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.
Our newsletter that womansplains the week

How This CEO Is Using Your Period To Prevent Chronic Diseases

With so many groundbreaking medical advances being revealed to the world every single day, you would imagine there would be some advancement on the plethora of many female-prevalent diseases (think female cancers, Alzheimer's, depression, heart conditions etc.) that women are fighting every single day.

For Anna Villarreal and her team, there frankly wasn't enough being done. In turn, she developed a method that diagnoses these diseases earlier than traditional methods, using a pretty untraditional method in itself: through your menstrual blood.

Getting from point A to point B wasn't so easy though. Villarreal was battling a disease herself and through that experience. “I wondered if there was a way to test menstrual blood for female specific diseases," she says. "Perhaps my situation could have been prevented or at least better managed. This led me to begin researching menstrual blood as a diagnostic source. For reasons the scientific and medical community do not fully understand, certain diseases impact women differently than men. The research shows that clinical trials have a disproportionate focus on male research subjects despite clear evidence that many diseases impact more women than men."

There's also no denying that gap in women's healthcare in clinical research involving female subjects - which is exactly what inspired Villarreal to launch her company, LifeStory Health. She says that, “with my personal experience everything was brought full circle."

“There is a challenge and a need in the medical community for more sex-specific research. I believe the omission of females as research subjects is putting women's health at risk and we need to fuel a conversation that will improve women's healthcare.,"

-Anna Villarreal

Her brand new biotech company is committed to changing the women's healthcare market through technology, innovation and vocalization and through extensive research and testing. She is working to develop the first ever, non-invasive, menstrual blood diagnostic and has partnered with a top Boston-area University on research and has won awards from The International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering and Northeastern University's RISE.

How does it work exactly? Proteins are discovered in menstrual blood that can quickly and easily detect, manage and track diseases in women, resulting in diseases that can be earlier detected, treated and even prevented in the first place. The menstrual blood is easy to collect and since it's a relatively unexplored diagnostic it's honestly a really revolutionary concept, too.

So far, the reactions of this innovative research has been nothing but excitement. “The reactions have been incredibly positive." she shares with SWAAY. “Currently, menstrual blood is discarded as bio waste, but it could carry the potential for new breakthroughs in diagnosis. When I educate women on the lack of female subjects used in research and clinical trials, they are surprised and very excited at the prospect that LifeStory Health may provide a solution and the key to early detection."

To give a doctor's input, and a little bit more of an explanation as to why this really works, Dr. Pat Salber, MD, and Founder of The Doctor Weighs In comments: “researchers have been studying stem cells derived from menstrual blood for more than a decade. Stem cells are cells that have the capability of differentiating into different types of tissues. There are two major types of stem cells, embryonic and adult. Adult stem cells have a more limited differentiation potential, but avoid the ethical issues that have surrounded research with embryonic stem cells. Stem cells from menstrual blood are adult stem cells."

These stem cells are so important when it comes to new findings. “Stem cells serve as the backbone of research in the field of regenerative medicine – the focus which is to grow tissues, such as skin, to repair burn and other types of serious skin wounds.

A certain type of stem cell, known as mesenchymal stem cells (MenSCs) derived from menstrual blood has been found to both grow well in the lab and have the capability to differentiate in various cell types, including skin. In addition to being used to grow tissues, their properties can be studied that will elucidate many different aspects of cell function," Dr. Salber explains.

To show the outpour of support for her efforts and this major girl power research, Villarreal remarks, “women are volunteering their samples happily report the arrival of their periods by giving samples to our lab announcing “de-identified sample number XXX arrived today!" It's a far cry from the stereotype of when “it's that time of the month."

How are these collections being done? “Although it might sound odd to collect menstrual blood, plastic cups have been developed to use in the collection process. This is similar to menstrual products, called menstrual cups, that have been on the market for many years," Dr. Salber says.

Equally shocking and innovative, this might be something that becomes more common practice in the future. And according to Dr. Salber, women may be able to not only use the menstrual blood for early detection, but be able to store the stem cells from it to help treat future diseases. “Companies are working to commercialize the use of menstrual blood stem cells. One company, for example, is offering a patented service to store menstrual blood stem cells for use in tissue generation if the need arises."