Into the Great Wide Open

Lorna Leedy has designs on all kinds of territory.

Local designer Lorna Leedy is making inroads into the competitive land of high fashion. This spring her new collection will be featured in shops around the country and overseas, in places as disparate as Milan, Italy, and Manayunk, Pennsylvania. She’s also shipping her clothing line to stores in Los Angeles, New York, Ann Arbor, Portland, British Columbia, and of course, Seattle. Fashionistas with adventurous tastes have taken notice—she’s even penetrated the celebrity market, counting luminaries such as Minnie Driver, Salma Hayek, and pop star Shakira among her recent clients.

A master of many artistic trades, her experience ranges from having designed zoo and aquarium exhibits to co-designing and building “Hell Hotel,” an eight-room performance-art haunted house. From her background in visual arts at Evergreen State College, she soon submerged herself into what she calls “the exciting and somewhat seedy New Orleans art underworld” with a gallery internship there. Sewing was just a sideline until joblessness in Seattle propelled her into full-time clothing design in January 2002. Her success was immediate.

“I started making clothes like crazy, and was selling pretty much everything I made to shops in L.A., New York, and the Northwest,” she says.

Under her Fancy Pony Land label, Leedy sews up whimsical clothing filled with metaphor and innuendo. Pieces feature her signature leather and vinyl appliqués, strategically placed on skirts, tops, and dresses: body-hugging tops are emblazoned with gold birds in cages; skirts sport giant moths with wings spread front and center, vines intertwined sinuously across the hips.

Leedy says she finds endless inspiration in the plants, animals, birds, and scenery she encounters in her nomadic lifestyle. She and her park ranger boyfriend divide their time between Washington, Colorado, Texas, and Louisiana in what she terms “seasonal migrations.”

“It’s a never-boring lifestyle,” she says. “I get to live in strange, remote, beautiful places off the fashion radar.”

Never boring is right. She’s found a scorpion walking around on one of her patterns, and a vinegaroon (a vinegar- shooting, “whip-tail” scorpion) made itself at home in her bathtub. (“It’s truly the most horrifying insect you can imagine—and BIG.”). In Dinosaur, Colo., she spent time designing and sewing from sunup to sundown, literally—she lived in a cabin with only solar electricity. Near Cowdrey, Colo., she is happily outnumbered by the wildlife that’s so prolific in her designs. While in New Orleans, she’s involved in production and design for Jazz Fest.

Leedy travels between these vastly different towns and cities with portable sewing machine and serger (a decorative stitcher) in tow, as well as a bunch of big plastic bins filled with notions and fabric, all jammed into her “mobile apartment”—a Volkswagen Eurovan camper.

“It was easier to live this way three years ago,” she admits. As her collection and popularity have expanded, so have her logistical challenges. The last time she returned to Seattle she shipped 15 boxes from Colorado, but “it’s a great lifestyle, and I wouldn’t give it up just to save myself the headache. I love it, and it satisfies my gypsy impulses.”

Leedy’s spring line is a tribute to the town of Redford in West Texas, featuring the magical and iconic symbols of that territory. “It’s my vision of where we live,” she says. She finds the stark border area fascinating and is mesmerized by the breathtaking beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert and Sierra Mulattos Mountains. For the collection, she stitched the likenesses of thorny brambles, hard-bodied armadillos, flying swifts, massive yellow roses, and bright gold guns onto tops, skirts, and dresses in a variety of fabrics. She uses Lycra, natural fibers such as cotton, some silk, and Indian cotton voile, a lightweight fabric in incredible colors that she buys in the Indian districts of Vancouver. The end result is a playful line romanticizing the beautiful but harsh geography of the desert. But it’s not all cute appliqués of pretty creatures.

“My work has a dark and humorous side,” says Leedy. “They’re intertwined.”

One popular piece in her collection is a skull and lotus skirt that she designed with her departed grandmother in mind, incorporating images from the traditional Mexican Day of the Dead. It’s hard to miss Frida Kahlo’s influence here, whom Leedy admits was a major inspiration in her creative process.

“I read her biography at 18 and stopped plucking my eyebrows,” she remembers. “She was so courageous in her exploration of life and death in her work.”

Salma Hayek, who played Kahlo in the film Frida, bought one of Leedy’s Frida- inspired “bandage” skirts.

“I was really excited,” says Leedy, “because I knew she really got it—that she understood the Frida reference and connected with it.”

As a budding designer in New Orleans, Leedy once lived in a cavernous, industrial warehouse, believing that the uncomfortable conditions were essential to the life of an artist. Then she had an epiphany.

“I realized I didn’t have to starve to be an artist [or] live in these difficult places,” she recalls. “I could be a ‘fancy’ artist. And I get to make everything up.”

Lorna Leedy’s designs are available in Seattle at Lipstick Traces (303 E. Pine St., 206-329-2813; and Vain (2018 First Ave., 206-441-3441.