Relatives watching niece closely in reality fashion design show
They’ll be busy watching their niece, Melissa Fleis, on Project Runway on the Lifetime Channel.
Melissa is one of the nine fashion designers remaining on the Lifetime reality show which challenges contestants to complete designs on a budget within a specific time period and critiques them as they are modeled on the runway.
The show, filmed in New York City, is a world away for Fleis who grew up in Rogers City with her parents, Jim and Doris (Milisavljevich) Fleis. She initially wanted to study law, but earned a degree in “organization studies” at the University of Michigan studying history and business.
“Rogers City has about 3,000 people,” Fleis said.
Her immediate family includes nearly that number. Her father is one of 12 children born to the late Ed and Irene Fleis of Cedar. Local paternal aunts are: Bernadette Denoyer, Shirley Mikowski and Joan Gauthier of Cedar and Ruth Smith from Suttons Bay. Living part-time in Leelanau are Ed Fleis of Cedar and Florida; Ted Fleis of Cedar and Grand Rapids; Larry Fleis of Cedar and Ada. Aunt Rita Cwengros lives in Grand Rapids.
That’s just on her father’s side of the family. Melissa’s maternal aunt and uncle Mila and Tom McNaughton, also live in Cedar.
“I had planned on coming up for the reunion this summer, but I got busy with the show,” Fleis said in a phone interview Friday.
So how does a girl from northern Michigan get to a nationally televised reality show?
“I was waiting tables up at Boyne and spoke with someone whose wife was a designer in Palm Beach, Fla. and they offered to have me come out and see what I could do,” Fleis said.
She decided to attend graduate school and study fashion design. A tall order for someone who before class had never used a sewing machine.
Fleis earned a master’s degree in fashion design from the Academy of Art at the University of San Francisco. Her studies took her to France and Italy to intern for internationallyknown designers.
She was working in a clothing boutique in San Francisco when Project Runway producers called to talk to the manager of the shop this spring.
“My manager suggested I would be a good candidate,” Fleis said. “So I sent them my resume and portfolio.” The premiere of the 10th season of ‘Runway last month brought the designers to Time Square in New York City, where their pieces were featured in a show. It was the first time Fleis had ever seen her designs coming down a runway on a model.
“It was pretty amazing,” she said.
Fleis is inspired by German Expressionism and as such her pieces are dark and edgy. “It’s Gothic inspired.”
Two of the three pieces she’s created in the first three episodes have been black. The first week in fabric; the second, in candy as the challenge was to create a garment from candy.
“I chose my favorite candy … black licorice,” Fleis said.
In the edgy piece, the design unwound wheels of black licorice and used them like they were strips of leather on the bodice. The skirt was made out of graduation caps which she had deconstructed.
Last week’s challenge paired designers to work together to create a piece of clothing appropriate for the “red carpet”. Fleis and her partner in the challenge created a gray charmeuse evening gown featuring a high collar and dramatic plunge in the back.
The piece received good reviews from the judges which include super model Heidi Klum, designer Michael Kors and Nina Garcia, fashion director for Marie Claire magazine. The duo eluded elimination and advanced to week No. 4.
The winner of Project Runway will receive -$100,000 from L’Oréal Paris to start his/her own line; a fashion spread in Marie Claire magazine; a 2013 Lexus GS 350; a $50,000 technology suite by Hewlett-Packard and Intel to create his/her own vision and run his/her business; and the opportunity to design and sell an exclusive collection at Lord & Taylor.
Lacking an outright win, there is also a $10,000 award for the competitor who is considered a “fan favorite” as measured by the number of votes online or via Twitter.
To date, Fleis is in second place with 28 percent of the vote. Only one competitor has a greater percentage at 34 percent.
“I definitely think family has had something to do with it,” Fleis said.
Even if she doesn’t win the competition, the 31-year-old woman with Leelanau ties, believes it’s been a great experience.
“In the first challenge, Heidi (Klum) said she’d wear what I designed,” Fleis said. “You really want, as a designer, to have someone recognize and appreciate your work.”