ROGERS CITY - One of Rogers City's own stood as living proof of two things Saturday: this small town exists, and always aim high.
Melissa Fleis, one of the top contestants on Lifestyle Network's "Project Runway," spoke to a large crowd at the Rogers City Area Chamber of Commerce annual banquet. She fielded questions after dinner from the audience inside Water's Edge about her time on the show and her belated decision to follow a life-long dream.
One of four competitors to reach Project Runway's Fashion Week, Fleis didn't win but did well enough to further her drive to start her own fashion line, she said.
News Photo by Jordan Travis
Melissa Fleis smiles as Rogers City Mayor Beach Hall hands her a proclamation declaring Saturday to be “Melissa Fleis Day” in the fashion designer and “Project Runway” contestant’s home town.
"People want to buy my clothing, which I never thought would happen," she said.
Fleis is aiming to sell her first limited run of leather jackets - her favorite material- in a San Francisco boutique, she said. It's where she worked when another employee got a call from a Project production crew member, a call eventually passed to Fleis.
Fleis originally intended to ask any designers for the boutique if they were interested in competing, she said. Instead, the production crew emailed her asking for an audition video.
Having just taken a job as an assistant designer two weeks prior, Fleis was hesitant when she got the call asking her to be on the show, she said. Her new boss was sure she'd win, and she had a week and a half to figure out how to make a garment in 12 hours.
While this was no small challenge, Fleis had about four years' training and experience in fashion to draw from, she said. On Sept. 7, she was awake after an hour of sleep, mulling over how to tweak her designs ahead of Fashion Week.
"Five years to that day is when I made the move and decided to study fashion," she said.
Having just taken a drawing class at University of California, Los Angeles in September 2007, Fleis was told by a friend to pursue her dream to pursue fashion design, she said.
From there, she took a year-long program at a Paris fashion academy. She then earned her master's degree from a school in San Francisco, later taking an internship in Italy for four months.
While there, Fleis learned to "pattern-make even stronger than I had in school, and I learned how to cut leather masterfully, which is my favorite thing to do," she said.
While on the show, Fleis told producers to list Rogers City as her hometown, and told lots of people about where she came from, she said.
Jim and Doris Fleis, Melissa's parents, said they had a hard time keeping quiet about the show. Compounding this was the month-plus delay between Fashion Week and the airing of the episode.
"Of course, all our friends and family figured she should win, so they're saying, 'We know she's going to win,' and of course we knew how she ended up, very proudly though, but it was hard to keep quiet," Doris said.
Above all, Melissa's parents are proud of her and how far she's come, they said.
"Not everybody's daughter walks up to you one day and says, 'Hey, I'm headed to Paris,' because she's got her mind made up to do something," Jim said.
When Fleis spoke to students at Rogers City schools Friday, she was awed by how she'd reached so many of them, she said. It was also her chance to tell them to follow their dreams.
After dinner, chamber President Richard Lamb showed a video with photographs of her Rogers City life, along with still-shots and short clips from the TV show. Front pages of the Presque Isle Advance, which chronicled her weekly progress, were part of the mix as well. The audience applauded as pictures of models wearing Fleis's designs came on screen.
In honor of Fleis' efforts and for representing the city so well, Mayor Beach Hall and Rep. Peter Pettalia each gave her special accolades. Hall presented her an official proclamation declaring Saturday as "Melissa Fleis Day," and Pettalia brought a special tribute from Michigan's legislature.
Fleis' trip home was sponsored by the chamber, The Alpena News plus more than a dozen other businesses and people.
Jordan Travis can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5688.