How Minnesota Fashion Designer Samantha Rei Made Me Feel at Home in My Own Skin

Samantha Rei

Minnesota fashion designer Samantha Rei. Photosynthetique

Since the day I met her, I have been in awe of Samantha Rei.

When I started my search for a wedding gown back in 2009, it didn’t take long for me to feel defeated. All the options I found felt like they were for other people; not only were the zillions of big white gowns not my personal style, they weren’t for me. It was a space in which I felt unwelcome, outside. I, like so many people, have long struggled with body image, a struggle that crossed into the murky waters of gender. For most of my life I have been significantly underweight, and circumstances put me in a place of feeling like I wasn’t allowed to be feminine. I had long admired women who were elegant and sleek and glamorous and soft, but those things, like all those dresses, weren’t for me.

I found Samantha through some mutual friends, saw (and was stunned by) her work, and made a phone call. She asked me what sort of design I was interested in—I told her that I wanted to look like I had somehow wandered out of the music video for Nine Inch Nails’ “The Perfect Drug” and couldn’t get back in. When the line went silent for a moment, I was hit with a wave of embarrassment and remorse. What a stupid thing to say, or want. Here, like those other spaces, was another place I could not be. When she spoke again, I thought she’d say “What!?” or “Why?”

“Got it,” she said.

Still, I was so nervous when I drove to her house for a fitting that I almost threw up. I thought she was going to look at me and realize she’d have to change her design, banish me into that in-between place. Maybe she’d tell me she changed her mind, or that she’d taken another project and didn’t have time for me anymore. Instead, she answered the door in a Slytherin T-shirt and gave me a hug.

A woman in a blue and black dress

The author in her wedding dress designed and made by Samantha Rei. Photo by Thaad Powell

We sat on her sofa, in her bright orange living room, and looked at her sketches for the dress. And sure enough, it looked like it had wandered out of the video for “The Perfect Drug” and couldn’t get back in. I couldn’t believe it. I never had to explain what I had meant with my very specific request—when she had said “Got it,” she meant it. While she took my measurements, I apologized for my lack of boobs. She laughed.

It is easy to be intimidated by someone so insanely talented who has so much to offer and knows exactly who they are and what they want. But in her Harry Potter shirt, in her home full of all sorts of geek décor, Samantha talked about Sailor Moon. About Pokémon. And when she started talking about Silent Hill, all that otherness I’d felt every other place went completely away. I’m a goth girl to the bottom of my dark little heart; Samantha lined my dress with a fabric, something that nobody else but I would see, that said “spooky.”

When I came back to try on the dress, I spent the drive trying to push back still more complicated, consuming feelings. I couldn’t wear something like this. Everyone who saw me would know that I was an imposter. I felt horrible for trying, for wasting Samantha’s time. But I put the gown on in her bathroom, and I cried. She smiled in the infectious, animated way she does and fiddled with the bodice that fit me in a way I didn’t know clothing could fit. “Now,” she said with a wink, “you have boobs.”

For the first time in my entire life, my outside matched my inside. And this dress, this body, this world, was for me.

This is what fashion is. it is more than clothes, or brands, or an aesthetic. While it is clear just by a glance that Samantha Rei’s technical skills are astonishing, her abilities go far beyond that. She knows how to design for all body types, all walks of life. She knows how to see past the superficial, how to see people and give them a chance to be who they really are. She knows what it is like to be other, to feel trapped in that in-between space.

Samantha is a doer, and so very much a Slytherin. Instead of drifting between those spaces, she built her own and invited others in. I was so incredibly lucky to have this experience, and I cannot wait to see what she does on Project Runway. She’s not just there to make clothes; she’s there to show us all something bigger—about fashion, about our world, and about ourselves.

Samantha Rei at a sewing machine

Samantha at work. Courtesy of Samantha Rei

You can see Samantha Rei on season 16 of Project Runway on Lifetime starting August 17, 2017. Learn more about her on the Project Runway website and or by following her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

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