Cincy Designer Competes on ‘Project Runway’

Tessa Clark will compete on the 17th season of"Project Runway," which will premiere on March 14.

click to enlarge Tessa Clark at Idlewild with one of her 'Grind and Glaze' designs - Photo: Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services
Photo: Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services
Tessa Clark at Idlewild with one of her 'Grind and Glaze' designs

Cincinnatian Tessa Clark is a cast member on the upcoming Season 17 of Project Runway, which begins airing on Bravo March 14. A 2016 graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, she earned a bachelor’s degree in fashion design and later interned for Marchesa and VPL in New York City.

The 17th season of the fashion competition show features some new faces, including host and supermodel Karlie Kloss, judges Brandon Maxwell (fashion designer) and Elaine Welteroth (former editor of Teen Vogue), plus longtime judge Nina Garcia (editor of ELLE). Project Runway Season Four winner Christian Siriano will mentor the 16 designers. The winner of this season will go home with $250,000.

“I obviously have heard of Project Runway and watched for years. I always thought it would be really fun,” says Clark in a phone interview during a New York City buying trip for Idlewild, the women’s clothing boutique in Over-the-Rhine owned by her mother and cousin, for which she acts as manager/assistant buyer. 

“One of my draws to applying for Project Runway was to sort of show that, hey, there are cool things happening in Cincinnati,” she says. “There are people staying here who are reputable designers who are actually doing something really cool.” 

For Clark, weekdays are spent at Idlewild, and weekends at Sew Valley, a local manufacturing nonprofit where she was one of the first designer-members. The organization gives members the access to resources and tools integral to creating sustainable brands and business models. 

Rosie Kovacs, Sew Valley’s co-owner, forwarded Clark an email last year from Project Runway seeking applicants for the upcoming season. Clark applied and went to a casting call in Chicago before being selected as a contestant. While competing, a new line of clothes for Clark’s brand — named Grind and Glaze — was in production at Sew Valley. 

Clark’s design ethos is centered on the quality of being timeless and sustainable. Grind and Glaze’s small but robust collection — two skirts, two pants, a top, a coat, a dress and a bodysuit — speaks to that notion. It’s an aesthetic that she’s been developing since her time at DAAP, according to Ann Firestone, an adjunct professor who taught Clark pattern-making her sophomore year. 

“Her taste was simple shapes, spectacular fabrics — and she still does that,” Firestone says. “She’s worked on really elevating the shapes of the garments.” 

Clark’s espoused inspiration, both business and creative, comes from her mother’s career as a ceramicist and her father’s career as a miller. 

“My parents are entrepreneurs, and I always knew I wanted to own my own business,” she says. “If I were to move to New York, I would have to work for a larger brand and I didn’t want to sacrifice my values and morals.” 

Many garment lines are produced in factories overseas by vastly underpaid individuals. The deadly Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 (where companies including Walmart and Benetton produced clothing) served as a cautionary tale for Clark, who vowed to be an advocate for the sustainable side of fashion. 

“I think sustainability shouldn’t just be a movement; I think it should be the standard for every fashion business and label,” she says. 

Clark walks that talk; she recently released a limited-time offering of smaller, lower-priced items made from the scraps of her full collection. Items included a neck cuff, a crop top and a T-shirt, designed around and inspired by the concept of utilizing the totality of her fabrics.

“She uses a lot of raw edges and blocking,” says Kovacs. “She’s very interested in minimal waste, so she designs a lot of her patterns to use as minimal fabric as possible; that’s really fun helping her figure out how to do that. Obviously, she’s working directly with us in the cutting room so she can help guide us. She gets the most out of the money she’s invested in this material.”

21c Museum Hotel will host a public viewing party of the Project Runway premiere on March 14, starting at 6:30 p.m. The event includes a cocktail hour and fashion show, featuring Grind and Glaze and Philippe Haas Bespoke Tailoring. Though Clark can’t say how far she goes in the competition, she looks to the future.

“I’m working on a few one-off designs right now for spring. I have no idea what to anticipate being on Bravo in terms of sales,” she says. “I’m just going to work with the small amount of stuff I have right now. Throughout the summer, I’ll introduce a couple new styles. My next big collection release will be for the fall season, so I can work out all the details and get on Sew Valley’s production schedule.” 

For more on Tessa Clark’s Grind and Glaze line, visit

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