Melissa Fleis: Crafting Black Magic

By Natalie Powell.

An antique rifle hangs over the fireplace; leather swatches and a skull candle lie on the kitchen table; bright white walls set off black kitchen accents and a red tea kettle; black fabric hangs on a dress-form in the living room; black leather boots form a line along the wall. Stepping into Melissa Fleis‘s apartment is like stepping into a 3D version of the inspiration board hanging in her living room, and brings to mind her Project Runway finale collection.

Former Project Runway contestant Melissa Fleis in her apartment

Melissa's mantle: black and white photos and a vintage rifle

Melissa's inspiration board

Highlights from Melissa's finale collection. Courtesy of Persephone Magazine.

The dark, edgy garments the Project Runway alum creates, her own personal style, and her apartment’s decor all fit together as if they came in a set. There is no dissonance. Indeed, after getting to know Melissa in her Mission District apartment, I can see why she was reluctant to abandon her signature black aesthetic on Project Runway, in spite of the urgings of the judges. Black just communicates Melissa’s vibe, and that of her aesthetic and apartment, in a way no other color could. You get the sense that this is who Melissa is, and that she’s absolutely sure of who she is.

Leather swatches

Melissa's desk

Traditionally, black is associated with sophistication (“little black dress”), goth culture, and masculinity. And while Melissa’s aesthetic may be dark and severe, it never feels heavy or masculine or touch-me-not. Her designs are powerful, yet also feminine and wearable. This is what makes Melissa’s aesthetic so intriguing: she uses black in ways that communicate versatility and lightness, taking black in a new direction.

Melissa’s clear vision has certainly allowed her to achieve a great deal in a short amount of time: she has only been sewing for four years, yet placed third on the most recent season of Project Runway and was able to achieve her dream of showing a collection at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. Interestingly, Melissa’s congruence with her designs was even noted by finale guest judge Jennifer Hudson: while Melissa was standing with her models during her critique, Hudson told Melissa she should model her own clothes.

In fact, pre-Project Runway, Melissa had actually modeled her Gypstik collection, which was shot in her apartment. The collection features many of the design trademarks Melissa became known for on the show, such as strong collars, expert leather-work, and dramatic gowns.

Gypstik Vuut Perfecto leather jacket. Courtesy of Melissa Fleis.

What are your design inspirations? I took a lot of art history classes as an undergrad and that’s where I discovered early 20th century art movements like Bauhaus and Dada and German Expressionism. I was interested in not only what these movements stood for, but what they did for the art world and the statements they made.

Designers who inspire me are Rick OwensAnn Demeulemeester, and Carol Christian Poell, an Austrian artisan designer. He does crazy things: his stitching is amazing and he uses methods from Medieval times to tan leather. He has a big cult following. Another inspiration for me is Alessandra Marchi, who I worked for last summer.

I’m also inspired by artisanal-based goods: things that are one of a kind.

What 5 objects define you? This silver necklace that my boyfriend designed for me with our friend Geoffrey Young; I wear it every day. A pair of my boots… probably my Guidi boots. A leather jacket, perfume, and Media by Mac lipstick.

Melissa's necklace

Melissa's extensive perfume collection

Melissa's favorite boots

How did you get your start? I didn’t grow up sewing and designing. I went to University of Michigan thinking I was going to be a lawyer. Then I took my first Political Science class and realized that wasn’t going to work! I got my degree though and then went into fashion publishing in Florida, doing special events styling and editorials.

Then I moved to LA and lived there for 3 years. I started managing Apothia at Fred Segal, because I love perfume and skincare, but this still wasn’t what I wanted to be doing with my life. I started to take a drawing class at UCLA and I just had this epiphany that I needed to go into fashion design. I took myself to Paris for my 27th birthday and interviewed at Parsons Paris for a 1 year certificate program. But I knew I really wanted to learn all the ins and outs of the fashion business. A lot of my friends were moving to SF for tech jobs, so I came up here to get my master’s.

I went to Academy of Art for the Master of Fine Arts program. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I finally got to delve into my craft. I got to understand who I am outside of everyone else. It was great to do that. That’s where I learned how to sew, make patterns, and sketch designs.

Melissa's sewing machine

On Project Runway, guest judge Jennifer Hudson commented that you should model your own designs, and you’re wearing a vest you made yourself today. Do you design for yourself? Who is the girl who wears your clothes? That was funny that Jennifer Hudson said that because I’d actually modeled my Gypstik collection before I was on Project Runway! I do wear my designs. I’m designing for a woman in her 20s to 50s. She wants to be unique and has her own thing going. She has good taste and travels. She is creative and probably involved in the arts: she could be gallery owner or an art student. However, a lot of my clients are also in tech. They want to express and represent themselves in a distinct way.

Melissa's distinctive rings

How did you come up with the ideas for your designs on the show, given the time constraints? You know, it was very instinctual. Usually my first thought was my design. (It was an advantage to finish your sketch early so you could plan what to get at Mood ahead of time.) The setup of the show was pretty restrictive in terms of getting inspired. We couldn’t have any contact with outside media or even read books! And they really did only give us 30 minutes in Mood. The contestants from New York had an advantage because they already knew where everything was in the store. I’d have loved to have been able to go to Britex or S.H. Frank’s Leather & Hides [in SF] to get my fabrics; my leather guy knows what I like!

How did you maintain your unique vision while you were receiving so much criticism and advice? It was hard. I’d just graduated from school in December, so I hadn’t had a lot of really public feedback. And I wasn’t expecting the judges to tell me to use less black, because that’s who I am. I just had to really try to maintain my integrity as a designer. Michael Kors said a few times that he always knew which looks coming down the runway were mine. Not everyone loves my designs; I’m designing for the ones who do.

Work in progress

Do you have the garments you created? Project Runway actually owns the rights to the garments the designers create on the show and they’ve all been auctioned off already. My friends bought four of my looks though, including the blood orange dress from the finale!

What’s your favorite part of the design process? The initial research and creating mood boards and coming up with the exact concepts. I also think about what I’m missing in my own wardrobe and how clothes can be more versatile and worn in more than one way.

Melissa's closet

What’s most distinctive about your designs? In addition to leather, the geometry and the angles in my designs. I like having interesting lines. There’s a time for symmetry and a time for asymmetry. I also love hand-stitching. I made all the bags and clutches that my models wore on Project Runway.

Current projects? I’m doing some consulting and working on a collaboration with Yuli, an organic skincare line out of New York. I’m also making custom leather jackets (and clutches) that people can order on my website. This was inspired by the success of my leather jackets on the show.

Leather swatches

Melissa Fleis painted leather clutch with hand-stitching

Melissa Fleis purple leather clutch with hand-stitching

What’s your normal timeline for creating garments? For the leather jacket project, we say each jacket will be ready in 6 to 8 weeks, including shipping time. [Very different than creating looks in 2 days!]

Where do you want your career to go? I definitely see myself becoming a lifestyle brand: women’s fashions, designs for men, interiors, etc. For the finale of Project Runway, my line was meant to be a lifestyle line: there was a bathing suit and a formal dress, and there were pieces you could wear everyday. It was an entire wardrobe. And I love interior design. Your home should be congruent with you so I would love to incorporate that in a line too. I have a lot more color in my apartment than in my designs. I love color and appreciate it; I just don’t wear it much. [Laughs.]

For now though, I’m just looking for people to support my work and help me facilitate my business. I never wanted to be a TV personality; I just want to design.

For our last interview question, when we asked Melissa who would play her in a movie, she laughed and deadpanned, “Rooney Mara would have to get a wig,” before adding wistfully, “I’d love to dress her.”

Seeing Melissa in person and hearing her story in her own words allowed her designs to truly take on a new significance. One can’t help but appreciate her remarkably clear, consistent design vision and unique perspective. Melissa herself is the most convincing advertising for her designs and plans. Sitting with her, you can’t help but feel the foreshadowing of greatness. And a whole new respect for black leather.


Melissa Fleis

Contact Melissa:

Interview conducted by Regina Connell and Natalie Powell.

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3 Responses to Melissa Fleis: Crafting Black Magic

  1. Manny Olguin says:

    Still, one of my all time favorite Designers!

  2. Kim Orr says:

    EXCELLENT ARTICLE!!! So excited to follow your journey!

  3. Polly Haselhuhn says:

    Melissa, Your life sounds like a fabulous story that should be made into a movie!! You were so much fun to watch on P.R., and you were such a class act. May all your dreams come true, may all your wishes be granted, and may love always be at the center of your life.