From Rogers City to Project Runway
Melissa Fleis has style to spare
Aug. 26, 2012Rogers City native Melissa Fleis beat out hundreds of applicants to be among 16 designers who are competing in season 10 of Project Runway in New York City.
So far, she’s done her home town proud. In the first episode, when the contestants introduced themselves in a runway competition filmed outside in Times Square, Fleis was picked as having made one of the top three designs.
In the episode that aired on Aug. 16, Fleis’s design won that week’s competition.
Each week, the designers are given just hours and $100 or so worth of materials to design and construct a garment to be worn by a runway model for the week’s competition. Each week one designer is eliminated. So far, Fleis is still standing.
The show airs on Lifetime Television Thursdays at 9 p.m.
The 1998 graduate of Rogers City High School now lives in San Francisco where she works as an assistant designer at Chaiken Clothing.
The Express recently had a chance to talk to Fleis about her background and how she wound up on Project Runway.
NE: How do you go from being a girl from a small town like Rogers City (a city which Wikipedia notes is famous for being home to the world’s largest open pit limestone quarry) to being a contestant on Project Runway?
Fleis: It’s been a long road. I have always been into fashion since I was little and I knew, being in Rogers City, I knew I always wanted to leave. I wanted to get out and do bigger things. And when I went to the University of Michigan, I was originally studying pre-law, but I knew that that wasn’t my calling and I knew that I had to go into fashion.
And I just slowly worked. I went into fashion publishing in Florida. I worked in the beauty industry. And then finally I just went back to get my masters.
NE: When did you start designing clothes and how did you get into it?
Fleis: Four years ago. To get into the Academy of Art I had to present a portfolio, and I had never drawn (a design) before or had done anything like that or had even sewn. So I had to kind of make up my own thing, and I got my first taste of it when I got into school and had my first design class.
NE: What advice do you have for someone from a small town who wants to do something that maybe seems a little bit outlandish given where they are from?
Fleis: I think that no matter what, in life you always have to go for your dreams. Nothing’s ever too big or unattainable. You have to continuously work hard and see your future and see what you really want to do because, no matter what, through all the hard work, and the blood, sweat and tears, you’re doing something that you are very passionate about, and that you’re going to love and be successful at.
NE: That first challenge, in the first episode this season, the contestants had to show their designs in a runway show in Times Square. When I saw that there was a contestant from Northern Michigan on the show, I rooted for you, but I was also worried the designer from Northern Michigan was going to get eliminated. But then your dress came out and it was great and the judges loved it and you were in the top three. What was that night like?
Fleis: It was crazy. I had never seen my garments walk a runway before, so that was in itself amazing, and being in Times Square was, I mean, your heart just races and you get chills and everything that comes with it.
And being on the top, I was so nervous.
I was very, very nervous and what I think, when you are on stage like that, (it’s really important to be true) as a designer and to yourself. Really standing for that. And that’s what I constantly have to remind myself. To really own who you are and what you design, because in life, you are going to get good critiques and bad critiques, and you have to stay strong.
NE: Season 10 of Project Runway has been pretty intense so far. Two of the designers have just walked off the show. Is the atmosphere among the group as intense as it looks like on TV? What has it been like?
Fleis: It’s more intense than I thought it was going to be.
NE: Tim Gunn seems like such a great guy. Is he really that kind and supportive of all of the designers?
Fleis: He’s super cool. He’s really the best mentor you could have when you are going through such a high-stress time. You know, you’re looking at your design, and if you’re looking at what the other people are doing, it’s really hard to stay focused on what you’re doing and Tim always kind of reminds you of that and is really there to help you.
NE: What is it like to be judged by people like Heidi Klum, Michael Kors and Nina Garcia?
Fleis: It was intimidating. It was definitely intimidating. I think the greatest thing is being able to be recognized as soon as your model comes down the runway, like that’s who you are, and they do recognize that. In the end, I love their critiques. Michael is so damn witty. I don’t know where he comes up with all of those one-liners. And Nina, I respect her immensely. She’s a fashion editor, but she really gives sound critiques. And Heidi, she just wants to wear it.
NE: Do you get back to Northern Michigan much? What are your favorite things about the place you left behind?
Fleis: So many things. I haven’t been back. I was supposed to come back this summer but I haven’t been able to make it. I think growing up in Rogers City, when I go back it’s like this little oasis right on Lake Huron. When you are in Rogers City you look out and it is just a beautiful lake. I just love driving up the coast. I love going to Mackinac. I love Traverse City, where my dad is from and I also have a lot of family there. I’ve also worked in the Harbor Springs area. I just love being on the coast. Especially in the summer and fall. It’s just amazing.