‘Project Runway’ alumna Samantha Rei returns to the Twin Cities

Samantha Rei carved out her niche in the Twin Cities fashion scene by elevating femininity, narrative and youth.

Local fashion designer Samantha Rei works in her studio on Monday, Feb. 12. Rei was a competitor on Season 16 of 'Project Runway'.

Will Tooke

Local fashion designer Samantha Rei works in her studio on Monday, Feb. 12. Rei was a competitor on Season 16 of ‘Project Runway’.

Maddy Folstein

After facing the critical eyes of Heidi Klum and Nina Garcia on season 16 of “Project Runway,” Minneapolis native Samantha Rei is staying busy in the Twin Cities — her still life collection entitled Vanitas opened yesterday and her collaborative photo series “Harmonic Convergence” opened on Saturday.

The creative instincts and refined skill set that Rei developed in her Twin Cities training helped to carry her through the well-known fashion competition.

“[‘Project Runway’] was fun. Parts of it were not as hard as I thought they would be,” Rei said. “I’m fast. I’m a fast designer, and I can make patterns really quickly. … I thought I would be more nervous on the spot … but I just ignored the cameras after a day.”

As for crowd-favorite Tim Gunn? Rei says he’s just as nice as you hope he is: “He kind of reminded me … of one of my two favorite teachers in fashion school … and also my dad.”

A longtime illustrator, Rei first found her inspiration in the fashion shows that come on after Saturday morning cartoons.

“I always wanted to be an illustrator … and I got really intrigued by watching fashion shows,” Rei said. “I think it was the fact that fashion could be art. My mom has been sewing since she was four years old … I thought it was amazing that we wouldn’t have something, and then the next morning, there’d be something new at the foot of the bed.”

In her collaborative photo series featuring Rei’s designs, Rei worked with local fashion photographer Alex Butterfield to create “Harmonic Convergence.”

For Butterfield, this experimentation was a natural reaction to Rei’s expressive designs.

“These types of projects are really nice when the designer has a really fleshed out story. … It’s a jumping point for me to apply what I’m doing,” Butterfield said. “[Samantha’s] work always has a good fashion story to it. … There’s a really good narrative, and the looks are interesting — that’s what attracts me.”

Ashley Hay, a local graphic designer, also collaborated with Rei to create a set of “geek chic” enamel pins.

“We like to call it this kind of geek covert fashion for everybody — the working adult, whether it’s patterns, pins, accessories. We’re starting with pins … but we do plan to create more things that people can use to integrate this nerdy stuff … but also still be business formal if they want,” Hay said.

Conversation and ideas flow naturally between the two friends, despite coming from different design backgrounds.

“We’ll just start sketching ideas. She’s a great collaborator for me. She and I think similarly, and we know what we like to sell and what we think is missing from our niche markets,” Hay said. “We usually end up laughing … and saying ‘oh my god, yes that’s perfect’ a lot.”

Rei’s practical talents as a designer are unmatched, which her collaborators pick up on early in their work together.

“I was at her house … and she was working on this last minute dress,” said Megan Bishop, a designer who has collaborated with Rei to develop accessories like harnesses and headpieces. “She was just like, ‘give me a second,’ and she went into the other room. She came back, and she had draped a perfect asymmetrical sleeve and sewed it in 15 minutes … I was like, ‘you are incredible.’ Her skills just blow me away. She’s so good at her job.”

Whether her designs are captured on film or worn by customers, Rei finds a way to highlight the confidence of the wearer in the joy of a well-fitting garment.

“[Her designs] … always fit you like a glove, and she knows how to tailor specifically to your body type,” Hay said. “It is comment-inducing. People always say, ‘oh my god, I love this piece of what you’re wearing’ or ‘where did you get that?’ … She gets the body, and people always have something to say.” 

And that’s exactly how Rei wants her customers to feel — confident and sure of themselves. 

“I don’t want my clothes to make somebody feel good about themselves because they’re wearing them … It’s more of an accentuation of how I want them to already feel about themselves,” Rei said.