Michelle Lesniak: Fashion Designer


Project Runway Winner

Oregon native Michelle Lesniak Franklin was recently declared the winner of Lifetime’s hit TV show Project Runway. Michelle joins an elite group of local designers who have won: Seth Aaron, Gretchen Jones, and Leanne Marshall. Supermodel Heidi Klum was spotted sporting an original yellow dress that was designed by Michelle in the show’s ninth episode. Michelle’s dress was then sold exclusively in Lord & Taylor stores. In addition, as a former contestant in FashioNXT’s Emerging Designer Competition in 2011, Michelle will now be a judge on this year’s elite panel, alongside fellow Project Runway winners Seth Aaron and Michael Costello.

Michelle briefly attended college in Upstate New York before attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to study design. It was there that she developed her own line of US manufactured handbags in the late 90s. She incorporates materials such as leathers, natural wools, hardware, and a touch of glitter, claiming it drastically drives the value of any handbag (or garment for that matter). Upon graduating from art school and flourishing as a handbag designer, she quickly transitioned into working as a wine enthusiast.

A decade later, while working for Oregon winery Urban Wine Works, Michelle dropped everything to chase her dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Growing up watching her seamstress mother create beautiful clothes and costumes, she had learned quickly, eventually teaching herself. Her two years of experience doing alterations and tailoring helped pay the bills and advance her career as a fashion designer. Despite her ever-growing accomplishments, Michelle can hardly stay away from Portland. She’s a creative at heart, and rest assured, she has no plans of leaving behind the crisp, green summers of Portland, claiming she loves the city for its affordability.

Currently Michelle is collaborating with Girls Inc., a nonprofit organization based out of Oregon that is dedicated to driving success in young and underprivileged girls. She is partnering with fellow Project Runway contestant Becky Ross on designing a range of handbags that will be auctioned off at this year’s Power of the Purse event at FashioNXT. She is a strong believer in mentoring and acting as a role model for young girls interested in pursuing a career in the fashion industry.

In her spare time Michelle is a collector, hoarding things like velvet animal paintings of deer and foxes. When asked whether she had plans of making a line of accessories, she replied with, Most definitely! She’s currently working on producing a fanny pack.

In 2011 Michelle launched her first collection at Portland Fashion Week, but this year, FashioNXT will serve as her biggest runway show since Project Runway. The up-and-coming designer will be debuting a ready-to-wear collection that she dubs dark and moody. Michelle describes her Au Clothing line as geek chic, and designs with a sense of modernity and vintage that come from her blood. Two celebrities she can’t wait to get her hands on are Selma Blair and Parker Posey. Currently, her clothes sell at full price at Anne Bocci Boutique & Gallery and Garnish. I caught up with the Portland-based fashion designer as she eagerly snipped and pinned and tucked away at her industrial studio in Northeast Portland.

Let’s talk Project Runway and Tim Gunn. What was that experience like?

It was the hardest, most challenging, as well as most rewarding experience of my life. I found myself through the chaos, and was spit out the other end of that experience a changed person. I was also lucky enough to have a mentor like Tim Gunn. He is the kindest, most supportive person I have met. He is better than Santa.

What was your immediate reaction when you heard the news that you were going to be on the show? Did you feel a sense of competitiveness?

I am an incredibly competitive person by nature. I want to be the best at what I do because I am proud of who I am. With that aside, I was terrified when I found out I made it on the show. I am a self-taught designer. I didn’t attend school for fashion, and was a bit intimidated walking into Parsons. All of the designers on the show had pretty hefty resumes. I was only two years into my career when filming started, a young pup in the business at 34. Crazy!

Can we talk more about how you prepped for the show? Were there any last minute to-dos you felt you needed to get under your belt?

I didn’t really do any last minute prepping. I think the recent years I’ve spent working in alterations were what helped me have more confidence. I was able to quickly translate my skills with fixing and tailoring clothes to my designs. That was what helped me to prepare.

Besides winning the title, did you have a favorite highlight?

I met 13 new best friends. We helped one another out during the highs and lows of life, sharing design tips and contacts in the industry. We became super close. They were my network of support, and now I miss them terribly. The show also opened up an extended family with all of the other designers from former seasons. We all went through this crazy, hellish, fashion boot camp together and automatically bonded. When I travel to other cities we meet up for dinner and share hugs, tears and camaraderie. We’re all like one big, dysfunctional, happy family.

Can you tell us more about the handbag collection you launched in the late 90s?

I made handbags while I was living in Chicago. It started because I needed a bag and didn’t have the funds at the time, so I just made one. I received so many compliments that day that I started making them and retailing them. I have one or two lying around somewhere. They are a hoot. I have come a long way since upcycling vintage fabric into handbags!


How did you make the leap from designing handbags, to working in the wine industry, to pursuing your dreams?

Simple. Ha! When you leave art school, you either go back to art school or work in the food and beverage industry. While pursuing my artist dreams, I ended up working in a restaurant and fell in love with wine. After returning to Portland I worked for a great winery called Urban Wine Works. That job set me up with sommelier training and red wine fermentation training, and since I love wine so much, I found myself 10 years later in the wine business. But it wasn’t my passion. It wasn’t creative. I wasn’t following my dreams. You get one life. I unstuck myself from the business and started following my dreams. And here I am. Pinch me already!

Do you have a favorite white or red wine?

I have seasonal wine disorder. Fall and Winter: red. Spring and Summer: rose and white. All year long: sparkling.

Are you a fan of the Northwest attire? Some people find it a bit drab. Do you get the opposite effect?

I am not a fan of the fact that this city is so casual. I really think there are special moments that a person needs to be dressed up for, such as a date or when traveling by train, the symphony, birthdays, art openings, dining out, graduations I could go on forever, and this town doesn’t.

I totally understand where you are coming from. I feel like there’s a time and place for everything, and people should make more of an effort.

Exactly! There are people that splash out their fancy duds, but there aren’t enough. I don’t mind drab colors, black and gray are some of my favorites, but let’s turn it up a notch, P-town.

Okay, so can you talk a little bit about what people can expect from your line that will be showing at FashioNXT 2013?

It’s about rebirth the new that comes out of death and decay. Yeah, it’s pretty heavy, but I promise there will be a lot of light as well.

What materials will we be seeing?

Honestly, I’ve been so busy preparing for two upcoming shows, Alley 33 and Fade to Light, I’ve barely had time to think about it. I’ll probably use leather, silks, and wools that contain Lurex. The original catwoman suit was made out Lurex.

I’m curious as to where you source your fabric? Do you stop in at any Portland shops?

No, not really. I mostly head to LA’s fashion district. It’s the closest place to home where I can purchase 250 yards in one bulk.

Is there anyone you are most excited to see at this year’s show?

I’m honestly really excited to see everyone. Everyone on Project Runway is like one big, dysfunctional and happy family, as I’ve mentioned. It’s super genuine.

Would you say that much of your aesthetic is greatly influenced by Portland?

Probably. Growing up I was allowed to be myself, and not being afraid of being different made me think outside of the box, made me dream in different colors and puzzle pieces. Because of this, I am who I am and have the aesthetic that I have.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Pack a suitcase. Turn around and unpack a suitcase. I am traveling a LOT right now. In the past few weeks I have been to NYC, Chicago, Cleveland, LA, Salt Lake City, and now I am off to London. During those few moments I get to lay my head in PDX I caffeinate, run the Esplanade, and work in my studio. I can’t keep up production due to my schedule, but try as best I can to get product out there.

What has your relationship been like with Anne Bocci? I know she’s big on featuring former PR winners such as Seth Aaron.

She is super supportive, like Tim Gunn’s female doppelganger. She gives me great advice, hooks me up with contacts, and hugs me when I am overwhelmed. She is the best coach to have in my corner. I am lucky to know her and have her in my life.

Have you noticed a drastic difference in how your clothes are selling after your win?

YES!! I cannot keep product on the shelves. It is great. I hope it continues to sell this quickly.

Where are your clothes selling the most, as of right now?

Anne Bocci Boutique and Garnish Apparel in the Pearl District. I also sell my clothing online, and just launched a T-shirt called Lone Wolf 832F with a local designer. A portion of the proceeds benefits Oregon Wild, which is helping to bring the gray wolf population back to Oregon. I am obsessed with wolves, foxes, deer and ravens right now. I think these four animals are like various facets of my personality.

Even with all the success you have achieved recently, any plans on leaving Portland?

I love this town. I love its greenness, its affordability and its supportive community. I definitely want to stay.

What’s next for you?

Packing another suitcase! And after that, working on my next three fashion shows: Alley 33, Fade to Light, and FashionNXT. Oh, and then a nap! But perhaps a glass of wine first!


About The Author: Tamara Alazri