Melissa Fleis


Project Runway tends to bring along a multitude of fresh new faces in fashion. San Francisco-based Melissa Fleis’s intricate work has earned her a national spotlight. As runner-up in Season Ten of Project Runway, Fleis provided audiences with a captivating series of designs that cultivated in a stunning collection, including a gorgeously draped asymmetrical dress in jaw-dropping red.
While the show’s judges steered Fleis away from her deeply entrenched draw to all things black, the dark side is actually where she shines most brightly. While Fleis does work with color, it is with scalpel-like precision and an iron curtain between feminine and girly. Perhaps the most common term used to describe her work is “edgy” — but this doesn’t only apply to Fleis’s mere aesthetic; combining loose drapery with razor-sharp outlines is what truly distinguishes her work.
Signature elements of Fleis’s designs include angled cowl necklines, rich leather materials, and a modern mystique that nurtures the rebel feminine. She approaches each next creation with the obvious, yet often-missed question, “What do I need in my wardrobe?” With that in mind, Fleis is able to supply versatile, wearable clothing that embodies a multidimensional woman, one whose style isn’t limited by convention.  Fleis’s handcrafted leather jackets are a highlight, the perfect layer for San Franciscans in particular. By combining superior materials, fantastic design and well-executed construction, Fleis creates must-have essentials for the well-tailored closet.
Fleis’s inspiration for her collection came from Patrick Mauries’s A Cabinet of Rarities: Antiquarian Obsessions and the Spell of Death — a book largely centered around Sir Thomas Browne, whose writings focused on spiritual, scientific and medicinal topics. The obscure and bizarre have always been universal sources of fascination, particularly those that walk the line between the living and the dead. Fleis is able to seamlessly weave decay and vibrancy into her designs, thus creating a penetrating edge and mystical allure.
Fleis’s evolution to stardom began with Project Runway; the series is one of many that beg the question of whether or not reality shows focused on the Arts are beneficial to creative growth or merely provide audiences with excessive criticism for dramatic effect. When it comes to competitive reality television across the board, a fine line is drawn between constructive input and sheer humiliation — particularly when it comes to assessor commentary. When asked if she feels the show provided for creative growth versus restriction, Fleis adamantly claims the former. But that’s not to say the transition from a few classrooms to millions of living rooms came easy. “When I first arrived, I had just graduated with my Master’s from Academy of Art (San Francisco) about two months prior to getting cast on the show. So for me, I had never been publicly judged like that, ever. My teachers or my colleges critiqued me, but never in public or on national television.” Jumping into the deep end of the fashion world has proved to be a well-earned leap of faith.
Unlike many “reality” scenarios, Project Runway has provided Fleis with a real and lasting platform to share her individuality and its expression through design with a much wider audience than ever before possible. “It was very interesting to see, from the first challenge, how they would even respond to my clothing. You look around the room and there’s so much variety in designers and styles. I have a unique style and flavor that added to the show, but [in the beginning] you don’t know how [the judges are] going to react or what they’re looking for. But they never discouraged me with the way they critiqued me.”
Rather than shy away from the bright spotlight of the hallmark fashion show, Fleis allowed herself to ride the roller coaster of emotions that any intense situation brings along — and in the process was able to take advantage of all of the positive effects the show could bring into her professional life. “You know, I took some of the things they said to heart, and it made me challenge myself as a designer and as an artist…of what I already thought I knew or wanted my style to look like. I think [the criticism] only helped encourage me to broaden and evolve as a designer.” By transforming vulnerability into objective self-critique, Fleis saw her skills progress throughout the show, thanks to both the judges and her own internal journey.
Has the show changed her? Only for the better. “I don’t think my style has changed. I think what I’m putting into each garment has changed, what I put into it. I study my designs. In my Spring/Summer collection, I’m using color. For me that was a challenge — can I work with these bright bold colors? And I can, and I love it. My style’s the same; I’m just moving it forward.”

Learn more about Melissa through her website,
Text by Kate zaliznock