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Q & A: Leanne Marshall

In Season 5 of Bravo’s Project Runway, fashion designer Leanne Marshall earned the winning nod from the judges for her architectural, sustainability-minded designs.

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I caught up with the San Francisco Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise graduate in her studio in Portland, Oregon, where she is creating the looks for her Fall 2009 collections and packing for her move to New York City in January.

What inspires you?
I tend to be really inspired when I’m just experimenting with the fabrics themselves. I’ll cut out these shapes, sew them together, manipulate them and twist them, and then that in itself becomes a sculpture and becomes very architectural. I sort of work in a backwards way in that I want to see the details that I can create out of the fabrics and then I think, “Oh, this will look good on a shirt” or “This will look good on a skirt.” I’m also inspired by nature: plants, flowers, trees, water.

How has your experience as a graphic designer affected your abilities as a fashion designer?
I was a graphic designer for five years back in my hometown in Yuba City at a newspaper and then at the Portland Mercury. That made me a stronger fashion designer in terms of layout, color, and the overall picture. It definitely translates to fashion.

Is there a specific object that changed how you think about design?
It was this vest. I made it out of scraps that I had. I have a closet where I save every single scrap because eventually I’m going to use it for something. So I had this great fabric and said, “Let’s fold it up, manipulate it, sew it together, and try to use every scrap that I’ve got” and worked it in a puzzle-like way. That’s the way I can come up with some really incredible things and that really set me in a new design direction.

Why is it important to design with sustainable or recycled materials?
The fashion and garment-manufacturing industries create so much waste and if you buy poorly made clothes you’re just going to throw them away in two weeks and they end up in landfills. I think you’re much better off investing in something that’s really well made and unique and that you’re going to keep for a lifetime, wear over and over again, or pass down to your kids.

There are some really harmful dyes and chemicals used in processing a lot of textiles and I don’t think that’s necessary. There are a lot of incredible sustainable textiles out there that are so much better for the environment. I also love to go to thrift stores and use old clothes as fabric; that’s a wonderful direction to go. It’s hard to do if you’re creating something that’s mass-produced but there are so many of us small designers that relish the opportunity to handpick these fabrics and use them uniquely. It’s all about trying to save things from ending up in a landfill.

You’ve converted your old apartment into your design studio but what is your ideal working environment?
It’s good that at least there’s no bed in the way like there used to be but it would be really nice to have more tables, more sewing machines, more natural light. I’ve worked in all kinds of worse-off situations but ideally, more space to accommodate a team would be ideal.

What three buzzwords do you never want to hear applied to your work?
Tacky, dowdy, and unflattering.

What’s your favorite part about being a designer?
I just am so happy to be able to be in here sewing clothes all day and making something that’s going to make a woman feel beautiful when she wears it. I know I’m not going to always have to be sewing everything myself but it’s just so exciting. It’s like creating art—that is functional too.

What’s your least favorite part of being a designer?
Actually, the repetitive sewing. It’s wonderful creating new things but I’m not a factory and it gets really tedious when I have to make the same dress five or ten times.

Where do you see fashion design in 20 years?
I think more and more designers are going to go green. I think it’s really the only option we have; there’s only so long that you can keep creating this huge amount of waste and keep doing things that are bad for the environment. It’s going to be completely outdated. I even see there being laws in place that say you can’t throw anything away—so work with it.

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