2014 Published in the July 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

In 2013, millions of Project Runway devotees watched local gal Michelle Lesniak impress the likes of Heidi Klum by whipping up catwalk-ready garments overnight. In real life independent designers take months to painstakingly create their cohesive collections, drafting patterns down to an eighth of an inch, hopping on planes to purchase bulk textiles, and, finally, hunkering down for weeks over industrial sewing machines. Here, we follow one of Lesniak’s signature garments—the Huntress Dress, right—over that journey.

The Sketch: Lesniak roughed out her first rat sketch for the dress’s textile while sitting on a plane. Ultimately, the sketch would become the inspiration for her entire fall 2014 Decay collection. “I was going through some pretty personal things at the time, including the decay of a marriage, so the words I had were decay, moodiness, and beauty. The beauty of things breaking down and then regenerating.”

The Textile: The original drawing for the dress reveals the historical influence (including the high neck and modest hemline) of what Lesniak calls her “Victorian Goth phase.” Once she nailed her silhouette, she collaborated with local textile designer Kate Troyer to turn her sketch into a seamless pattern before it was printed on silk chiffon in South Carolina. The custom textile contributes to the dress’s $3,000 price tag. “It was more than $100 a yard just for that fabric,” says Lesniak. “You add the silk lining, and it gets very expensive. But I think the woman who wants to wear a rat-print gown is willing to pay that price.”

The Structure: Lesniak began by hand-drafting a flat pattern for the bodice, then draped the floor-length skirt on a dress form for flow and feel. After a round of prototypes, fittings, and adjustments, she stitched up the final gown in her studio before styling it for photo shoots and runway shows, and tackling the logistics of production. All in all, it took five months to hone the design, then six more to develop the pricing and manufacturing models.

The Exhibit: Sarah Margolis-Pineo, curator of the Museum of Contemporary Craft’s Fashioning Cascadia exhibition, hopes that pieces like Lesniak’s will inspire visitors. “If they can think slightly differently about their wardrobes after they come, the whole show will be a success,” she says. “Somebody thought about the weave, how it was going to be constructed, how it came together. So much of that human intention has been lost in everyday wear.”

The Huntress Dress joins pieces from nine other influential Northwest designers in Fashioning Cascadia, on display at the Museum of Contemporary Craft through October 11.

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