If you ask 5-year-old Louis Bustos, he'll tell you: Princesses are his thing. Princess Peach, from the Super Mario Bros. video game, is his favorite.

"I love her!" Louis said, skipping around his St. Paul home in a pair of green Puma sneakers, jeans and a Mario Bros. T- shirt. "I love pink and I like her jewels and I reeaaalllly like the dress."

For the past 18 months, the kindergartner has been creating his own fairy-tale princesses. The sparkled, ruffled and bejeweled visions adorn his notebooks and, at the end of every school day, his teachers tuck his princess drawing of the day into his backpack to share at home.

Those whimsical designs are the inspiration behind a local fashion project that turned the little boy's simple sketches into a real-life runway show.

Six local designers, including "Project Runway" contestant Christopher Straub, interpreted Louis' drawings and created dresses for a catwalk earlier this month. The six looks vary widely, from a white sheath dress with bold red geometric shapes, to an A-line floor-length gown with a rainbow-inspired bodice. The dresses are now displayed in a store window as part of the Artists in Storefronts project in south Minneapolis.

"He was just getting over his infatuation with "Wheel of Fortune" when princesses became the main interest," said Louis' dad, Dan Bustos. "If you ask him right now what he wants to be when he grows up, it's an artist. It just so happens he's into dress design."

It just so happens he's good at it, too.

When he was 3, Louis learned he could make his own characters while playing Nintendo Wii. But instead of playing more video games, he started to create characters, dozens of them, all in bright-colored clothing with girly hair styles and names.

But on paper, Louis couldn't get his hands to make what his mind saw. The drawings started out simple, as you would expect: disproportionately large heads on stick figures in balloon-shaped pink dresses. The girls didn't look right, Louis said, so Dad stepped in.

An artist by day, hockey fanatic by night, Dan spent hours with Louis in his above-the-garage art studio working on the designs. Once Louis learned that a simple triangle could be used for the shape of the dress, he started to focus not on the characters but on the dresses themselves. He started adding seam lines and creating patterns with rainbows, dots and stripes. A recent drawing has an orange leaf print -- that's his Thanksgiving dress.

Project brings designs to life

Family friend and Twin Cities artist Joan Vorderbruggen noticed Louis' unusual fascination.

"Louis was the ring bearer at my wedding two years ago, and during the reception he came up to me and asked, 'Can I please touch those ruffles on your dress?'" she said. "His face lit up like he was in heaven."

Vorderbruggen is the project coordinator for Artists in Storefronts. Now in its third installment, the event is an effort to enliven neglected parts of the Whittier neighborhood by filling storefronts (especially those left vacant during the recession) with original artwork.

She saw Louis' cheerful dresses as the perfect addition to breathe new life into the project. She enlisted six designers to make his drawings into dresses for the Louis Bustos Dress Designs Project. Each designer chose a sketch to interpret into wearable works of art, which are now hanging in the window of Head to Toe Salon at 24th Street and Nicollet Avenue S.

Christopher Straub was taken by one of Louis' very first drawings: a fuchsia A-line dress accented by five dots and two vertical seams. Straub said he wanted his dress to resemble Louis' original design as closely as possible.

"Taking part in this was a no-brainer for me," Straub said. "Kids are so pure and innocent and it was just so much fun to see his imagination come to life."

Fashion designer Samantha Rei also jumped at the chance to work with a kid whose drawings reminded her of her own as a child.

"He's such a cute, sunshine-y boy and the fashion show brought out all these other little boys who love princesses, too," she said. "And nobody seemed to mind."

OK to be Louis

In fact, no one seems overly concerned that Louis would rather dream up dresses for princesses than play soccer. Friends and family members say Louis is a typical 5-year-old who just happens to like princesses. Aside from a short-lived fascination with wearing dresses during preschool dress-up time, Louis wears T-shirts and jeans. He roughhouses with his 2-year-old brother, Desmond. And he tried T-ball, but prefers gymnastics.

"There might be a lot of diva in there," Dan said of his firstborn son. "But he just wants what he wants, like most kids."

Today's growing acceptance of a boy with interests like Louis' is a far cry from the childhood experience of Jack Edwards, who ran the Guthrie Theater's costume shop in the 1970s and '80s.

The famed costume designer met Louis this year at an exhibition at the Goldstein Museum of Design honoring Edwards' 50-year career. Louis showed up carrying a bulging portfolio of his designs, and Edwards knew then that he had to mentor the budding artist.

Edwards said he'll slowly teach Louis the technical stuff, such as drawing shoulders on his models. More than anything, Edwards just wants to encourage Louis' "extraordinary creativity."

At the fashion show where Louis' dresses were unveiled this month, Edwards was brought to tears to see a room full of people celebrating something that at least in his day, was deemed "strange."

"My mother encouraged me. ... She wore the lace hats I made her even though they took up three pews in the church," Edwards said. "But I was not my father's child as far as he was concerned. He wanted a football player. That's not going to happen to Louis and that's thrilling for me."

Like any mother, however, Julie Bustos worries about her son feeling the sting of society for having a passion that defies gender norms.

"But it's so overpowering to see him so happy," she said. "That makes me braver."

As for Louis' relationship with his dad, things have taken quite a turn. These days, the two spend less time together at Wild hockey games and more time working with glitter sticks and pearls in Dan's art studio. The space, which had been filled with Dan's paintings and sculptures, is quickly being taken over by a storm of paper doll cutouts, "pompoms with little sparklies" and boxes of buttons and beads.

In recent months, Louis' designs have become more elaborate and precise. Like many artists, he works toward perfection, sometimes drawing the same dress 30 times. Now he adds jewelry to his sketches and is going to learn to sew. The trips to Michael's craft store with Dad are rising in number.

"I was a little weird about it at first, but then I realized it's not a big deal," Dan said. "He's the one who's hesitated. He is tentative to express some of his interests to the outside world, but these designers let him know it's OK to be himself."

Princess dresses and all.

Aimée Blanchette • 612-673-1715