Talking with “Project Runway: Under the Gunn” Designer Michelle Überreste

Perley, MN, population 92, is an unlikely breeding ground for a fashion designer. The windswept prairie town near the North Dakota border doesn’t have a single stoplight. But the stark beauty of the place only heightened Michelle Überreste’s creative vision.

The designer’s dark daydreams, work ethic and razor sharp aesthetic have already earned her a career in fashion. Now she’s created her own line, Michelle Überreste, and she’s stepping into a new phase, propelled by her appearance on Project Runway: Under the Gunn, which premiered January 16 on Lifetime.

Under the Gunn Designer Michelle Uberreste
Photo by Barbara Nitke/Lifetime

I love interviewing creative people for Prairie Style File, but this interview is special both because I really respond to Michelle’s work (her Enigma Wool Coat — shown below — is haunting my dreams) and also because we’ve known each other since we were kids.

Small towns can be brutal for creative types (there are few likeminded people and even fewer creative outlets) so all of us strange, wild, restless kids made our own opportunities. It makes me so happy to see one of our own is still doing exactly that – and making it work.

I called Michelle at her home in Burbank, California to catch up and talk about her new line, the show and whirlwind that’s followed. Here’s the first portion of that interview. Check back next Thursday for more with Michelle.

Enigma Wool Coat by Michelle Uberreste

The Michelle Überreste Look
This is Michelle’s big break, but in true Midwestern style, she’s been preparing for the opportunity for years. She showed a creative streak early, learning to sew when she was five years old.

She met her husband when he hired her to design costumes for a film project and they moved to LA six years ago so she could study fashion design at Woodbury University.

She had a successful design career at Lip-Service, with a portfolio full of strong and haunting designs (check out her work here) before she auditioned for a chance to be mentored by past Project Runway designers Mondo Guerra, Anya Ayoung-Chee and Nick Verreos for a shot at the grand prize, which includes (among other things) $100,000 in cash, a sewing and embroidery studio, an all-expenses- paid trip to Paris, a Marie Claire fashion spread and the chance to design an exclusive collection for Francesca’s.

Michelle Uberreste in the Under the Gunn workroom
Photo by Adam Taylor/Lifetime

Her sleek and starkly confident designs combine military and bondage elements with a sleek, urban sensibility for a look that’s been described as futuristic – or even apocalyptic. Which makes sense, because these images are exactly what’s whirling through Michelle’s mind when she’s in her workroom.

“I’m very interested in where the world is headed these days,” she says. “I’m studying Revelation and seeing what’s happening with religion and science and politics in society. So when I’m designing, I’m trying to find a way to express what I’m thinking. I think America is obsessed with the same things right now. If you look at pop culture, there’re all these movies about the end of the world and aliens. I think we’re all curious about where our world is headed.”

Control Freak Harness by Michelle Uberreste

It’s a strong look that requires a strong personality to match. And Michelle acknowledges it’s not for everyone.

“I think my girl — and guy, I do a lot of menswear, which I actually love — is someone who has an opinion to express, someone who is confident in who they are, someone that’s not influenced by other people. They’re strong enough in themselves to express what they want, do what they want.”

Her clothing has already caught the eye of Hollywood stylists and musicians. Michelle’s designs have been spotted on several performers on America’s Got Talent and on Chris Colfer’s character, Kurt Hummel, on Glee. And Wiz Kalifa (who’s a small town boy as well, born a few hours west of Michelle in Minot, ND) wore her vest to The Billboard Music Awards.

So which celebrity is she dying to dress next?

“I don’t really care about celebrities, to be honest. Well, I don’t mean I don’t care,” she clarifies, “I’m not starstruck. It’s really more important to me to see normal people wearing my clothing. It’s really cool to see someone on the street that liked your art so much that they paid money for it and they’re using it to express themselves.”

Michelle Uberreste Control Freak Leggings

What’s next:
Now that the show’s wrapped (and no, she can’t talk about it, so don’t even ask) Michelle is concentrating on building her business.

And her fans are already giving her ideas. Her Twitter followers (follow her @Uberreste) requested more menswear like the pieces they saw in her portfolio and she’s happy to oblige.

“I like that really strong, edgy, masculine look,” she says. “I think it’s because I took on a little bit of a masculine role going up and I always kept that tomboy edge. It comes easy. Menswear is all about subtlety and details and it really just clicked for me. Even if you look at my women’s clothing it’s very strong and edgy – it’s not very feminine at all.”

New designs will be available on her website – michelleuberreste.com — in upcoming weeks and she’ll be focusing on pieces that people can incorporate into their existing wardrobes. Just don’t expect her to change her look for the mass market.

“I’m definitely trying to do some more toned-down day pieces that are a little more accessible, but I think my natural inclination is to go that fantastic, dramatic place that’s a little too much for every day life,” she says.

“I would rather go there and go too far than not go far enough.”

Sauguine Leggings by Michelle Uberreste

Check out Michelle on Lifetime tonight at 8 CST (or watch full episodes online here and check back next Thursday for Part II of my interview with Michelle, when she tells us about life behind the scenes on Project Runway: Under The Gunn.

Want to know more about the shops, people, events, art, parties and food that make the Upper Midwest unique? Follow Prairie Style File on Facebook, on Twitter @PrairieStylFile or subscribe via email on the right side of this page.

Clothing photos from michelleuberreste.com.

What do you think? Comment here!