An interview with Samantha Rei
Minnesota has only produced a handful of Project Runway contestants, three to be exact. The Land of Lakes hasn't seen a designer on the reality show since Christopher Straub -- seven seasons ago. Samantha Rei is here to change that, the designer has been active in the Twin Cities fashion scene for almost two decades. Since graduating from Perpich Center for Arts Education, Samantha Rei became a catalyst for Lolita style in the US, directed fashion shows and competed on the hit design show, Project Runway.
Since appearing on the show, Samantha Rei has been getting her girl boss on by focusing on collaborations and and working on her new collection. It's amazing to think she almost didn't audition, we're glad she was nudged to give it one more go.
Interview - the personal stuff
Q: I read that fellow Minnesotan and Project Runway alum Christopher Straub urged you to audition one last time for the show. What did he say that convinced you to give it one more try?
Samantha Rei: He honestly urged me to do it every year, but this time was different because I had decided I wasn't going to. An amount of hair that made me self-conscious had broken off, and I wasn't feeling confident. He said, "Well slap on a hairpiece and make a video, because they've extended the deadline!" The next day I made a video and the rest is history. Also, I just wore my hair as is, in case you were wondering.
Q: In a GOMN article published in late September, it says you were one of the first Lolita designers in America. At the time, did you realize that? How did you get to the point of paving your own way?
Samantha Rei: All I knew was there were no stores in Japan willing to ship out of the country and I couldn't find what I wanted. I assumed it was hard to find, but I didn't realize until a few years later that it was myself and two others here in the US. Each season I just tried new things, tried to innovate and hone my skills. I encouraged other designers to do the same and grew the community the best way I could.
Q: Besides Lolita style, are there other aspects of Japanese popular culture you enjoy?
Samantha Rei: I like style tribes, the idea that people get together to like the same things and dress the same way. I like anime and manga (before discovering fashion, growing up I wanted to be a comic artist; I actually have another project in the works with manga-ka, Tomoko Taniguchi, which I'm excited about. I've worked with her before, but this is even more exciting). I used to love J-pop and Visual Kei when I was younger.
Q: What challenges have you had to overcome as a designer in today's overly digitalized and social media-driven society? How did you face them?
Samantha Rei: I'd say fast fashion has been detrimental. People want instant gratification, low prices and constant stimulation. I find I'm spending about as much time promoting myself on multiple platforms as I am creating. When I got started I really only promoted on my personal website and Livejournal. I also handed out flyers at local businesses. I'm glad the world is starting to get reacquainted with slow fashion. It's a breath of fresh air.
Q: In past interviews, you tell the story about being in a dressing room crying because the [fashion] industry didn't provide pieces you wanted/needed. Did you ever feel like you had to change in order to fit into the standards set by the industry?
Samantha Rei: Absolutely. Growing up, I physically matured a lot faster than the other girls and I already looked different, growing up in a predominately white town. I was told repeatedly that I was fat, boys didn't like me, I was bullied pretty hard so I didn't like myself much. As an adult I started to actually put on weight (I was very thin as a teen), and I felt like I was always in a state of trying to start a diet. It's weird, I did actually make a drastic life change around the time I turned 32 and over the next 2 years, lost 70 lbs.
I realized I liked myself more, not because I had gotten thinner, but because I was strong for the first time in almost two decades. I have since put on 25 lbs of the weight I lost, but the main thing I miss is my strength. I am confident in my skills shopping for and making clothes for myself. It took a really long time to get here, but I realize if I'm going to teach the next generation how to love themselves, I have to love myself. And I think I finally do.
Q: Young people often have a hard time feeling comfortable in their own skin and being their own person. Do you have any words of advice for those struggling?
Samantha Rei: Learn about yourself. Learn why you are self-conscious about XYZ. Is it because of what others are saying? I have learned it's usually because of outside elements. People knocking others down because THEY don't like themselves. Start with one thing you like about yourself. Then peel back the layers until you realize that every part of you is okay. That it's okay to like yourself.
Q: Is there a certain piece of clothing or accessory you feel most confident in? If so, what is it?
Samantha Rei: I really like the harnesses my design bestie Apatico makes for me. I also have a very favorite pair of boots. They are black and white steel toed boots from John Fluevog that make me feel like I can take on the world.
Q: You are a designer, author, trendsetter, business owner and now TV personality, how do you balance these different titles?
Samantha Rei: Honestly, I'm not happy unless I'm doing 5 million things. I try my best to keep a lot of lists, I take help when it's offered and I stay optimistic. I'm grateful that I have an amazing support system. I'm always looking for the next big thing to try!
Q: How do you go about forming business relationships and collaborating with other brands? Any tips for future girl bosses?
Samantha Rei: I don't fake it. I try to be as genuine as I can. I create relationships instead of "how can I use them"-ships. I feel like that's really why people trust me and like working with me. I think about how the relationship will be mutually beneficial. The biggest tip I would give is to be real and try your absolute best to offer your best in any situation.
Q: Before transferring to Perpich Center for Arts Education, you didn't have the best experience at your previous high school. What did you do to cope with being in that negative environment?
Samantha Rei: I spent a lot of time in Minneapolis with my brother and best friend. I made a lot of art and read of a lot of books.
Q: What about your experience at Perpich helped shape you as an adult?
Samantha Rei: It taught me that if I surround myself with positive people who are genuine and passionate about making good things, I can fit in anywhere. I learned that trying to fit into a place that would not accept me for me, was not worth it. I find myself sort of falling into that a bit as an adult and I always have to remind myself that there's no point in forcing relationships with people who are users.
Q: The theme for this season of Project Runway was to break out of the conventional modeling mold and to cater to all body types. Do you think you were at an advantage because of this?
Samantha Rei: As far as my fit goes, absolutely. I was never afraid of making something I knew would fit. Even on the challenge where I was cut I was able to show how well I can tailor a garment to fit a client. One thing a lot of people don't realize, too, is being thin doesn't automatically get a person modeling work. If the proportions aren't "right" they might not get work. One of the girls even said that she had a hard time getting booked for a while because she had a booty. And she was thin! This is why so many women think there's something wrong with the body they have.
Q: Any advice for young people just starting out in a creative industry such as fashion?
Samantha Rei: Practice all the time and never stop learning. Strive to be better than you were yesterday. If you feel like you've learned it all, you're doing it wrong. And above all else, have fun! Creativity comes from many places, some bad, some good, but they are all transformative and you will grow from every experience.