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Portland's Own Leanne Marshall on Winning Project Runway

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How unreal is this: Just over a year ago, Leanne Marshall sent a collection of strange, beautiful designs in bold blues and moon grays down the runway at Portland Fashion Week, quickly becoming the poster child of the fledgling event. Fast forward a year: Marshall's shown her designs at New York Fashion Week, drives a brand-new Saturn hybrid, and has a check for $100,000 to put toward her eponymous clothing line (previously known as Leanimal). There are few forces in the world capable of greasing such a rapid fairy-tale transformation—and Heidi Klum and Project Runway are two of them.

As Portlanders across the city cheered her on, Marshall sewed her way through often-ridiculous challenges to take home the prize on the reality show's fifth season. The morning after the finale aired, I spoke to Marshall (who not only used to work as a graphic designer at the Mercury, but was the first Judges' Choice winner of the Mercury's "Installations" fashion show), who was in New York doing a string of press interviews. In the 15 minutes our Bravo Channel chaperone allowed, we talked about leaving Portland for New York, soundtracking her Bryant Park debut to a song called "Cookie Breath," and what was up with that hiphop walk.

MERCURY: Considering all the crying you did on this show, I felt that when you were making your case to the judges for the last time, you knew you were going to win. Everyone else was blubbering, but you were clear eyed and confident.

MARSHALL: I was hoping, but I didn't know for sure. I had been so emotional for so many days leading up to it. I was utterly, completely exhausted. I literally didn't have it in me to cry.

Who did you think was your biggest competition?

It was really hard to tell during the first few challenges, but I saw immediately that the strongest designer was Kenley, and I also thought Terri was going to be a big threat. But it was really more after the fourth or fifth challenge when the cream rose to the top. [Toward the end] it was Korto and Jerell. And I still think that Kenley had a lot of potential too, because her tailoring is fantastic.

Were they skeptical of you because you were coming out of Portland?

Yeah, starting off I definitely saw myself getting underestimated, especially maybe by the New York designers, the LA designers. But little do they know there's a bunch of really kick-ass designers in Portland.

Do you think that your winning will have any effect on that attitude, especially given that you are moving to New York?

I think Portland fashion has definitely been putting itself on the map in recent years, but my decision to leave is because I want to be like [designer] Diane von Furstenberg—I want to show at Fashion Week season after season, and it's more of a challenge being so far away.

What was running through your head before filming the final elimination scene?

It was a lot of waiting and anticipation, and all kinds of thoughts were going through my mind. But it was nice that we were able to go into the crowd briefly. [Head of Fashion Week] Fern Malice came up to me and said that she loved it. That alone was like winning—that was amazing.

You got so many accolades after the show—but Fern Malice, was that the one that was most meaningful?

Oh yeah. She's just so, so important in New York fashion. You want her to like your stuff!

Your boyfriend, Nathan McKee, composed the song you used for your presentation. Did he compose it specifically for that?

Yeah he did. He named it "Cookie Breath," and I don't know why. I don't know how that fits. He was the only one who knew I was working on this collection and he saw it as it was coming together. I told him my inspiration, and he came up with something that couldn't have been more perfect.

Tell me about your decision to pursue the Leanne Marshall line, as opposed to looking for a job at a design house that's already established.

After I graduated from design school, I started working for another clothing company—and pretty much immediately realized I just wanted to do my designs and not compromise them. I want the ultimate creative direction. I want to be in charge. I want my name on the tag in the back.

Do you plan to show at New York Fashion Week in February?

I really want to try. Nathan and I are trying to move [to New York] as soon as we can, but it's going to be cutting it close to do it all. At this point I think I can do it.

I want to talk about the episode when you wore an outfit on the runway designed by Kenley inspired by hiphop. You got so much flak for your hiphop walk! What happened?

When we do the runway, they do some different takes of it, and I tried it once as a model and I tried it once doing the hiphop, and everybody was like, "That's awesome, do that," and Kenley was like, "Yeah, okay," and I was like, "Okay, I'll do it," and she was totally cool with it. And then after the judges decided they hated it, she got really defensive and wanted to blame me for everything, even for making that bad pair of pants. I really think that she thinks it's her against the world and she's always right, and really can't step back and see the picture in any other way.

When Project Runway's mentor, Tim Gunn, came to visit you in Portland, was it your idea to take him on a tandem bike ride?

Yeah, I had that idea. I thought, "Let's do something that's very Portland." And I remembered my friend Nick had that tandem bike, and I was like, "Oh my gosh, we have to do that!" And he was so nervous, but he was a good sport about it. At the end of that day I couldn't believe that Tim Gunn was in my apartment and I was riding on a bike with him in Laurelhurst Park. What a crazy, crazy day.

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