Minneapolis fashion designer Samantha Rei is the latest local to appear on “Project Runway,” the long-running reality show that challenges designers to create runway looks under tight deadlines. The season 16 premiere airs Thursday on Lifetime with returning host Heidi Klum, mentor Tim Gunn, and judges Nina Garcia and Zac Posen.
Rei has been a fixture of the Twin Cities cosplay and fashion scenes for more than a decade, drawing inspiration from literature and Japanese pop culture for her feminine, punk-infused designs. The 36-year-old Minnesotan began her career with the launch of her label, Blasphemina’s Closet, in 2000, which quickly earned a national following within the “Lolita” community. What is Lolita, exactly? Known for its ruched bodices, flounced sleeves, ruffled skirts and Peter Pan collars, it’s a fashion subculture originating in Japan that is based on Victorian and Edwardian clothing (with a few extra Rococo flourishes).
The designer rebranded as Samantha Rei in 2013 and began showing her collections at fashion shows in Minneapolis and Vancouver, and at comic conventions around the country. We caught up with Rei over the phone. She couldn’t talk about “Project Runway,” but she spoke openly about her designs, inspirations and unusual career trajectory.
Q: When did you realize you wanted to become a designer?
A: When I was a little kid, I actually wanted to be a children’s book illustrator. Around the age of 13, I would watch fashion shows after Saturday morning cartoons, and I got it in my head that I wanted to design. Around the same time, I was taking home ec in school, and I found that I excelled at sewing. In high school, I created a lot of things for myself because I couldn’t find what I liked. My first job was making prom dresses for my classmates. I thought I was making good money at $100 a dress.
Q: You started out as a self-taught designer. Why did you go back to school?
A: My first year of college, I went to art school for illustration, but I dropped out after I realized it wasn’t the right choice. I went back to college to study apparel design at the Minneapolis Community & Technical College when I was about 25, just to be able to say I went to school. At the time, I felt like some people didn’t take me seriously because I was self-taught, but I ended up learning a lot.
Q: How did you end up getting into the subculture fashion community?
A: I was always into cute, fairytale-inspired things, and I was also into spooky stuff and Japanese pop culture, so I would look for those kinds of things on the internet. I became part of the Lolita community on Yahoo chat rooms and message boards, along with thousands of other women and girls across the world. It just connected for me one day. I was like, this is it, this is my style, this is what I’ve been looking for and I just didn’t know it yet.
Q: What inspired you to launch your first clothing line in 2000?
A: Back then, you couldn’t get the kind of clothing I liked in the United States, and none of the designers in Japan would ship to the U.S. You’d have to go on message boards to find people to import it for you and it didn’t go beyond a size 4. I was a size 8, so I made my own out of necessity. Eventually, I began taking custom orders through the Lolita community message boards, all through word of mouth. I was one of the first Lolita designers in the U.S.
Q: Why did you decide to rebrand as Samantha Rei?
A: I really wanted to make my clothing accessible to more people, because I feel like a lot of people don’t understand Lolita. They can think it’s a cute dress, but depending on the way it’s styled, it can look like a costume. Rebranding was about figuring out where the two cross. I asked myself, “How do I make a broader audience connect with what I do?” I want everyone who wears my stuff to feel amazing. Plus, working in Lolita style can be limiting, because there are only a handful of approved silhouettes and I wanted to be able to make things like rompers, high-waisted shorts and long chiffon dresses.
Q: How long did it take you to make fashion design your full-time job?
A: I started doing this as my full-time job in 2008. Up until then, I was usually working two or three jobs on the side. I’ve worked as a bartender, as a coffee bar manager at an LGBT center, at Valvoline and at Hot Topic.
Q: What inspires your designs?
A: I’ve always really been inspired by stories. As a kid, I wasn’t really accepted and would always retreat into books. Books don’t judge you. You can be transported to another place and know it’s going to have a beginning, middle and end, and that everything will end OK. When I create a collection, I try to transport someone to how I was feeling when I made it. My 2014 collection, “Cyclone Wasteland,” was heavily inspired by “Return to Oz,” that post-apocalyptic idea of a fairytale land being destroyed and revived by the people who love it.
Q: What do you enjoy about designing for a variety of body shapes?
A: I’m a champion of women of all sizes because I’ve been a woman of all sizes. I’ve been everything from size 8 to 20. My female clients come to me because they know I’ll make them what they want. They’ll come to me with an emotion: “I want to feel this way. I want to look like a garden. I want to look like a punk princess.” And I can design something for them that will make them feel beautiful and strong.
Jahna Peloquin is a Minneapolis-based fashion, design and arts writer.