Samantha Rei is even more colorful in real life than she appears on TV.
When GoMN met Rei at her North Loop studio, she was dressed in her signature, punk-ish style – a collared, curve-hugging dress with a leather harness accessory, pointy shoes, and bright pink tights that complimented her multi-colored hair.
It was the morning after her final episode of Project Runway, which aired Sept. 21, and her phone was blowing up.
"I woke up to so many messages on Twitter. It's crazy," Rei told GoMN. "But people are being really supportive."
Rei's elimination from the reality show – which pits fashion designers against each other in a series of challenges – came as a shock to fans, as well as Rei.
In the "Models Off Duty" challenge, the designers had to create a streetwear look that one of the show's models would wear on their day off. The models got to choose which designer they wanted to work with, and Rei was the first one picked.
The model, Jazzmine, loved her look and although the judges didn't, they acknowledged that it was well-made. Heidi Klum even said, “The work you put into this is insane, I can see it from here.”
But Rei ended with one of the lowest scores, and was booted because the judges thought she was too "one note."
"I was very surprised that I got eliminated. I absolutely thought I was going home last episode but this one, it just didn't make any sense to me because they said nice things and my client was happy," Rei said.
"I can't be mad about it because the country is going to see that I care more about making my client happy and staying true to myself," she added.
Rei had a reputation to uphold. Before she became a fan favorite on the show, the 36-year-old already had a following in the Twin Cities fashion scene. She was named one of City Pages' “Artists of the Year” in 2014, and dubbed “Best Local Fashion Designer" last year.
The Perpich Center for the Arts graduate started her first clothing label, Blasphemina's Closet, in 2000, becoming one of the first Lolita designers in the U.S.
What is Lolita, exactly?
"It's inspired by Victorian fashion and Rococo fashion without being straight up costume. There's a lot of '50s silhouettes like fuller skirts, fitted bodices. It's an amalgamation of all these kinds of cute, semi-modest things. It's very girl-centric," Rei explained.
A lot of Rei's work also has a touch of goth or darkness, something she has connected with from a young age. Art was an escape for Rei, who credits her time at Perpich for kickstarting her career.
"My upbringing in Hastings was not always good or fun. There was a lot of prejudice. Even though art has always been my thing, I really just wanted the escape. So I actually went to Perpich to get out of my school, and it ended up being the best possible decision," Rei said. "I feel like I wouldn't be where I am today without Perpich."
Rei spent 13 years building her brand, selling her designs mostly online to appointment-only customers.
And she dug her heels deeper in the fashion community, becoming the director of Full Fashion Panic at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design – one of the longest-running fashion shows in the Twin Cities.
Rei has directed the show for 12 years and is passionate about fostering young designers.
In 2013, Rei rebranded her label because she wanted the freedom to make different styles of clothing.
"I still do Lolita stuff from time to time, but I like the idea of being able to create what I want when the fancy strikes me. And I feel like I've made a lot stronger collections since the rebrand," Rei said.
Her current label, Samantha Rei, is all about sweetness, femininity and attention to detail.
Designing for every woman is another passion for Rei, who says she's fluctuated between a size 8-20 in her adult life. That's part of why she started designing Lolita dresses in the first place – she wanted to wear them, but couldn't find any bigger than a size 4.
Season 16 of Project Runway (Rei's season) features models of varying sizes for every single challenge – a first in the show's history. But Rei didn't know that when she auditioned.
"I had no idea that they were going to do the models of all sizes this season. It was a pleasant surprise, because this was my third time auditioning," Rei said.
And she wasn't even going to audition again, but her friend Chris Straub – another Minnesotan who was on Project Runway (season 6) – talked her into it.
One thing that was holding her back? Drama.
A big part of the show is behind-the-scenes interviews with the talent, which often turns into an opportunity for designers to bad-mouth each other's looks. Some of the designers on this season definitely haven't held back.
Rei kept to her Minnesota nice roots though, and the fans noticed.
Rei says she's definitely disappointed about not making it to the finale – the winner gets $100,000, a trip to Japan, and a bunch of other prizes – but she's got a ton of upcoming projects that she's excited about.
And her weekly Project Runway viewing party every Thursday night at Du Nord Craft Spirits will continue for the rest of the season, as Rei cheers on the friends she made in the competition.
When did you know you wanted to be a designer? I had really always wanted to be an illustrator. When I was little, I wanted to do children's books, but when I got into middle school my dad introduced me to comic books, and I wanted to be that – to draw all the comics.
But then I started watching the different fashion runway shows – I think it was Videofashion and FT – that would play after Saturday morning cartoons. I would think to myself, "Well I can do that!" So I started designing, and I would use my comic book characters as croquis, by tracing over characters from the comics.
What do you like to make? I'm known for pattern-clashing and mixing different materials and layering stuff, but I've been trying to work more with texture and sculpture. My collection last spring played a lot with wool and silk; the juxtaposition between hard and stiff, soft and flowy, delicate and sturdy. It was all black and white but I played with a ton of texture.
Why do you love dressing women of all sizes? I like to dress women of all sizes becauseI've been a woman of all sizes. I don't like the feeling of crying in a dressing room, feeling like there's something wrong with me when really there's something wrong with the industry. Nobody should have to feel that way. There needs to be more options and they need to be just as cute as straight sizes.
Is the Twin Cities a good place for designers? I feel like the Twin Cities has the potential to be a good place for designers. We have a lot of creatives and some good fashion schools.
I feel like social media is sort of stepping into it in a frustrating way that's making it so designers aren't making the kind of money they should be making. Fashion shows are kind of treated like concerts and an excuse to take a selfie, and not as a commercial.
If we can train the Twin Cities to view fashion shows as commercials, and actually support local, it could be great. We were headed in the right direction for a really long time and something happened. But I'd rather help fix the problem than move away, because I love it here.
What did you learn from your Project Runway experience? I think my biggest takeaway is what my husband has always told me, which is "Don't doubt yourself. Your vision is valid." That's what he told me when I went to film – "Your biggest critic is yourself. Don't doubt yourself." And I did last week, and everyone saw what happened.
I guess I learned that I need to believe in myself, trust my vision, trust my fabric, and just keep creating.
What's next for you? I'm working on a new collection that I want to show in February. It's inspired by vanitas paintings, and the juxtaposition between beauty and decay. With that, I want to do a collaboration with a couple of different local artists. I really like collaborating, so I'm pretty excited about it.
I'm working on a more ready-to-wear collection for my website, that's a little bit more accessible. Price point is going to be like mid-Kate Spade prices, but I want it to be broad range.
And I'm doing a lot of collaborations. I've got a pin collection with Ashley Hay, new lipsticks with Elixery, and an accessories collection with my friend Megan that's a headband, cuff, and a harness.