One Imaginary Girl
written by Courtney Tait | photographed by Joshua Lee Burnett
For fashion designer Sarah Donofrio, inspiration comes in bursts.
Her newest collection, shown on opening night of Portland’s FashioNXT and featuring a playful mix of pattern, color, and separates, came to her in a vision.
“I sat down in one day and did five different designs and five different colors,” she says. This burst led to a 14-piece collection that showcases her original prints, accessories, and a standout black dress made from broken record shards.
Raised in Port Moody, British Columbia, the 34-year-old Canadian earned a fashion diploma in Toronto and worked in the fashion industry there for more than a decade before relocating to Portland in 2015. This summer, she launched her new label, One Imaginary Girl, and landed a spot on Season 15 of “Project Runway,” which she describes as “a competition about speed.”
Donofrio talks about the influences behind her design aesthetic, her biggest lesson from “Project Runway,” and where she sees herself in 10 years.
What’s your earliest memory of being interested in fashion?
There used to be this TV show called “Euro Trash” — Jean Paul Gaultier hosted it. When I was 10 or 11, I saw him with Madonna on TV and thought, ‘It’s so cool that he gets to make clothes and Madonna wears them.’ Seeing all that weird European 90s fashion got me interested in it.
What did you dress like as a kid?
I was a little more subdued when I was a teenager. I was kind of afraid of what people would think. I wore vintage pieces — 70s flares and 70s sweaters and mod dresses, but I didn’t take the risks with pattern that I have since.
When I moved to Toronto and saw there were people into the same music and interests that I was, I came out of my shell. The 60s mod revival was really in at that time, so I pulled out all the dresses I had bought from Value Village but was too afraid to wear in my town.
It can feel risky turning your creative passion into a career. What helped you decide to go for it?
Before I moved to Toronto I did a year of General Arts and was really bored. I couldn’t picture doing any of these things for eight hours a day, so I decided to pursue fashion design. I took design in school [in Toronto] and thought I would figure it out from there.
Was there a part of you that had fear?
Confidence was always a big part of succeeding in a creative industry. There were times when I didn’t have confidence — even the collection I’m finishing now, some days I look at it and think, ‘This is amazing and different and cool,’ and other days I think, ‘I don’t know what people are going to think of this.’ But being an artist is all about having wavering levels of confidence.
Your label, One Imaginary Girl, features your designs as well as other lines. Who is the clothing for — what kind of woman?
It’s someone who likes bright colors and prints and vintage style but doesn’t want to look like a street-style victim. It’s a more polished look. A woman who has an eye for style and can really make a piece their own. I love separates. No matter how I merchandise it on the site, when you take it home, it’s what you do with it.
Where do you think your design aesthetic comes from?
I was really seduced by the music and style of the 1980s, and how excessive it was. I like taking classic silhouettes and pieces and making them new. Like taking a bright crazy yellow print and putting it into a classic mock neck blouse. It’s a cutting and pasting of stuff from the past as well as newness.
How did you feel being chosen for Project Runway?
I’m 34 now and I think if I was 24 I would have been like, ‘This is the best day of my life.’ But because I am already established, and I had to be away from my family for a few months, I was like, this is exciting, but at the same time — what is my motivation for doing this? Given that any exposure is good exposure, and the fact that I wasn’t interested, really, in the money, I thought, let’s do it, and I can have a more relaxed outlook on it.
Had you been on TV before?
I’d had my picture taken and been interviewed in print, but never been on TV. It was weird. It’s the most unnatural environment ever, but yet you do forget the cameras are there. I just wanted to work.
What did you find most challenging?
Ten hours is not enough time to go from sketch to final product and have it really stand out. A big part of design is development, and that takes time.
What’s the biggest thing you learned?
Everybody has different tastes. I was worried about what people on Twitter would say about my stuff if they didn’t like it, but just as many people or more liked my stuff as people who didn’t. It all comes down to taste, and you can’t take anything too personally.
Fast forward 10 years: Where do you see yourself?
I would like to see myself still designing, and maybe having a business that helps continue the fashion industry — like a fashion-only book library. I want to keep putting back into the fashion community, whether it’s by design or helping people gain more knowledge about it.