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June 24, 2013

Project Runway's Lone Wolf

Some people are good at working in groups. Others? Not so much. To stand out from the pack of designers in Project Runway's 11th season — the first ever dedicated solely to team challenges — Michelle Lesniak Franklin trusted her own instincts, and won.


Photo Credit: Meredith Jenks

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No one saw it coming. As part of a team, Michelle Lesniak Franklin's individuality and edgy point of view were completely lost on Project Runway's judges. Each week she found herself among the lowest-scoring group. "I couldn't catch a break," she says. "You switch teams, and then that team crashes and burns? It felt like the world was conspiring to not let me win — like I had kicked a bunny in my past life and it was coming back to haunt me." That frustration proved vital to Lesniak Franklin's triumph at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week last February. "Basically, I was a lone wolf," she says of the inspiration behind her winning collection. "I had one last chance to make a kill, survive the winter, and make it in the industry." Indeed, her bleeding-heart knit sweater slaughtered the competition." Her designs were smart and thoughtful," says judge and MC Creative Director Nina Garcia, who at one point questioned the 34-year-old Portland, Oregon, native's "'80s hair-metal” taste. "Once she was left to work on her own, her perspective as a designer became crystal clear."

Another thing that Lesniak Franklin wants to make clear: "I totally work well with others," she says. Back at home in Portland, her next step is to hire a staff for her clothing line, Au, so-named for the chemical symbol of gold. Her fondest Runway memories: "Late at night when the cameras were off and it was just us girls in our apartment, we'd laugh and make fun of each other and do impersonations. Patricia [Michaels] does an incredible Daniel [Esquivel]. I don't think I've ever giggled so much." Despite being held back by teamwork in the beginning, Lesniak Franklin can't deny the powerful bonds that resulted. "We're definitely a much closer season by far," she says. "We all talk to each other — some of the designers I talk to on a daily basis. We're close, like family." In the end, a leader is nothing without her pack.

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