The Woman Who Runs With The Wolves

Michelle Lesniak-Franklin, The Woman Who Runs With Wolves.
(l. to r.) Michael James Schneider, Michelle Lesniak Franklin. Photo and mask construction by Summer Olsson, digital artistry by Tucker Cullinan.

Do what you love. Be brave. Take a chance.

These are all things I’ve talked about often on this blog, since my decision to take an artistic sabbatical and share the journey with others. Recently, I met someone else who took a similar leap: Michelle Lesniak-Franklin, winner of Season 11 of Project Runway (yup, it was her I was writing about at the end of this previous post). You’ll remember her personal style and razor-sharp wit, and probably her obsession with wolves, too.

I met the Portland native at her studio this week to chat, and she was just as funny, tough, and candid as she appeared to be on the show. She was also game for a photo shoot in Portland’s Japanese Gardens, inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s anime classic, “Princess Mononoke”.

BLCKSMTH: You were excited when I brought up the “Princess Mononoke” concept of the photo shoot, are you a fan of Miyazaki?

Michelle Lesniak-Franklin: I am, definitely!

Explain a little bit of the wolf obsession, please.

At the time of being on the show, you’re alone during filming, and you don’t have your friends and family there. You don’t have your support system for weeks and weeks, and you’re cut off from the world. I felt, too, that my garments weren’t being received very well. Not having the fashion background, it started making me think, “Oh, I’m not good at this, no one will like my aesthetic, it’s not supposed to be out there in the world.” It started getting me down, and I felt like “You can’t be in this dark space, think of a power animal, put yourself into an animal that can survive through all odds.” And it was the wolf. And I ended up being pretty dangerous for the other people.

But yes, I felt really alone through the whole process. Even coming back and designing my line for the [New York Fashion Week] show, I felt incredibly alone.

Why is that?

I think it was because none of my friends, none of my family, my husband, knew what I had gone through. I came back shellshocked, and having this crazy fucking experience, and they had no idea what it was like.

Did they know when you almost decided to leave the show in the middle of the season?

No, nobody did. And you can’t talk about it, you sign confidentiality agreements. You’re with these fifteen people, and then they’re ripped out of your life, and it’s a really strange headspace to be in. I was just terribly lonely, and so the lone wolf just spoke to me.

Michelle Lesniak-Franklin, The Woman Who Runs With Wolves.
Photo by Summer Olsson, digital artistry by Tucker Cullinan.

What about the dark cloud of doubt?

Every artist and artisan, well, everyone has doubt. Whether it’s self-esteem, work doubt, creative doubt. Sometimes that doubt becomes so full in your chest, that you end up self-sabotaging yourself. It’s hard. I use exercise right now to get through it. Just that extra oxygen, and that sweat, and the clearing of the mind. Finding what you need to get through, but it can be a daily occurrence.

Do you feel like lack of training, not going to school for what you’re now doing, feeds that? 

Oh yes! Totally. I didn’t go to school for any of this shit, and I didn’t even work in it. I’ve worked retail, but it wasn’t fashioned oriented, it wasn’t clothing. It was Italian ceramics. It was like, “What the hell? I don’t know how production works.” Going into the unknown is so terrifying. But I’m constantly learning, which is what keeps it exciting, because when I stop learning I get really bored and sedentary, and I kind of freak out.

A girlfriend of mine who has worked in the industry says there are three things that you need to have: you need to be able to ask for help, because people are willing to help you. And not only willing, but they will open up avenues that you didn’t even think existed! Be ready to make mistakes. Be ready to say “I’m sorry”. If you have those three things, you will be totally successful. Because you will need help, you will make mistakes, and you are going to have to eat those mistakes. I’m like, “brilliant!”

It’s hard and humbling to ask for help, and I’m learning how to do that, slowly. Because of that fear of “I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t want other people to know I don’t know what I’m doing, so why would I ask them for help?”

Michelle Lesniak-Franklin, The Woman Who Runs With Wolves.
Photo by Summer Olsson

It’s showing vulnerability. It’s a very un-wolf like quality. Then do you feel like your lack of expectations, or lack of training, is maybe an asset to you?

In some ways, I do. And I think in some ways that’s why I was so successful on Project Runway, is because I wasn’t taught the “right” way to do something, or “this is how it’s done”. And I didn’t study one style of fashion to the point of “Well, that’s all I can do.” It really comes from a genuine place inside of me, and so I’m willing to break rules and not do it the way it’s been taught. I don’t have to move to LA. “Why aren’t you in New York?” Do you have to be in those places to be successful? Actually, no you don’t.

What is tethering you to Portland, then? 

I am being pushed constantly to follow different directions, people give me advice every single day. That’s not how I envision my business, as running to LA or New York, doing a 25 piece collection every single season, and doing big runway shows, which I think are a giant waste of money.

Why do you think that?

You’re spending $50,000 on a runway show, when you could actually go to markets, conventions where the buyers are walking around. If I’m eventually going to be a Michael Kors? Yes, I’ll definitely do it. But right now? I’m sewing everything myself. I envision a small, organically growing business. I’m not going to jump in and suddenly hire 20 employees, because it’s important to me that it’s going to be sustainable. That 30 years from now I’m still going to have this business. And I don’t think jumping in headfirst is the way to do it. I think I’ll slowly walk into that lake, you know, temper yourself.

Michelle Lesniak-Franklin, The Woman Who Runs With Wolves.
Photo and mask construction by Summer Olsson, Digital artistry by Tucker Cullinan.

So what was the timeline, then, before you did this? How did you get to the point of leaving what was safe?

I was in the artisan wine industry for 10 years. I was doing everything from running a tasting room, to being an assistant winemaker, to being an oenologist. I was a sommelier, and then the last job I had, I oversaw the wine education program for a large company that has a winery, and a brewery, and a distillery. But I wasn’t in love anymore. It’s not what I set out to do when I left high school. You don’t know what you’re supposed to do when you’re 18. I wanted to be an artist! I wanted to be a printmaker; I went to school for that. But then I found myself in the restaurant industry, and found myself in the wine industry.

I had wonderful bosses that sent me to get my sommelier certificate, sent me to UCDavis to get my red wine fermentation science background, so I had a lot of encouragement, and at that time I was super enthusiastic, because I was learning, and when you’re learning, you’re always up to find out something new, and it’s exciting. And then I stopped learning, and started looking around, after 8 or 9 years, and was like, this is not what I love. This is not the creative side of me: I’m super-creative, and that’s not what I’m doing! I’m sitting at a desk. And I’m depressed. And I’m bored shitless. I couldn’t quit right away, because I needed to bring in some sort of income, and so I put my resume out there for whatever sewing job I could get, and ended up getting hired for doing contract alterations for a woman. As soon as she hired me, I put in my two weeks.

Wow, that sounds really familiar. Was there a specific tipping point?

The tipping point was perhaps turning 30, 31, and I just started becoming really bad at my job! I hated it so much that I was doing half-ass work. I was plugging in 40 percent of myself, maybe 20 some days. That’s not me, and it was starting to get pretty embarrassing, and I would look at myself in the mirror, like “Why are you doing this? This isn’t you; you’re being a terrible employee, get out!”

You mention in your blog that you always remember what you were wearing during significant days and events. Do you remember what you were wearing your last day of your former life?

Yup, I do! I was wearing a striped poplin blouse, where I changed the angles of the pattern pieces so the stripes kinda go kind of crazy willy-nilly, and these wide-legged sailor pants, giant platform shoes. And as soon as I left…it was a half-day, my coworkers and I had a beer, and I ran out the door. I was like “thanks guys!” I didn’t even stay for my own party. “I gotta go, I have a meeting for a fashion show!” I really ran out of there.

Thanks Michelle! Click here for Part Two of the interview and photo shoot, where there will be more from Michelle about navigating being newly single, the transition from being a private person to a public one, and what’s next for the talented designer!

Michelle Lesniak-Franklin, The Woman Who Runs With Wolves.
Photo by Summer Olsson, Digital artistry by Tucker Cullinan.

All photos and mask construction by Summer Olsson, digital artistry by Tucker Cullinan.

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