THINGS HAVE CHANGED around here. Fifteen years ago most people, if they thought of it at all, thought Portland fashion meant dowdy raingear and activewear. While the city has steadily established itself as a hub of independent design—apparel and otherwise—in the intervening years, one juggernaut has blasted the news that Portland has a fashion design scene into living rooms across America with more efficacy than any thoughtful national newspaper article or high-profile design collaboration could. Love it or hate it, Project Runway is more likely to get the message out to everyday people, and everyday young people, too.
Because... we kind of kick ass at it. At first, in fact, it almost seemed that Portland contestants couldn't lose, with Leanne Marshall, Vancouver's Seth Aaron Henderson, and Gretchen Jones all winning in quick succession. And even when we weren't winning, Portland designers never left the show's ranks, with Janeane Marie Ceccanti, Bryce Black, and Becky Ross all keeping interest in the area piqued. So when it was announced that Michelle Lesniak Franklin was to compete on the show's 11th season it hardly seemed surprising.
As far as the local scene goes, Franklin was relatively low profile prior to the show. She had competed at Portland Fashion Week's emerging designer showcase with her previous line Michelle Is Well—she didn't win, but she came very close (I was among the judges). More recently she re-branded as Au Clothing and joined the team running the shop at Garnish boutique, which carries her line along with Anne Bocci Boutique. It was hard to predict how she would do.
And at first, things did not go very well. Franklin's Project Runway season was the first to group its competitors into teams, which arguably presents a more realistic industry challenge, forcing designers to collaborate, compromise, and find their relative strengths and weaknesses. It also seemed to draw the contestants—under the stress of fatigue and camera lights—closer together, with eliminated contestants frequently reappearing to aid the finalists in their ongoing challenges. But rather than be judged as individuals, whole teams won and lost, and Franklin habitually wound up on the losing team. It wasn't that she was bringing the rest of the group down; her looks were routinely okayed by the judges if not singled out for praise, with an ill-conceived male-stripper challenge being her only real low.
Things began looking up when she produced a spunky prom dress in red-and-black duct-tape houndstooth, scoring her first challenge win, quickly followed by another win for a Lord & Taylor-sponsored episode that earned her the opportunity to create a line in collaboration with the store. Suddenly her trajectory was interrupted when she disobeyed a direct order from judge Nina Garcia, who told the designers she specifically didn't want to see a T-shirt and pants combo for an editorial challenge. Although highly stylized, Franklin's look—she claimed not to have heard Garcia say it—was deemed too close to the forbidden combo, and for a moment, Franklin was booted off the show.
And then, just like that, she came back. The judges essentially re-wrote the rulebook to keep her hanging in the competition, tasking her with a "do or die" moment in which she slaved away to prove herself in New York while her fellow designers were flown on whirlwind trips to Europe for a challenge inspired by the capital cities of the continent. Behind the scenes, it later came out, Franklin was so upset at this point that she sat down with the producers and told them she was leaving the show. They managed to talk her out of it, and by the time she and the other finalists were back in New York for the two-part finale in which their collections debuted at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, it was clear she would reclaim the crown for our city.
Within hours after the final episode aired, it was announced that Franklin would take part in at least three upcoming local fashion shows, including fall's FASHIONxt event, which has grown in popularity among Project Runway vets, in part thanks to the networking efforts of past Portland contestants. Unlike Marshall and Jones before her, who used the opportunity to springboard themselves to New York, Franklin plans to invest her winnings from the show in growing her business right here in Portland. We spoke to her just days after her televised win, when she was still waiting for her prize check to show up in the mail.
MERCURY: When did you realize you were going to win this thing?
MICHELLE LESNIAK FRANKLIN: When we unpacked our bags after we came back to New York. I looked around the room and I knew it.
Your co-contestant Stanley Hudson's lack of preparation was particularly stressful. What was your take on what happened?
I think his time management really caught up to him and going into New York Fashion Week he just didn't even think about how little time we would have when we were there, which is a shame because he is really, really talented.
Now that you have name recognition, is making your brand eponymous on your to-do list? And aside from participating in shows like Alley 33, Fade to Light, and FASHIONxt, what's next on your agenda?
There have been some talks about changing the company name, but I very much like the name Au Clothing, and I spent a lot of time re-branding to that just two years ago.
Hiring employees is number one on my agenda. I need to expand my band, because right now I am a one-woman show... I learned my strengths and weaknesses and I know what kind of employees I need. I'm also working on a collaboration with [fellow contestant] Joseph Aaron Segal and a little dress line with Stanley.
A lot of people complain about how they are portrayed through the show's editing process and in turn perceived by the public. Was that an issue for you?
I thought I came across the way I am in real life: strong willed, has an opinion, goofy. Some people said I came off as a "bitch" and I thought, "Okay, I guess some people still think a strong woman is a bitch." I did read some of the press if I wasn't super swamped, but I would never read the comments.
In retrospect, do you think adding the team dynamic was a good idea?
I, by far, had the hardest time with it and was most affected by it. In the end it made me work harder. I would rather have been competing as individuals. Because I was on a losing team it made it easier for the judges to think I was a loser.
You almost left the show after you were fake-eliminated. What changed your mind?
It was more just out of sheer emotion and being tired. After a little bit of sleep and some food I realized that I wasn't a quitter.
I thought, watching that, that being kept in New York actually gave you a great advantage during your comeback challenge, with the studio to yourself, no time lost in air travel, and the familiar, comprehensive resource of Mood fabric store.
But they got to go to Europe! That is so damn inspiring! I can't afford to fly someplace like that. I am still upset that I didn't get to go. To be able to fly to Paris and sketch in front of the Eiffel Tower?!
Well, for what it's worth, it'll be interesting to see what happens when you stick close.
THIS WEEK'S STYLE EVENTS
Alder & Co. celebrates May Day with the grand reopening of their new location along with the debut of in-house florist Hilary Horvath Flowers and appearances from store favorites Cumbersome Multiples and TW Workshop. Alder & Co., 616 SW 12th, Wed May 1, 5-9 pm
Mabel and Zora hosts Supermodel YOU author Sarah DeAnna for a private signing, with ticket sales benefiting children's mental health organization the Flawless Foundation. Mabel and Zora, 748 NW 11th, Thurs May 2, 6-8 pm, $30 includes a gift bag and autographed book
Radish Underground's fifth annual mini-golf installation launches tonight with one of their signature fetes, featuring vodka, cupcakes, and the chance to take a shot at the custom mini-golf hole that will be installed in their front window for May. Any hole-in-ones get 25 percent off! Radish Underground, 414 SW 10th, Thurs May 2, 5-9 pm
Folly hits the five-year milestone in fine form, with tours of owner/designer Sarah Bibb's production facility, cocktails, and a photo booth. Folly, 1005 NW 16th, Thurs May 2, 6 pm
Lille Boutique celebrates the grand reopening (after some "subtle" renovations) of both its locations, with bubbly receptions scheduled for consecutive nights. Lille Trousseau, 1124 SW Alder, Thurs May 2, 6-8 pm; Lille Boutique, 1007 E Burnside, Fri May 3, 7-9 pm
Yet another spring baby, Frances May celebrates its own five-year mark with a dance party blowout with DJs Strange Babes and 25 percent off in the store on Friday and Saturday! Dig a Pony, 736 SE Grand, Thurs May 2, 9 pm-2 am; sale at Frances May, 1013 SW Washington, Fri May 3-Sat May 4, 11 am-7 pm
Redux gets the summer First Friday party going with the debut of Animalia, a group show featuring wildlife-centric artists like Brett Superstar and Wesley Younie, with DJ Blackbars and dichotomous food carts Fishbox and Cinnamon. Redux, 811 E Burnside, #110, Fri May 3, 6-9:30 pm
Montavilla First Friday at Union Rose features a dual trunk show for Hubris Apparel and Allium Jewelry, with 20 percent discounts on both lines during the event. Union Rose, 7909 SE Stark, Fri May 3, 5-9 pm
The current configuration of retail hive the Black Box kicks out the jams for a block party with 15 percent off all merch, plus drinks, food, music, gifts, and more. Black Box, SW 13th & W Burnside, Sat May 4, 2-6 pm
The annual Alley 33 outdoor summer fashion show is still a few months out, but their annual clothing swap, dubbed the biggest of its kind in the Northwest, is upon us. Bring clothes and take clothes with cocktail in hand—sections for men and plus sizes too! Union/Pine, 525 SE Pine, Sun May 5, 11 am-3 pm, $5 and a bag of clothes
Taking their mutual affection to a new level, Nationale and Lowell are taking turns over the next two months in each other's retail spaces. Lowell kicks it off with a simple in-store breakfast, over which their selections for the residence at Nationale will be presented. Nationale, 811 E Burnside, #112, Sun May 5, 11 am-1 pm