If at first you don’t succeed…well we know the rest. And that is exactly what Samantha Rei, one of the latest contestants on Lifetime’s long-running hit program Project Runway did when she suffered a disappointing loss in her first bid to get on the show.
Rei, who grew up in Hastings, which she describes as a “river town and a southern suburb of Minneapolis” says, “I’ve been an artist since I was a little girl. It’s all I ever wanted to be. It was between wanting to be a fashion designer or a comic book illustrator.”
She transferred in her senior year from Hastings High School, where as a multiracial (part Caucasian, part Black) student with an artistic bent, she didn’t quite fit in.
“I had to get out of there” she says bluntly. “It was a horrible experience and I felt like I had to escape.” With the weariness from her experience punctuating her words, she remembers, “It was a predominantly White school and so they didn’t like us very much.
“Then, besides that, I dressed kind of weird. They were like, ‘let’s treat her horribly,’” she recalls. She then went to Perpich Center for Arts Education.
She explains, “My art area at Perpich was visual arts so I was focusing on illustration at that point and doing fashion on the side. I knew I wanted to be a fashion designer but my main focus and what I wanted to do when I grew up was illustration.”
Deadlines killed Rei’s aspirations for comic book illustrations. After realizing she “didn’t need to go to school for illustration,” she left college and began working as a comic book illustrator, only to realize that she did not want to deal with the deadlines.
Having made numerous prom dresses for classmates during high school and creating costumes for cosplayers (short for “costume play” where participants dress up as a character or idea from a work of fiction), Rei was able to quickly pivot.
She started her first online clothing store colorfully named Blasphemina’s Closet in 2000. She describes the items she offered as “half Lolita and half goth fashion. That’s when I started to really take fashion seriously.” Blasphemina’s Closet was one of the first Lolita labels on the United States.
When Rei hit age 25, she went back to college, this time majoring in fashion. At this point Project Runway was coming into its own as an iconic fashion-focused television destination. Rei tried out for it unsuccessfully.
Sighing deeply, she recalls the experience as being, “Not great. I hadn’t really gotten comfortable in my style or in defending it because it was kind of weird compared to the mainstream.” She auditioned again a few years later but also failed to get on the show.
By then, Rei had gotten a firm handle on her style and approach to fashion. However, she wasn’t willing to endure the process of auditioning for Project Runway again.
The power of friendship is what convinced her to take the proverbial plunge. She remembers, “One of my good friends who was on a previous season convinced me to do it. I was like ‘alright, I’m doing this for you.’”
The third time was the charm, and Rei made the cut for the latest iteration of the program. The winner of Project Runway will receive $100,000 to launch their line, and the opportunity to collaborate with JC Penney on a limited edition capsule collection, among other prizes.
Rei has a unique style that she describes as, “Heroine meets fairytale witch, whimsical but spooky, and approachable but badass.”
She cites Wisconsin rapper Jidenna as someone with a style she admires. “He’s just so dapper and fancy with his pattern clashes, and he’s just so awesome,” she gushes.
Rei, a sometime cosplayer, also loves Janelle Monáe’s look. Jidenna, interestingly enough, is one of the acts on Monae’s Wonderland record label.
“I love Janelle Monáe.” Rei says of the singer/actress. “She has this old school meets new school meets modern art, Motown, and punk rock all wrapped into one thing, and is elegant while she’s doing it.”
Catch Samantha Rei when Project Runway’s “Sweet 16” season premieres August 17 on Lifetime. Check local listings for show times.
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