Project Runway Alum Leanne Marshall Talks TV, Philanthropy and The Fashion Biz


A natural born designer, Leanne Marshall began her career designing ballet costumes at just 10 years old. The California native, who went on to win season five of Project Runway in 2008, made a name for herself with her unique approach to fashion.

Wowing judges with imaginative designs with whimsical wave-like textures in various shades of turquoise, sand and ivory during the show's finale, Marshall has since shown ready-to-wear collections at New York Fashion Week and fashion weeks around the world each year since 2008.

Marshall is also a custom bridal designer, and in 2011 she introduced her namesake bridal collection, known for flowing lines, feminine silhouettes and ethereal details. With a minimalistic approach to her designs and work ethic, Marshall has decided to give something back to the community in the form of gowns, which she has donated to various organizations that benefit women in need. Here, SWAAY chats with Marshall about her big TV win, her fashion aesthetic and her beautiful desire to give back.

1. What were you doing before Project Runway? Can you share a bit about how you were cast and what that experience was like?

I was living and working in Portland, OR. I had semi-recently quit my day job as a graphic designer to work on my clothing line full time. It was scary taking that leap, but it was necessary to set my dreams into motion. I drove down to LA, picked up my best friend in my hometown in Northern CA, and we drove overnight straight to the audition. It was really fun, but so exhausting when I realized that I needed to turn right back around, drive back and create a video for the next casting phase in less than 72 hrs. I was exhausted, but it was exhilarating.

2. Can you tell us a little bit about the effect Project Runway had on your career? What happened directly after the show?

The best thing about it was getting my name and work out to a worldwide audience. The show aired in so many different countries, and sent a lot of interest and opportunities my way. Shortly after winning the show, I relocated to NYC to continue the development of my clothing line and brand.

3. Is winning the show as sweet as it seems? Was it overall a good experience for you?
It is for about ten minutes. You aren't handed or guaranteed anything as far as your career goes. There was no guidance whatsoever, just "Congrats, here's your check. Good luck." I didn't even know where to start or how to take advantage of the recent fame. It still took many many years of hard work and dedication to put myself where I am today. Actually, a lot of people don't even know that I was on that show. They know my work, and that's the way I prefer it. I never signed up for that because I wanted to be a Reality TV star. I just wanted my work to be shown and well-received.
4. How would you describe your fashion aesthetic? Do you have any influences/inspirations you can name?
It's always evolving, but overall the best word to describe it is "ethereal." Movement is and always has been a very important element in the way I design, coming from a dance background. My biggest inspirations of the moment are designers that are ground-breaking sustainability and zero waste. It is crucial for all designers to minimize and reduce fashion's negative impact on the globe. It's the only way to ensure there is a future for fashion or any of us, for that matter.

5. When did you launch your own line? How did you do this? Were you self-funded? Any challenges/triumphs you can share?
I launched it back in 2008 casually. I was self-funded the entire time, and still am. I had a day job for years to support myself until I could reasonably support myself doing fashion only. I worked out of my apartment for a very long time until we could afford a legit workspace.
6. Can you describe your brand in one sentence?
I don't know. It was all just a dream?
7. Where is your line sold? Are you in expansion mode? What is the plan for the future?
The bridal and RTW collections are sold in nearly 50 smaller/independent retailers in the US and abroad. Yes, we are expanding, but I like to grow at a steady sustainable rate. We are most focused on choosing retailers that match our beliefs and are a good fit for our brand rather than just looking to expand rapidly. I would love to do more direct to customer sales, so possibly we will open our own boutique/showroom in another city aside from NY.
8. How did you get into the bridal industry? How does it compare to designing non-bridal fashions?
I had so many requests from individual clients wanting to commission me to make their wedding gowns, so it evolved organically. It isn't entirely different and it does cross over a bit into the designing of RTW collections. They sit pretty harmoniously side by side, and we often have brides choosing dresses from the RTW collections.
Because we manufacture in NYC using very high-end natural materials, it is hard to keep our price points down to a more accessible price point for the RTW. That is our biggest obstacle for the RTW lines, is that the price points are often as high as many would pay for a bridal gown. But the alternatives of using cheap overseas labor or poor quality textiles is not a valid option for me.
9. Can you name some of the people/events/shows you've designed for? Any specific moments in your career thus far you are most proud of?

Carrie Underwood for CMAs, Ariana Grande, Danielle Bradbury, and some Oscars gowns in the past few years. It was really cool having my name as the answer in the NY Times crossword puzzle a few years ago. That was a highlight for sure.

10. Please tell us more about your philanthropic initiative in terms of donating dresses? How did you get involved?
I am a minimalist in my personal life, and it is hard to be that way in this industry when you are constantly creating and purchasing more and more. Generally, I like to not hold onto styles or samples of dresses for too long, and yes, it just feels good to give things away to organizations that are working to improve the lives of others. Fashion often feels petty and unimportant in the grand scheme of things, and through donations, it can help to counteract some of that.
11. You just donated $30K worth of dresses. Who did these dresses go to? What was the experience like? Do you plan on donating more in the future?
We donated to Housingworks and Bridal Garden, and are currently coordinating something to Brides Across America. Yes, we will definitely do it again and again.
12. Do you have any advice for young girls who are currently navigating the fashion industry?
Try not to focus on the trends, and really savor and appreciate quality and craftsmanship in lieu of tomorrow's throwaways or fast fashion.
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Unconventional Parenting: Why We Let Our Children Curse

"Sh*t!" my daughter exclaimed as she dropped her iPad to the floor. A little bit of context; my daughter Victoria absolutely loves her iPad. And as I watched her bemoan the possible destruction of her favorite device, I thought to myself, "If I were in her position, I'd probably say the exact same thing."

In the Rastegar family, a word is only a bad word if used improperly. This is a concept that has almost become a family motto. Because in our household, we do things a little differently. To put it frankly, our practices are a little unconventional. Completely safe, one hundred percent responsible- but sure, a little unconventional.

And that's because my husband Ari and I have always felt akin in one major life philosophy; we want to live our lives our way. We have dedicated ourselves to a lifetime of questioning the world around us. And it's that philosophy that has led us to some unbelievable discoveries, especially when it comes to parenting.

Ari was an English major. And if there's one thing that can be said about English majors, it's that they can be big-time sticklers for the rules. But Ari also thinks outside of the box. And here's where these two characteristics meet. Ari was always allowed to curse as a child, but only if the word fit an appropriate and relevant context. This idea came from Ari's father (his mother would have never taken to this concept), and I think this strange practice really molded him into the person he is today.

But it wasn't long after we met that I discovered this fun piece of Ari Rastegar history, and I got to drop a pretty awesome truth bomb on Ari. My parents let me do the same exact thing…

Not only was I allowed to curse as a child, but I was also given a fair amount of freedom to do as I wanted. And the results of this may surprise you. You see, despite the lack of heavy regulating and disciplining from my parents, I was the model child. Straight A's, always came home for curfew, really never got into any significant trouble- that was me. Not trying to toot my own horn here, but it's important for the argument. And don't get the wrong impression, it's not like I walked around cursing like a sailor.

Perhaps I was allowed to curse whenever I wanted, but that didn't mean I did.

And this is where we get to the amazing power of this parenting philosophy. In my experience, by allowing my own children to curse, I have found that their ability to self-regulate has developed in an outstanding fashion. Over the past few years, Victoria and Kingston have built an unbelievable amount of discipline. And that's because our decision to allow them to curse does not come without significant ground rules. Cursing must occur under a precise and suitable context, it must be done around appropriate company, and the privilege cannot be overused. By following these guidelines, Victoria and Kingston are cultivating an understanding of moderation, and at a very early age are building a social awareness about when and where certain types of language are appropriate. And ultimately, Victoria and Kingston are displaying the same phenomenon present during my childhood. Their actual instances of cursing are extremely low.

And beneath this parenting strategy is a deeper philosophy. Ari and I first and foremost look at parenting as educators. It is not our job to dictate who our children will be, how they shall behave, and what their future should look like.

We are not dictators; we are not imposing our will on them. They are autonomous beings. Their future is in their hands, and theirs alone.

Rather, we view it as our mission to show our children what the many possibilities of the world are and prepare them for the litany of experiences and challenges they will face as they develop into adulthood. Now, when Victoria and Kingston come across any roadblocks, they have not only the tools but the confidence to handle these tensions with pride, independence, and knowledge.

And we have found that cursing is an amazing place to begin this relationship as educators. By allowing our children to curse, and gently guiding them towards the appropriate use of this privilege, we are setting a groundwork of communication that will eventually pay dividends as our children grow curious of less benign temptations; sex, drugs, alcohol. There is no fear, no need to slink behind our backs, but rather an open door where any and all communication is rewarded with gentle attention and helpful wisdom.

The home is a sacred place, and honesty and communication must be its foundation. Children often lack an ability to communicate their exact feelings. Whether out of discomfort, fear, or the emotional messiness of adolescence, children can often be less than transparent. Building a place of refuge where our children feel safe enough to disclose their innermost feelings and troubles is, therefore, an utmost priority in shepherding their future. Ari and I have come across instances where our children may have been less than truthful with a teacher, or authority figure simply because they did not feel comfortable disclosing what was really going on. But with us, they know that honesty is not only appreciated but rewarded and incentivized. This allows us to protect them at every turn, guard them against destructive situations, and help guide and problem solve, fully equipped with the facts of their situation.

And as crazy as it all sounds- I really believe in my heart that the catalogue of positive outcomes described above truly does stem from our decision to allow Victoria and Kingston to curse freely.

I know this won't sit well with every parent out there. And like so many things in life, I don't advocate this approach for all situations. In our context, this decision has more than paid itself off. In another, it may exacerbate pre-existing challenges and prove to be only a detriment to your own family's goals.

As the leader of your household, this is something that you and you alone must decide upon with intentionality and wisdom.

Ultimately, Ari and I want to be the kind of people our children genuinely want to be around. Were we not their parents, I would hope that Victoria and Kingston would organically find us interesting, warm, kind, funny, all the things we aspire to be for them each and every day.

We've let our children fly free, and fly they have. They are amazing people. One day, when they leave the confines of our home, they will become amazing adults. And hopefully, some of the little life lessons and eccentric parenting practices we imparted upon them will serve as a support for their future happiness and success.