Photo by Kat Schleicher
Dress forms sit around the perimeter of a third-floor former classroom in Bay View High School. A bookshelf sits below a wall of windows holding bulky coffee table books about botanical prints and French haute couture designer Franck Sorbier. Tall cubbies hold colorful folds of fabric neatly stacked along another wall. And on that same wall, pinned and taped to what was once a teacher’s chalkboard, is a large collection of pencil-drawn fashion designs.
But what’s most impressive about Miranda Levy’s classroom-turned-wearable arts studio is the view of the city’s skyline, framed in robin’s egg blue and navy, our mini skyscrapers staid, but sparkling nonetheless.
Levy is in the studio on this frigid December day to work on her upcoming collection, for which she raised more than $6,000 through crowdfunding website Kickstarter.com. The money will go toward creating a runway-worthy collection of 15 outfits consisting of everything from pants and jackets to skirts and gowns. The funds will also subsidize the technical rentals involved in putting on what will be one of the most exciting runway fashion shows of the year.
Compared to most other local fashion shows that feature midlevel national brands from boutiques, Levy’s “Return to the Runway,” as she calls it, is pure in its mission to display the works of homegrown designers hoping to entice potential buyers.
“Shows are a place for buyers and customers,” Levy says, “not just a spectacle.”
And she would know.
Levy returned to Milwaukee in July of last year after “Project Runway,” a design competition reality show, sent her packing midway through its 12th season. Before that, the self-taught designer attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Peck School of the Arts, where she received her bachelor’s of fine arts degree in 2009. And for nearly a decade before that, she served as a construction equipment mechanic in the U.S. Army. These days, when she’s not filling custom orders for everything from wedding dresses to daywear, she teaches introductory design classes at the Art Institute of Wisconsin.
Back in her classroom-turned-studio, Levy talks about the darkly whimsical inspiration for the upcoming collection: the 1946 French film La belle et la bete. (Disney’s version came nearly half a century later.) Inspired by the thorny role roses play in the original film, Levy constructed pieces of dresses made of bouquets of the swelling flower in wool felt. On this particular day, a small bunch in candy-colored red wool is pinned to the shoulder of a headless beige dress form.
The collection will be shown at the InterContinental Hotel alongside collections from three former “Project Runway” designers, as well as miniature collections from Milwaukee designers Tama Roberts, Sara Terrell, Gretchen Bartz, Linda Marcus and Amanda Martinez. The event, which will be one of the largest recent shows of non-student designers, is remarkable in that it’s not tied to a fundraiser or dinner, and the fashion itself isn’t merely a sideshow. That’s why Levy assembled the lineup of designers she thought could represent the wide range of local talent, while including the more widely recognized “Project Runway” alums to help bring attention to the group as a whole.
The day after the runway show, Levy and the other designers will hold a trunk show and Q&A so that buyers can meet the designers and get a closer look at their wares.
“My work is more conceptual,” says Roberts, “so I’d like the opportunity to discuss it with other people.” And that’s precisely the point.
“If more designers can be accessible for custom pieces,” Levy says, it gives shoppers the chance to wear something one-of-a-kind. And fashion shows for the sake of the buyers should offer them that opportunity.
After all, Levy says, “You shouldn’t have to be on ‘Project Runway’ to get some recognition in your own city.”