Portland Designer Sarah Donofrio on Her Drama-Free Project Runway Debut

“I just wanted to sew, not get pulled away to talk drama."

By Enid Spitz October 6, 2016

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If you were excited to watch the newest Portlander on Project Runway Season 17, the premiere last month was a disappointment. Sarah Donofrio, the Toronto native turned Portlander, barely appeared. “I just wanted to sew, not get pulled away to talk drama,” says Donofrio. As a result, she’s had precious little screen time this season.

Back in Portland, Donofrio is in the spotlight. She’s running a colorful pop-up shop across from the Liquor Store bar on SE Belmont Street. And last Friday, she debuted her first-ever runway show in Portland alongside veteran local designers Wendy Ohlendorf and Runway alum Michelle Lesniak at FashioNXT with her line of bright, pop art textiles and a gown made of shattered records.

Before the show, we talked with Donofrio about what Tim Gunn told her and her side job as an indie DJ.

We didn’t get to see your review with Tim Gunn in the premiere. What happened?

I didn’t get a lot of screen time in that episode. I was upset they didn’t put my review on screen because it was really good. He came over and looked at the top and said, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing. I didn’t realize these were candy wrappers.” But with the skirt he asked what I was trying to do. I was trying to keep the lanterns straight, but he said, “You have to let them lay how they want to lay.” After I followed his advice, the look turned out.

What’s your biggest takeaway from being on the show?

When it comes to taking risks now, I’m less afraid. I have so many different fabrics and ideas in my head that I’ve been afraid to do because I didn’t know how it was going to turn out. But now I think, “OK, you just have to dive in.” Ninety percent of the time, the bold risks I take are paying off. Just because I’m ready-made doesn’t mean I only have to design for profit.

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Tell me about your line for FashioNXT in Portland?

Most of the designs aren’t things that would necessarily be mass-produced, but I can see them appealing to people looking for custom designs or something to wear to events. I designed all the textiles with an ’80s and ’90s graphic style. Lots of bright colors and bright prints styled in ways you wouldn’t expect. I’m combining classics like primary colors with unconventional materials, like smashed-up records … don’t worry, only bad ones. 

What bad records did you smash? Your pop-up shop is in the old Belmont Records space....

I got them at the Goodwill. I went through all the bad double albums, like Hungarian folk tunes. Stuff people wouldn’t be offended by if I tore it in half. It also shows how music is so influential in my collection. 

What do you listen to in the studio?

I am an indie rock DJ [on OPB Music], so I’m into the classic indie rock. Lately, I’ve been revisiting all the bands I got into as a teenager, like the Smiths and Brit pop. As far as new things, I find myself gravitating toward Ariel Pink and Mac DeMarco.

Is fashion very different in Toronto, where you’re from?

Now I see that Toronto really is like New York. It has the “keep to yourself” feeling, where no one smiles at your on the subway and it’s fast-paced. It’s definitely different in Portland. People smile at me a lot here.

How is your style different from the Portland designers who’ve gone before you on PR?

I am using a design that’s more editorial and influenced by these crazy prints and the ’80s. Anybody can make a blouse, but when you have a unique print, that’s how you put a signature on something. Portland has a lot of unique labels. I’m wondering what people are going to think when they see my collection. It’s a new injection into the scene, and I think we’re ready to have another signature added to the pot. I’m definitely staying in Portland—we own a property here now. 

What do you wish someone told you when you were starting to design?

For years I thought I had to create what other people would like. But go with your gut and do what’s true for you. You’re a designer or a buyer or a retailer for a reason. Mass appeal comes secondary, if not third or fourth. It has to be about you. No designer on the Milan runway is thinking, “Are people at Forever 21 going to want to knock this off?” Like my record dress: you’re not going to see it at H&M, so for me it’s avant-garde, but some designer is going to come along and say, “That’s not avant-garde. I just made a dress out of cement.” That’s me being ready-to-wear and also outside of the box. 

What is the life of a fashion designer like?

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Everyone thinks there are all these tall pretty girls who are fashion designers. They think I sit around drinking coffee and sketching all day for a living. There’s trend research and the importance of what you put on your body every day to represent yourself to the world. When I’m at home sewing at 3 a.m., of course I’m in tights and a T-shirt, so I love those days when I can show off my personal style, like when I’m in the shop. On the Project Runway runway, I was careful not to make that mistake where Nina [Garcia] calls you out and says, “You look more put together than your model,” so I dressed down a lot. In the workroom though—that’s where you’re guaranteed screen time—that’s where I pulled everything out.

Did you ever think you’d be at this point?

Growing up in Toronto, no one ever explained that I could be a designer or a buyer. It was like, you can be a lawyer or a doctor, or if you like fashion, maybe you can work in a store someday. Today, I’m sitting in my studio drafting patterns and listening to my own radio show, and I was thinking: 15-year-old me would be very impressed.

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