Meet rising fashion designer Leigh LaVange. I’ve wanted to introduce Chapelboro readers to Leigh and showcase her designs ever since I started writing this column.  I have this talent scout intuition that tells me big things are in Leigh’s future. So here’s the story of how she got started.

Leigh is one of our own…born and raised in Chapel Hill and as a huge Tar Heel fan.  She attended Frank Porter Graham Elementary School and Culbreth Middle School before attending Durham Academy for high school.  Freshman year of college she followed in the footsteps of her parents and attended UNC-CH, but then decided to transfer to NC State’s College of Textiles (COT) program at the beginning of her sophomore year. She graduated from NCSU in December 2009 and moved to New York City in February 2010. Local girl follows the stars to the big city.

Life-long focus and determination can take you places. Just ask Leigh’s Dad Ben. “Leigh was very focused as a child and remains so as an adult.  When she decided on something, she went for it. No retreat, no surrender.  She usually gets what she wants, due in no small part to her own hard work.”

Mom Lisa describes Leigh as the LaVange family member who could assemble whatever arrived in a box without ever looking at the instructions. “She has a very intuitive feel for how things are made and work. Whether computers, telephone answering machines (back when we used them!), DVD players, etc., she was our go to person for anything electronic or mechanical.  I bought her a Swedish-made sewing machine at the Cotton Boll at around age 10 or 11 (she still uses it–great machine), because of her affinity for making things, and right away she starting sewing, often without a pattern. “
I asked Leigh’s parents Lisa and Ben LaVange to share any childhood or teenage stories of Leigh’s creative outlets. Dad Ben had this one to share. “One of my favorite stories from high school is Leigh staying up with me to watch the Boston Red Sox (my team) win the 2004 World Series.  Afterward, she had me drive her to Walmart to get supplies to make a championship t-shirt, which she wore to school the next day.  We were both tired, but happy!”
Leigh sites her family as one of her biggest influences. I asked Leigh’s folks which parent claims passing on the creative gene. Mom Lisa says, “Ben and I are both musical, with his drumming and my piano playing, and both girls studied piano and sang in the church choir. Perhaps some musical creativity morphed into design creativity for Leigh.”
As UNC grads and Tar Heel fans, was it painful for you to watch Leigh transfer from Carolina blue to State red? Lisa admits, “We did have a hard time accepting her transfer to NC State. I told her at the time, jokingly, that I was a Carolina alum and faculty member, but my proudest moment was being a Carolina parent, when she was a freshman! I had already planned to participate in graduation as a faculty member four years later when she graduated. But, we knew she was anxious to get started with her career training and did not want to wait until graduate school to study textiles. The NCSU program is top notch. Once we saw the curriculum and met the Dean (who is a statistician like Lisa) and faculty, we were very excited about her studying there.” Ben adds, “As for switching from blue to red, she never did.  We were extremely proud when she was accepted at and chose to attend UNC, but I encouraged her to apply to State when she was a high school senior. She wouldn’t hear of it then, because she was true blue, and she continued to attend Carolina sporting events whenever possible during her years at State.”
That’s dedication to two schools for sure!
Leigh took a break from the bright lights and big city to answer some questions about when she got stung by the fashion bug and how she has pursued and followed the designer’s dream.

When did you realize the fashion world was calling you? I grew up sewing and taking classes, and as most girls I dreamed of becoming a designer, but as I got older and started applying to colleges I didn’t think it was a career option. As much as I loved sewing I wasn’t an artist and did not think an art school was the right choice for me.  About half-way through my freshman year I started feeling like I was missing out on something.  A great friend of my family told me about the College of Textiles at NC State and sent me to the annual Art to Wear show. That is when I realized there was more to fashion than sketching, and I decided that night that I wanted to apply to the COT (College of Textiles) and be in that show by the time I graduated.

What are your most creative childhood memories beyond paper dolls?

When I was about eight years old, my mom signed up my sister and I for sewing classes at the Cotton Boll in Chapel Hill.  My sister didn’t care for sewing, but I couldn’t wait to go back.  I think at my first class I learned to make boxer shorts.  Every summer after that I took more and more classes and made pajama pants, quilts, stuffed animals, dresses, purses and more!  Once I would take a class, then I would take what I learned home and make presents for my friends for birthdays and holidays.  Finally I built my way up to making my own prom dress!
Dad Ben calls Leigh’s prom dress “a labor of love and a thing of beauty to behold!” Mom Lisa adds, “It was gorgeous, made from pale yellow silk georgette. She spent hours creating rolled hems with that delicate fabric. The night before the event, she was doing some trim work, and the zipper broke. I was away on business, so Ben drove all over the Triangle trying to find a store open that sold the right kind of zipper! The dress turned out to be absolutely gorgeous, and the Cotton Boll proprietor urged her to enter the dress into her fashion show that year, but Leigh did not want to compete with her creations. She was crowned Queen of the Prom, which was a nice reward for all the hard work! (see photo above)

Who has inspired you most along the way?

My family of course has always been so supportive of me, and if it weren’t for my mom I may have never learned that I loved sewing and fashion.  A great friend of my mom Kaola Phoenix (local artist in Chapel Hill) was the one who introduced me to COT and encouraged me to pursue fashion. Lastly, while in College I worked at SoHo clothing in Cameron Village and owner Martha Parks and manager Ellen Edwards were a constant inspiration and encouragement for me.  SoHo carries the most amazing and unique designers and being around clothes like that every day was so inspirational.

What was the experience like at NCSU’s COT and how did it prepare you for life in the fashion industry?  And don’t be shy…tell us about your accolades!

I had such a wonderful time at NCSU’s COT.  It was exactly what I was looking for. The classes I took really prepared me for the fashion industry.  It’s not like your typical art/fashion programs.  Each class when we would have the opportunity to design something for a project we had to take it through all of the steps: Designing, Costing, Pattern-making, Grading, Cutting, and Sewing. They taught us that in the industry it is so important to know every step of the process.  I had the opportunity to participate in many different fashion shows, designing and modeling for friends!  My first show at COT was the Cotton Couture show where I designed a convertible dress and showed 4 (of many) different ways you could wear it! (see photo below with Leigh runway center)  My senior year I made it into the Art to Wear show like I had wanted to since before I started at COT.  This was the most fun because I got to be as creative as I wanted. My line was based on the White Witch from the Chronicles of Narnia.  Finally I participated in the Threads Senior show at the COT in December 2009 and designed a line inspired by the French revolution. (see photo below with Leigh in center holding a bouquet of roses and older sister Kate to her left modeling a Leigh LaVange design)

Where do you draw inspiration for your designs?

Everywhere! I like to design things you don’t see every day, so I typically stay away from fashion magazines.  My favorite place to draw inspiration is on the streets on New York.  I love seeing what people are wearing.  I will sometimes even take just the simplest of details in someone’s outfit and expand from there to create something of my own.  I also get inspiration from shopping.  My favorite place of course is SoHo Clothing in Raleigh, NC where I used to work.  Vintage shops are always fun too! My most recent inspirational tool is the coffee table book from the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  If I ever feel stuck I like flipping through that and others.

Tell readers what brought you to the Big Apple and about your current gig.

After graduation I decided my best chance of really getting into the fashion industry would be to move to New York.  I lined up a few interviews for internships with smaller local design firms and after receiving an offer I moved up two weeks later!  It was a very quick and big decision, but I’m so happy I did it.  I worked as an intern for about four months while working part-time at different retail stores in the city.  I was then hired full time as a production assistant (with fashion label Hunter Dixon).  It was great fun and such a learning experience being in the factories everyday and shopping at the local fabric and trim stores.  May of this year I took a job as an assistant technical designer for a bigger company (The Moret Group).  I’m very happy with the move into tech design. My training from COT prepared me well for this job.  It’s been interesting being able to learn about overseas production as well.

What’s your professional dream?

It changes about everyday!  I love doing technical design, but one day I would like to use that skill plus my education in pattern-making (from COT and now FIT – pattern-making certificate program) to branch out in pattern-making as well.  I love making my own patterns for my designs and would like to do that professionally as well. I sell my designs occasionally, so of course I would one day love to make a living out of that!

Where (and when) can fashionistas find your designs?

Usually once to twice a year SoHo clothing hosts a local designers’ event in Cameron Village, and I sell my designs there.  Check the SoHo clothing website  or the Cameron Village website for the next event.  You can find my designs at SoHo anytime though.  Hopefully soon I will have a website up and running!!
Leigh is living proof that one girl’s dream can become a reality with the right training, tenacity and drive! I predict she takes the fashion world by storm. And along the way I plan to wear her threads and write about her future successes! 

Thank you to proud parents Lisa and Ben LaVange for sharing their stories and memories of Leigh’s fashion pursuits. Lisa was most recently a professor in the Department of Biostatistics in the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC (2005 – 2011). This past September she joined the FDA as Director of Biostatistics in the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research in DC. Ben works in Human Resources at UNC Health Care. They reside on South Columbia Street (the Bagby house) and throw a great tailgate party!

This is the second story in a series on fashion designers with a Chapel Hill or Triangle connection. (See The Fashion Plate’s 9/20 interview with Chapel Hill native Donna McMillan of Uncommon Threads.)

That’s my feature on a local fashionista! Share your comments and praise about Leigh and other local designers below.