T Lo Interviews Leanne Marshall
We got a chance to do a phone interview with the warm and funny Leanne Marshall the other day. The funny thing was she was having some trouble with her phone and stepped outside to get better reception, which resulted in her yelling “Thank you!” every couple of minutes to passersby offering their congrats.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Yuba City in California, which is a smallish suburb, kind of farming town north of Sacramento, nothing too exciting about it, but it was an OK place to grow up.
When did you decide you wanted to be a fashion designer?
I knew I wanted to be a fashion designer when I was 12. I can maybe even say before that. I was drawing dresses as soon as I could pick up a pencil. I’ve always been sketching and designing and it’s always been dresses for some reason. I started designing dance costumes for my ballet performances when I was about 12 and people kept saying “You could be a fashion designer, you can actually do that for a living,” so I pretty much set on it at that point.
What made you move to Portland?
I kind of moved all over California after I graduated college and I kept ending up back in Yuba City and I had a friend who was moving to Portland and I decided to do it just to get out again. I packed up my car, I hadn’t even visited Portland yet, but I thought “If I don’t like it I can always come back,” and I loved it. It’s been my favorite place I have ever lived in.
He’s such a nice guy. He was extremely nice to us at Bryant Park and that’s when he revealed to us that he was a cartoonist. He’s also a musician, right? Isn’t he the one who composed your runway music?
Yes, he just graduated and got a degree in music. Ultimately, he wants to be a composer, just do his music, and that’s his dream that he’s trying to follow as well. He did an amazing job on my runway music. He played guitar in some parts of it. He had just bought some fancy music equipment and as soon as I came back and started working on my collection I told him that if I made it to Bryant Park I wanted him to do my music and it worked out. He specialized in jazz music in college and he’s a great guitarist.
What did he think of Alex’s cartoons? Was he jealous?
We both got a big kick out of it. It’s so fun to see yourself in cartoon form.
It’s kind of crazy, isn’t it? One day you’re riding your bike in Portland, the next day you’re on TV, a cartoon and the winner of Project Runway.
Yeah, it’s surreal. It’s still so weird and crazy to me. I haven’t gotten accustomed to it yet. It’s nothing like my life used to be. In some ways, my life still is as it always has been but at the same I’m all over the place, which is crazy.
What made you try out for Project Runway?
I started watching the show at about season 2 and I fell in love with it. I kind of always had in my mind that I wanted to try and do it. I actually auditioned for season 4. I found out about it a couple of days before it happened. I went down to Los Angeles with one my really good friends, Mandy. I threw together a portfolio; I brought some of the things that I had. It was certainly not my best work, but I made it through the first cut, but wasn’t chosen. I don’t think I was ready and in a way I’m glad that I didn’t get chosen for season 4 because I was nowhere near as strong of a designer as I was for season 5. I was so much more prepared. My skills had definitely developed.
We actually met Mandy at Bryant Park after the show. She’s so sweet. She told us that she was so happy for you.
I love her. She drove down with me the first time and the second time I auditioned in Los Angeles. She’s been with me the whole way. We started watching Project Runway together; we fell in love with the show. She’s been so supportive of me and has wanted this for me just as badly as I have. She’s wonderful.
When the show started you were kind of low-key and we remember going to your site and looking at your fall 2008 collection and just being blown away by it, but we hadn’t seen that kind of work from you yet on the show. Then gradually your work kept getting stronger and stronger and we finally saw the Leanne we had seen in that fall collection.
When I went into it I felt so confident because I’ve been sewing every single day, making sometimes up to three dresses a day. I’ve been sewing constantly and everything so I really felt my skills were there. I definitely had what it took to survive until the end, but I had a rude awakening on that second episode because editing wasn’t something that I had really thought about and to me more was more, just piling it on, and there I was about to go home and I said to myself ‘this can’t happen to me.’ I felt I had to show what I really could do and I learned really quickly to take the judge’s advice and I learned how to edit. This is how you stay in the game, you take their advice, you evolve and grow or you go home. In the end I was so happy that I had that breakthrough in the second episode and stepped back and learned how to be objective and take the judge’s advice because it made me so much stronger as a designer.
As you know, we call your pleating and folding ‘noodles’ jokingly, but what do you call them?
I really never had a name for it. I just make them; I don’t know what I would call them. I think noodles fit perfectly well. I love the name Judy Noodles too. That always makes me laugh.
Has that always been an element in your designs?
Yes, it’s kind of the way that I work. I cut right into the fabric and I start manipulating it, tucking, twisting, folding, pleating, and sewing pieces of the scrap together, turning them inside out. It’s like sculpting with fabric and that’s what makes it fun and creative for me and I kind of go from there and see what I can do with the fabric. I like to make my embellishments out of the fabrics themselves. I grew up really heavy into trims; this is my way of creating trims out of the fabrics that I already have.
What did you think of Tim as a mentor? Was he helpful to you?
I love Tim Gunn. I can’t say enough nice things about him. In the beginning, that was something totally new to me because I was used to working by myself in my apartment with nobody else’s input at all, and having someone else stepping in during the creative process was a new thing for a lot of us, I think. I get the sense that he’s looking out for our best interests and he really was. He wanted all of us to succeed. He brought up so many valid points, I’m so grateful to have him, and to have his extra set of eyes to see things that I definitely didn’t see. He knows the judges, what they’re going to be looking for. He was a huge help.
Best and worst moment on the show.
Best moment? Winning, of course! No, I had so much fun doing challenges like the Saturn one; crazy moments like that where you have to frantically grab all those car parts and figure out how to make an outfit out from all that. It’s so nice to be able to do something that you would never otherwise do. Some people might wonder what that has to do with fashion, you know, in the real fashion world. I think it’s an amazing way to think outside of the box.
Worst moment? The conflict with Kenley, probably. That was hard, because she and I started off as friends and we got along in the beginning and as it progressed it just got worse and worse. I think she’s not self-aware and doesn’t know how she comes across to people. I can pretty much get along with everybody. It felt like we were in high school again and it’s not a good feeling. It kind of gets to you.
But you did get along with Korto and Jerell, right?
Oh, yes, I love those two. I also love Blayne. I keep in touch with Blayne, Korto, and Jerell.
What was the inspiration for your collection?
After I got back from New York, I went down by the waterfront and I got inspired by the waves themselves. I started doing some sketches of patterns of waves; the movement, the fluidity, and the purity of it. And on the way down to San Francisco to buy my fabrics – because they have really good fabrics stores there – we drove by the coast of San Francisco and I got inspired by the colors of the ocean. I took a lot of pictures, and that’s how I came up with my color palette.
Was it any different working at home in your collection as opposed to working at Parsons? Did you feel less or more pressured?
More pressured, for sure; I think because at that point you’ve made it so far and we knew that ultimately one of us wasn’t going to show our collections and everything was depending on that wedding dress. Having also listened to all the critiques and advices of all the judges, knowing that the whole world is going to see this, fashion critiques…
…and mean bloggers.
Exactly! [Laughs] No, but seriously, you just set all that aside and you have to realize that you got to this point because the judges saw something in you, because they think you’re talented and know what you’re doing. It can get to you. It’s a lot of pressure.
The wedding dress you had originally designed and the one you sent down the runway were two different ‘leanimals.’
True, they were two different ‘leanimals,’ two completely different dresses. I was working on that first dress before Tim visited me and it was coming along but I didn’t really love it and so much was riding on that one dress. When Tim visited me he felt it didn’t really fit in the collection and I agreed. It was too full, too labored. After Tim left, I decided to do a new dress and I knew immediately what kind of direction I wanted to go and I’m so glad I did. I worked around the clock to have that dress done and I only had a week at that point before I had to leave for NY. That last week before Bryant Park was ridiculous. I can’t believe how much I got done. It was insane. If I had to cut another noodle or wave or petal I would’ve screamed.
That was one of the few moments on the show where the judges were mesmerized by a garment sent down the runway and had nothing bad to say about it. How did you feel?
I was floored because that was so nerve-racking knowing that we had worked so hard on our collections and if they hadn’t liked our wedding gowns or bridesmaid dresses that would’ve been it. All that hard work for nothing, I mean, the decoys get to show but it’s not quite the same. It was amazing to get that kind of feedback from Michael, Nina, and Heidi. What a perfect time to have such a great feedback. It made me feel good.
Did it make you feel more confident about showing your collection?
A little bit more, but I never wanted to let myself get too confident, too cocky or think that it was in the bag. I knew that after the critique Korto had, she was fighting hard to come back and I knew that I had to do everything that I could. I still made some last-minute changes. I still had to pay attention to every detail.
Did you still have a lot of work to do or you had everything pretty much done when you arrived in NY?
I was still working on a lot of things. I didn’t have anything major to work on but there were so many little details, zippers for pants and shorts, buttons, hems, and alterations. I was working up until the last minute we had to pack everything and go to Bryant Park and there were still things left to be done at the tents.
What kind of fabrics did you use?
Over half of my materials were sustainable textiles. On my wedding dress, most of that was out of this sheer hemp silk fabric combined with some luxurious silk in a champagne color, so it would look a little bit more of high-end, a little bit more elegant. It’s definitely a challenge to work with sustainable textiles when you’re trying to create a more formal look. They tend to be pretty plain, more basic looking. Sustainable fabrics are definitely a big deal and it’s out there, but I wanted to make sure it looked modern and sophisticated. I’m glad I accomplished it using sustainable textiles.
Tell us about the bridesmaid dress. Did you decide not to use it? We noticed that it wasn’t included in the runway collection, even though there is an outfit where the skirt looks very much like it but not quite the same.
That’s right. I took off the top. The bottom is the same. It was a little flatter when it went down the runway as a bridesmaid dress, so I took it off and gave it a little more poof to the skirt, I wanted it to fit into my collection a little better. I had that white jacket with the high collar. At the last minute I started to work on this little vest that also had those details. I thought to make the dress into a skirt and put it with that vest so that it transitions into that look, so it looks like it gradually changes and transitions. It worked out OK.
It’s interesting to see that you almost didn’t have those pants with the blue top and Tim was sort of trying to convince you to keep that look in the show. That was actually one of our favorite looks. It’s a shame that one of the “noodles” flipped over right before the model stepped onto the runway.
I know. I was backstage and I saw it and wanted to run out there and fix it. I was glad that I didn’t edit out that pants look. They looked great with that top. I was actually nervous because I don’t do pants that often and I had the judges’ voices in my head the whole time I was creating that collection. All I could hear was Michael Kors saying ‘that crotch is insane’ and I had to make those pants perfect. The last thing I wanted was to hear that from him.
When you look at pictures of the wedding gown, it looks like there’s a rip or a hole at the bottom or is that part of the design?
What happened was that I had to do some alterations from the time that it was on Tia to the time that it was on that other model, mainly because the first time it was on Tia it was a bit long and every now and then her shoes would get caught up and she would trip. When we were working on our collections, there were so many things that I was doing and I had to hem that wedding dress at the last minute. There were so many different layers, some of the bottom layers weren’t attached to the other layers, I thought it would work out well, but the model lifted it up a little bit and it didn’t fall evenly on the ground and it looked like there were holes, but there weren’t any. You were seeing the gap between the two layers.
The first look is gorgeous and kind of set the tone to what we were about to see, but as shown in the episode, you had a last-minute problem with that. The back was falling off a little bit. What happened?
Oh gosh, that was a major drama backstage. We had helpers and I had to steam a few things and that top got steamed when it shouldn’t have. It ended up being two sizes too big on Tia afterwards. The material was also stiff and after it got steamed it looked like a wilted flower, it looked very droopy. Originally, it stood up, it came up to the chin, it was really full and had a lot of body to it, but after it was steamed, it looked limp.
Now, we have to be honest with you. We weren’t crazy about the shoes. We felt that they worked with some of the looks, for example, the more casual looks, but definitely way too informal for the wedding dress.
Let me tell you the story about that. I had some shoes reserved through Bluefly and it wasn’t the shoes that you saw. I ordered them and when I was shipping all my stuff out to NY for Fashion Week and they didn’t show up. There was a missing box and the shoes were lost. The producers tried to locate them, they couldn’t find them, I had to get whatever I could find through Bluefly since I wanted ten pairs of the same shoes. Well, Nina Garcia liked them. [laughs] I had some reservations, they were the color I wanted but I thought they were a little too casual. They weren’t the original shoes I was planning on having and I had to make it work.
If you’d had a chance, would you have changed anything in your collection?
I would’ve wanted to work on the hem of the wedding dress more, attach that top layer to the underskirt so you couldn’t see that gap when she lifted it up to walk and run out and flatten out that ‘noodle’ on that blue top because that drove me crazy. Every time I look at a picture of that look I want to scream.
As we mentioned before, we hadn’t been that excited about a collection since season 1 and Jay McCarroll. We thought your collection was amazing. The reaction in the tent said it all.
Thank you, guys. Well, that alone, that reaction alone that I got when my collection came out felt like winning. I was overwhelmed at that point and just so happy that it went down the runway and it worked. I had never done any kind of show of that magnitude, on that scale. None of us had and you just don’t know how it’s going to be perceived. I was so grateful that I got so many good responses out of it.
And how did it feel to finally win?
I was just in shock. I was trying to be optimistic, to think positively. We’re on the runway and you get great responses but when you go back there to the waiting room you don’t really know who they’re going to choose. The deliberation took a couple of hours, I was exhausted at that point, but I was really hopeful and hoping. I think we all did a good job and they had good and bad things to say about all our collections; it kind of felt that it could go anyway. When Heidi finally said my name I couldn’t believe it. It felt like a dream.
Who was there with you besides Nathan?
My mother, my father and my brother Michael were there with me. It was so great that I got to share that moment with my family and Nathan. It was nice to finally be able to watch it when it aired. This amazing thing that happened and I was only able to celebrate it a little with my boyfriend. We were jumping up and down secretly and now it’s out there and it’s such a relief, now it feels real. I just didn’t dream it, it actually happened.
So now, what’s next for Leanne Marshall?
First of all, I’m going to go by Leanne Marshall now instead of Leanimal. It’s easier, people know me from the show and I don’t think the name Leanimal really fit my line that well. The most common assumption is that I use a lot of prints and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I think Leanne Marshall is a better fit. Also, Nathan and I are moving to New York. Portland has been great but I’m excited about moving to New York and have an actual production team so that I don’t have to sew everything by myself 24 hours a day. Ultimately, I want to show at Bryant Park again season after season just like Michael Kors or Diane von Furstenberg. I want to be a prominent feature in New York fashion.
How would you define your aesthetic?
It’s feminine, structured, architectural, wearable and beautiful.
Thank you, doll!
Bonus, kittens! Nathan sent us a strip wherein Kenley, Lorenzo, Leanne, Alex, and Tim all ponder what to do now that the season’s over (clickie to biggie):
[Photos: Projectrungay.blogspot.com/Getty Images/WireImage/Bravotv.com - Illustration: Courtesy of Nathan W. McKee]