Not often do you meet a person who, not only has the drive and passion for their talent but is also humble and caring. Desi Allinger-Nelson is one of those people. She has had the life of 10 people in her 50 years of living. Her many jobs have prepared her to finally do what she loves, which is designing.
Though she has started late in life she has already had two runway shows under her belt and has two more coming up. Her two collections are unique. One is called “Tie Line” and it is made entirely of men’s ties and her second one is called “Tickle Time” which is a lingerie collection for all shapes and sizes.
Desi is ready to dive in headfirst and make Desi-Designs a success. She is talented and smart. Her story is an inspiration, which says that you are never too old to accomplish your dreams.
Tell me a little bit about yourself
I was born at Emanuel Hospital and I was born and raised here. My dad was in the boilermaker business so we moved around a lot. We would always come back to Portland because all of our family is here.
I graduated from Evergreen High School in 1982 and I went to the University of Washington for a year, pursuing a journalism career. I was the editor of my high school paper and I got really burnt out. I was in a sorority and I was writing for the Greek newspaper and I thought that this just wasn’t me.
Did you always want to be a designer?
I originally wanted to be an archaeologist because I love history and that kind of ties into what I am doing now. But I have always been doing art; I was exposed to sewing and arts and crafts through my mom.
Starting at 5 years old, I would take scraps of my mom’s garbage and I would hand sew little things for my Barbies, like purses and pillows. That’s where it started.
When I was 12 my mom gave me my first sewing machine and I started sewing some pajamas. After that I just got into costumes, I love making my Halloween costumes.
What did you do after school?
I only went to the University of Washington for one year because I ran out of money. Then I started working at Intel and I worked there for 12 years. While I was working full time, I got married. A custom Portland designer made my wedding dress and I ended up doing all the beadwork on the dress. I started doing wedding dresses for people at Intel and it grew from word of mouth. That’s when I started Desi-Designs.
By that time I had started a family it was beginning to be too much. I actually packed up my sewing machine and said I was done. The only thing I would sew was my boys Halloween costumes and little Christmas outfits.
As my kids got older, I would remember that when the kids were going through their first communion my friends, who had daughters, were complaining that there wasn’t many choices for little white communion dresses. For me I just thought of them as little wedding dresses, so I had this idea in my head, that I should just make communion dresses and sell them. Through circumstance, I got a divorce, and I was on my own and I had to pay the bills. So I started making those communion dresses for supplementing my income.
Then my current husband came into my life. Him and I had dated over 30 years ago and we went our separate ways. Our families knew each other so they got us back together. Our paths crossed again and I found out I had so much in common with him. I was at this cross road where I really wanted to get my degree in something. So I said, well I think I will just do the fashion. And he was the one who encouraged me to go back to school.
Where did you go?
I was reading one of my W magazines and the Academy of Art University had an ad in there and it said that they specialized in sewing. I never had any formal education and I wanted to learn how to make my own patterns. So I signed up and that is what that school taught me. I just graduated in May with my degree in fashion and design. I took all online classes because they are based in San Francisco. I had never been there so we flew down in May for my graduation ceremony and it was a proud moment because I was the first person in my family to get a college degree.
You know I’ll be 50 in February and I just go my college degree, but I wanted to show my friends, kids and family that you are never to old to start your career. I wanted to be an inspiration to a lot of people to not have any regrets because you started so late. And for me, because of my age, I am just trying to reach for the stars and start at the top.
How did you hear about RAW?
I had become a member of RAW right at that time, right before I was graduating. A friend of mine had told me about it. When she saw my “Tie Line” collection, which is an up cycle project that I actually had to do it in school. It started with one garment and I decided to do a whole line. I take men’s ties apart. I try to find vintage ties. This is where the archeology comes in because I love things that have some kind of history or I always think about the story behind the tie. I get them at antique stores or people just give them to me.
For school I took apart men’s ties and I ironed them and cut them in strips and then sewed them all back together. I made this 50’s style halter dress and the whole thing was made out of ties and it took me around 40 hours.
When I was told about RAW she said that your stuff goes with what RAW does. I did the application and I was chosen right away. They said that they would love to have me for the June show and that was next month. I hadn’t had anything sewn yet, it was just ideas.
How did you get prepared for the show?
I just started taking apart ties and I started to put this collection together. I didn’t have money to hire professional models so I just started to put the word out with friends. I was able to find 10 models pro bono. I got my collection done and made some extra pieces to sell. The girls loved my outfits and they looked fantastic in them.
Afterwards the Director Jeremiah and the Assistant Director Will gave me rave reviews. I was talking to Will and he said that we would love to have me in their August show. How could I say no?
After the second show, Will said he thought I should show in Seattle. Then I got invited to go to Australia for RAW in February. We are trying to do a lot of fundraising and a Kickstarter to try and raise funds. I am just on cloud nine. I want to share my inspiration with other people and other artists.
RAW has been one of the best things that have ever happened to me. It is a great stepping-stone for people who want to start their career. I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for RAW.
Can you talk a little bit about your other collection, “Tickle Time”?
One of the special things about my “Tickle Time collection” is, not only am I doing women sizes but also I am working on plus sizes. I use both black and white lace in the lingerie collection. I love the runway shows, I could do that everyday for a living. I love the whole theater production.
How would you describe what you design?
I call it “Old Hollywood Glam meets 21st Century Fashion”. I like taking things from not just the 50’s but also the 16th century and 18th century and applying that with a modern twist. I am a huge Audrey Hepburn fan for style, I try and style for something that she would wear today. I want something unique and affordable.
Are there other people or photographs that inspire you?
I love black and white photography. I do get a lot of inspiration from Betsey Johnson and Alexander McQueen. As far as affordable Paris fashion I love BCBG. I think for me you have to have a variety to accommodate to what people would like to have.
Can you tell me about your process when you are designing one of your lines?
I think it’s important to get inspiration from different types of things. You have to look at everything as an inspiration. So that’s how I start a collection, I just look at things and all these pictures start going through my mind. Most of them happen when I start to go to sleep at night. My mind is spinning and I can’t fall asleep but that is when my creativity comes. I don’t want to create something that has been seen before but I want it to make sense. I think what takes the longest is just sewing it.
What is a runway show like?
I definitely had a couple of meltdowns. When I was getting ready for the runway show, being my first one, all I knew was what I saw from Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model. Being really organized helped. I wanted to put on a good show. The day of the show is when the true test comes.
My first runway show, one of my models was practicing in her really high shoes and she fell and twisted her ankle. So I lost a model. Doing the RAW show is a really good practice for you, for the real world. I learned to make adjustments. Also hair and makeup didn’t show up till much later and they were unprepared. That was my first show and what it taught me was to just roll with the punches. I want to be professional, it’s okay, things happen and there is no reason to get upset about it.
My other runway show with the “Tickle Time” collection went much smoother. We did our own hair and makeup and I brought extra everything. I felt the second one was more successful.
What would say was you’re “About Face” moment?
One thing that I have done was recreated a doll from the Civil War era. I had one when I was younger, my great-grandmother had made me one and it was called a “Topsy-Turvy” doll. She is white on one side and when you flip her dress over she is black on the other side. I played with her all the time. I like to create things that have history that you just don’t see anymore.
First of all I tried to look for a pattern for one and never found it. So I created my own pattern from memory. I made this doll, I designed this dress and I tried to find fabric as close to the original. I was still in school and we were learning how to write letters to potential employers. I wrote a letter to the Gettysburg Museum because that is what they do; they focus on the Civil War. I sent them pictures of my doll and I said that I would love for them to sell it. I never heard from them.
My dad gave me this idea that I should just send them a sample. I sent them one and I got a phone call from the director of the Heritage Center. She said that she wanted to sell my doll and carry it in their catalogue. Their catalogue was going out to 15,000 people.
Each doll takes me 18 hours to make because it’s all by hand. I just started mass-producing these dolls and the first call they got was someone wanting one of my dolls, so they ordered more. That was my first “About Face” moment as a creator.
I think that I will have more to come.
What are your future goals or aspirations?
I don’t want to worry that I am not selling so much this year; I want to focus on getting my name out there and telling people what I do and what I have. That’s my first goal.
Next is to take care of the business. I need to sell, I don’t need to make a lot but I need to do something to pay my bills. I am already selling online so it’s out there. I would love to employ people and have a boutique. I am not saying no to anything right now as far as for “Desi-Designs”. My goals are more to a 1-3 year range. I think the most important message I tell everyone is to just have fun in life.
Photos by David Sorrell