The early morning sun pours into Emma Berg’s south Minneapolis home, shining a spotlight on a wall lined with candy-colored dresses. The sewing machine makes a “chuka, chuka, chuka” noise as the needle punches holes through a swath of lavender silk chiffon. The machine quickens, making a whistling sound, an alarm of sorts, reminding Berg the deadline is looming.
“What time is it?” Berg asked, barefoot and without a trace of makeup.
It’s 8 a.m. on a Wednesday and Berg has been working since 4:30 a.m. Dodging fallen pins and piles of fabric, she weaves in and out of a maze of dress forms that dot her house-turned-atelier.
Pin, sew, drape. Repeat.
The process is far from glamorous, but the end result has to be. Ten teenage girls are counting on it.
Berg — a data solutions consultant by day, fashion designer by night — has devoted her spring and summer collection to a group of high school seniors from the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities.
She’s making prom dresses, inspired by and created especially for the girls, who will wear them in a fashion show Tuesday evening at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis. While Berg, 38, has been introducing new collections for the past five years, this one is special.
“It sounds corny, but I love to inspire people with my collections and feel like I’ve made a difference,” she said. “It’s that moment in these girls’ lives where they’re figuring out who they want to be. And, well, it can be everything.”
That message is one that Berg wishes she’d heard much earlier.
Berg grew up in Stacy, Minn., in an old white farmhouse with siblings. When she needed alone time, she retreated to Elle magazine, admiring the glossy avant-garde images that filled its pages.
“They all seemed a nice escape,” she said.
She first took to the sewing machine to make stuffed animals and sleeping bags for her Cabbage Patch Dolls. Soon, she was raiding her mother’s fabric stash and a chest of her grandmother’s old clothes to make outfits for herself.
“For one concert in grade school, I wore one of my grandmother’s dresses,” Berg said. “I remember that it wasn’t really acceptable, but it didn’t really matter to me, either.”
By middle school, she was designing tops to pair with her Gap jeans. She found materials in unlikely places, such as the mesh liner she used from her baby sister’s crib.
“That was something that I’d pack in my backpack and try to pull off at school,” she said. “My mom had limits about what should be worn.”
A matter of personal taste
Still, Berg never felt like her style was unusual. She simply wore what she liked.
“At my 10-year high school reunion, I had a dress on that I thought was fairly normal,” Berg recalled. “One of the girls there was like, ‘You’ve always dressed crazy.’ What? Weird, I didn’t even know that.”
Berg sewed off and on throughout college at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where she studied costume design, studio arts and business. But she hesitated to dive into a career in fashion because she didn’t think it was possible to make a living from making clothes.
“In high school, the message I got was that you either have to be Gaultier or you’re a poor starving artist,” she said.
Smoke, mirrors and risks
In 1999, Berg left college without a degree and moved to the heart of the fashion establishment — Target — though it was for a job in human resources.
To balance the time she spent poring over spreadsheets, she immersed herself in the local arts scene, becoming a fixture at gallery openings and curating shows. She also was the muse for her husband, artist Ben Olson, until they divorced in 2009.
It was then that Berg decided to create something all her own. While still working at Target, she started creating clothing designs, then entire seasonal collections. Since then, her one-of-a-kind clothes have been sold at June Resale and at Motto Boutique. She was even commissioned to create a dress for Lady Gaga.
In the local fashion scene, she’s known as much for her bobbed hair and fabulously high designer shoes as for aligning herself with issues from political polarization of the country to same-sex marriage rights.
Despite her success, Berg said she’s keeping her day job. “I love the creative side of fashion, but I love the practical side of having a career,” Berg said.
She’s quick to point out that things aren’t always as they seem in the fashion world.
“There is this element of smoke and mirrors,” she said. “You want to create this image of perfection, of ease almost, even though it might be straining and difficult and you’re tired and [you’ve] spent a lot of money.”
Joy Teiken said the industry would give any aspiring designer pause. As one of the few local fashion designers with a viable, independent business, Teiken knows that putting all your eggs in the fashion basket is a risk.
“You have to be a realist in a world of dreamers,” said Teiken, owner of Joynoëlle, a custom bridal boutique. “It’s hard for independent designers to give up some of their design dreams to make a living.”
Off the runway
After working a full day, Berg picks up some of the girls who’ll be in the show and takes them to a Minneapolis modeling agency, where they’ll learn the fine art of walking the catwalk.
“I’ve never been in a fashion show before, so I don’t know how to walk the runway properly,” said Karrina Banks, a senior at Hopkins High School. “I’m terrified.”
That’s just what Berg was hoping for.
“They’re going outside of their comfort zone and, to me, that’s really important,” she said. “Taking those risks early on can help them see a broader picture and have a better understanding of what they’re capable of.”
Once the fashion show is over, each girl will keep her dress, a gift from Berg.
“To get your own custom prom dress made by a professional fashion designer is the best thing,” said Gao Hlee Moua, a 17-year-old who attends Harding High School in St. Paul.
Most of the money raised from ticket sales will be donated to the Boys and Girls Clubs. A few stipends will be given to a team of volunteers, including the show’s producer, Sarah Edwards.
Edwards had just wrapped up a fashion show when Berg approached her to produce the event.
“I was feeling like I really needed a break from event planning,” Edwards said. “But when she explained the idea and the concept, there’s no way I couldn’t be a part of it. I am overwhelmed by Emma and her selflessness.”
Berg isn’t interested in being selfless. What she cares about is that the girls feel cool, confident and unique. Just the way she did when she’d sneak off to school in a pink satin crop top she’d made.
“I just loved it,” she said. “Clothes can be so transformative.”