Old is the new new: high end fashion and sustainability

Written by | October 2, 2012

A conversation with local fashion designer Courtney Leonard

Daniel Johnston/VANGUARD STAFF

COURTNEY LEONARD on her creative process: “I like a good balance of chaos and order.”

Check it: She describes herself as a “redheaded Barbie come to life.” She prefers vintage furs to fleece. She’s into one-of-a-kind statement jewelry and flashy rings. She paints her lips cherry red, loves old black — and — white films, and sips her black coffee with a straw. She’s not afraid to let you know what she thinks. She believes that green is the new black.

Yes, Portland fashion designer Courtney Leonard believes in making the old look new.

Recycling and upcycling—converting seemingly useless materials into new, higher-quality products—are hot trends in the fashion industry, and Leonard is constantly exploring new ways to create singular, high-end garments from sustainable fabrics. This has been her mission since launching her “ecoluxury” fashion label, MIDGE, back in 2009.

Designers like Leonard play an essential role in Portland’s fashion scene by incorporating sustainability into their work and changing the image of “sustainable” from worn-down garments with unflattering shapes to something decidedly more chic. Leonard accomplishes this through upcycling.

“I enjoy making products that are challenging and create emotion,” Leonard said. “Upcycling is the perfect way for me to show this, because every detail, line and silhouette is molded into something different.”

In upcycling, leftovers are transformed into high fashion by reworking and reshaping the fabric. Though it sounds easy, it can be a challenging task to incorporate upcycling into each piece of clothing. As Sass Brown writes in the Eco Fashion article, “Sustainability in High-end Fashion”: “Very few products, let alone garments, fulfill the concept of sustainability in its entirety.”

Leonard has managed to achieve this while bringing a unique luxury to her aesthetic.

Recently, handbags have been the focus of her collections. Staying true to her love of leather, wool and suede fabrics, each bag is carefully crafted with varied textiles like fringe, feminine bow ties, and chains mixed with black, deep blue and cream tones. The contrast gives her designs a unique edge.

“I hope to encourage innovation in sustainability practices,” Leonard said.

Her interest in fashion sprang from an early career in modeling: at 14 years old, she began modeling for well-known department stores like Gap and Nordstrom. After her modeling stint, she worked at Bloomingdales and Britex, the luxury fabric store, which perpetuated her love for quality textiles.

Upon moving to Portland, Leonard enrolled at the Art Institute, where she is currently working hard on her senior capsule collection. Described as “glamour daywear meets rock feminine,” it will feature artful hand-painted textiles, blue and purple tones, floral prints, leather-incorporated bodices and a crystal chandelier.

“This is about doing what’s right, not what’s on trend,” Leonard said. “At MIDGE, we embrace edge, and it’s about mixing the soft with the hard; it’s androgynous.”

Understanding that working as a successful fashion designer is not just about producing well-made garments but also running a business, Leonard spends much of her day working online. She’s planning a viral video debut that will showcase all her designs, editorial work and photos for the upcoming season. Leonard plans to take a more “behind-the-scenes” approach to marketing her brand.
“It’s a scary time, because technology is moving so fast, and it almost creates a feeling of isolation,” she said. She also corresponds with her marketing team and assistants while using technology to focus on the expansion of her brand.

Leonard currently works privately, preferring to give her clients a more quality experience. She has designed for the likes of Beyonce’s musical director, local actress Katie O’Grady, and Emmy-winning television news producer Sheila Hamilton. She splits her time between the institute and her studio in the Pearl District.

Her latest work can be found at Johnny Sole in Southwest Portland and Zelda’s Shoe Bar in the Pearl District.

Leonard, like many fashion enthusiasts and designers, believes that fashion is similar to telling a story.

“We’re here to celebrate individualism, lifestyle and investments,” she said. “We are the future, and fashion is the future, so why should we all dress the same?”

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