Milwaukee Fashion Week (MFW) is a bit of a well-kept secret, but this annual fall production showcases local fashion talent while raising money for a worthy cause as all proceeds benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Young designers spend the better part of the year working on collections in a variety of styles, including womenswear, children’s clothing, menswear and bridal apparel. Three local, up-and-coming design stars are already making their mark on the Milwaukee fashion scene, and they’re just getting started.
BY JOAN ELOVITZ KAZAN | PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
For Madalyn Manzeck, it all began with a prom dress. “I started sewing lessons as a sophomore in high school as a hobby because I really wanted to make my own prom dress,” Manzeck recalls. Growing up in Port Washington, Manzeck didn’t have career aspirations in fashion until her sewing instructor, Nicole Schneider, let Manzeck in on a secret. “Nicole said, ‘Everyone wears clothes, fashion is a multi-billion-dollar international industry.’ She made it clear that there were jobs and fashion could be my career, not just my hobby,” Manzeck adds.
Inspired by old Hollywood films, Manzeck worked on the prom dress at her weekly sewing lesson with Schneider. The process took six to nine months from conception, to creating a pattern, then sewing a muslin “practice dress” and, finally, creating the finished product: the dress of Manzeck’s teenage dreams. “It was a strapless, red, satin, mermaid-style gown and I loved it. Everyone was very impressed and the Ozaukee Press even did a story on it,” Manzeck adds.
With acceptances at a variety of programs, including the famed Parsons School of Design in New York, Manzeck selected UW-Madison to pursue a degree in textile and apparel design. “I loved UW-Madison because I could get the full college experience. I would go to lectures with 500 students and design classes with about 15,” she explains. For her senior thesis, Manzeck created a collection of lingerie that would become the cornerstone of her design business. “Picking lingerie was a happy accident because I was focusing on evening wear. I ordered a lace fabric and when it arrived I thought it would look better as a full-length robe,” Manzeck explains. “All the feedback I got was that I should focus on lingerie and I know that everything I do lends itself to that genre,” she explains. Shortly after graduation, Manzeck founded her company, Madalyn Joy Designs. Working out of a studio in downtown Port Washington, Manzeck creates custom robes, pajamas and bodysuits.
At MFW 2017, Manzeck’s uniquely beautiful lingerie collection won her the Designer of the Year award and as Manzeck explains, luck had very little, if anything, to do with it. “I put in over 500 hours of work and I think it showed. I put a lot of time, thought and energy into every detail from the models to the accessories, the garments, the hair and the makeup.”
The resulting collection delivered exactly the vibe Manzeck envisioned. “I wanted to change people’s views about lingerie. My work comes from an elegant and sophisticated place. Because there are people of all ages at fashion week, the organizers wanted to make sure it wasn’t too revealing,” she explains. “It was mainly bodysuits and tiered tulle skirts done in a very modest way. The skirts are editorial for photo shoots and fashion shows and the bodysuits can be paired with jackets and pants or when you’re at home you can wear the bodysuit on its own.”
Manzeck is currently focusing on her bridal line Bespoke. “I make custom lingerie,” she explains. “I don’t have any inventory. It’s all specifically created for each customer.” Manzeck’s clients are young women, frequently brides and college students seeking a certain type of bodysuit, bra or bralette that, depending on the material, can cost $100 to $400. “I make a lot of robes and bodysuits for a bride to wear on her wedding day. Brides are willing to devote the time and money it takes to get a custom-made piece,” she adds.
While Manzeck is committed to staying close to home, she does recognize the challenges facing local designers. “There’s a lack of a fashion industry in Milwaukee,” she explains. “I don’t have a mentor and there aren’t many boutiques. But this is where my roots are and there’s a group of designers here who are passionate about helping grow the fashion industry.” Manzeck’s ultimate goal includes maintaining a presence in the local fashion scene while branching out. “I’d love to have a flagship store here and other locations around the world,” she adds.
Family’s Powerful Inspiration
Victoria Sterr wore a white polo shirt and a plaid skirt to school almost every day at St. Anthony Parish School in Menomonee Falls, so the rare uniform-free days were important to this aspiring designer. “I had so much built-up creative energy, I basically became a walking rainbow,” Sterr recalls. “I’d wear lots of color, wild prints, very sparkly shoes and I went way over the top to express myself.”
Later, as a student at uniform-free Menomonee Falls High School, Sterr took as many art and fashion courses as possible, so majoring in fashion design at Mount Mary University was an obvious next step. When tragedy struck Sterr’s family, she turned it into inspiration. “My father passed away from cancer right before I started college and his memory served as motivation and strength for me to pursue my dreams,” Sterr recalls. She kept her father, Harvey, close in her heart as she trained for a career in fashion design. “I wanted to translate my reflections and infuse his memory into my collections but my dad wasn’t really big on fashion and wasn’t a stylish person by any means,” Sterr adds. She took one of her father’s signature looks and used it as theme for her senior collection. “My dad really loved Hawaiian shirts, which can be seen as tacky, but I based my color palette on the tropical feel and used his favorite color (of) orange along with blues and greens to create my own cool Hawaiian print,” she explains.
Another family member inspired Sterr to eliminate gender stereotypes and promote androgyny in fashion. “My senior year in college, my family found out that my younger brother Cole was gay and I wanted to support him. We’re all very accepting and very proud of him for having the courage to express who he is,” she says. Sterr created four pieces for her senior collection where she incorporated the idea of androgyny. “I wanted to bring more of a feminine edge to the men’s outfits. A lot of men don’t want to be associated with being feminine but it’s perfectly acceptable to identify that way,” Sterr adds.
Not only did Cole inspire his sister’s collection, he and their brother Wyatt modeled in Sterr’s show. Sterr knows she wouldn’t have had quite as big a cheering section with any other models. “Most of my family came to support my brothers’ modeling debut. They were a big hit and they did very well in the show,” Sterr says.
For MFW 2017, Sterr wanted to take a less serious turn. “I was inspired by the ’60s mod era,” she explains. “It’s women’s wear and I call it, ‘Twiggy Take 2.’ … I wanted this one to be more lighthearted. I had bright colors, bold florals and geometric retro-feeling prints. I made six pieces and incorporated dimension with pleated styles and shiny metallic textured denim.”
Sterr currently works as a textile artist for Bon-Ton stores while working on her own brand, Vic•Tor, in her spare time. “My 9-to-5 job is hourly so I have some flexibility and I’m using this corporate job to support my creative endeavors,” Sterr says. “I work a long day on Thursday and I work on Vic•Tor on Friday afternoons.”
She has plans to expand her company in the future and ultimately wants to have a local and national presence in the fashion world. “I will always consider Milwaukee my home, but I would eventually like to move to the East Coast and still showcase collections here,” she adds. “I’d like more people to know that we have a lot of really great local talent in Milwaukee.”
Turning Food Into Fashion
Ever mash an avocado or chop an onion and imagine creating a beautiful color out of the skin? Probably not. But Heidi Steckel does. This resourceful designer takes avocado and onion skins, boils them, then uses the resulting colorful liquid to create organic dyes, which she turns into uniquely lovely fabrics.
Growing up in Cedarburg, Steckel was captivated by the creative process. “I always loved arts and crafts. My mom taught me how to sew in elementary school. The first thing I made was a crossbody, floral, fabric purse. I’m a sucker for floral fabrics,” Steckel admits. “I was fascinated watching one single ply of fabric go from two dimensional to three dimensional.”
In Cedarburg High School’s fashion sewing classes, Steckel discovered her passion. “I started to think about what I wanted to do but I was more interested in the aesthetics; I knew I wanted to go into some type of design.” But a fashion career wasn’t initially on Steckel’s radar. “A family friend told me her daughter was majoring in fashion design in college and I said, ‘Oh, you can do that?’” Steckel chose Iowa State University’s apparel design program with the obvious objective of laying the groundwork for a fashion career and bringing her inspirations to life. “I would see different designs pop up in my head and I wanted to learn to make them come to life,” Steckel adds.
While working on her senior collection at Iowa State, Steckel found her niche. “It was cool to learn the whole process of making your own patterns and designing your own line of clothes,” she recalls. “I did children’s wear. …I like designing clothes for kids in the four to nine-year-old range. The clothes are playful and look like a kid would wear. I like to embrace childhood and playfulness.”
A desire to create environmentally friendly designs led to the avocado and onion obsession. “I’m really interested in the sustainable side of fashion, which is why I make natural dyes out of food waste,” she explains. While most designers visit fabric stores to create their clothes, Steckel hits up grocery stores and asks for scraps. “I go to Sendik’s and Whole Foods where they make fresh guacamole and I say, ‘can I take your avocado skins?’ They’re super nice about it!” Steckel explains. “I can store them in the fridge and they last a couple of months.”
Steckel boils avocado skins in one pan and onions in another and, after straining them several times, the results are totally organic and quite beautiful when applied to cotton or silk. “The avocado skin makes a rosy pink color and the onions give you a golden color,” she says.
Half of the six outfits Steckel created for Milwaukee Fashion Week were made out of fabrics Steckel dyed using this process; her hard work paid off when Steckel won the award for MFW’s 2017 Most Wearable Art. Steckel currently designs custom children’s clothes for family and friends and created Wildflower by Heidi, which she hopes to turn into an Etsy shop.
Steckel has no immediate plans to leave home. “For now, I plan to stay in Milwaukee, even though I’m interested in sustainable fashion, which is more popular on the West Coast,” she says. “I’d like to be with a company that has a sustainable side and is involved in social justice and has a good mission statement, but for now I like the idea of selling my designs at farmers’ markets, art shows and on Etsy. I’m not super high volume or mass production.”