Cut from Scandinavian Cloth
Melanie Trygg explores her heritage on the runway
“Project Runway’s” newest season featured a Scandinavian-American designer, Melanie Trygg, who hails from Eastsound, Wash., a town on an island about 100 miles from Seattle.
To apply to Project Runway, you just need to be 21 years of age and a U.S. citizen. Melanie nabbed one of the 16 coveted contestant spots for Season 18. No small feat.
The place where Melanie grew up is magnificent, with blue seas, lush pine forests, open skies, and rocky shores, reminiscent of Norway. The homes are understated and tastefully integrated into the natural environment.
Coming from modest means yet living in a prosperous community meant that the Trygg family had to be frugal and innovative. Inspired by high fashion at a young age, at 12, she tried her hand at it, using her mother’s vintage sewing machine and scraps of fabric or used clothing.
She was accepted at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. However, due to the high tuition cost, she had to leave after her first year. Not one to wait for the paint to dry, she went on to create her own women’s clothing line, KLÄD Apparel.
In her designs, Melanie pays strong attention to detail, with an eye on mitigating the cost of fashion on the environment. The company’s website states: “What do we do to start repairing the wrongs of disposable fashion? BUY LOCAL, HANDMADE GOODS.”
I had the opportunity to speak with Trygg about her passion for fashion, her Scandinavian background, and her dreams for the future.
Victoria Hofmo: How has your need to be frugal impacted how you look at fashion?
Melanie Trygg: I grew up using old clothes and materials from the thrift store to create clothing. Using secondhand materials gave me the freedom to try things out and take design risks without worrying too much about the final result. I learned at a young age that I could make something beautiful out of anything, that the only limit on my creativity was my willingness to pursue it, not the amount of money I had to put in to my creative projects.
VH: I looked at many images of your hometown, Eastsound, on Orcas Island—it is beautiful. How has living there informed your aesthetic?
MT: Living on a small island surrounded by natural beauty has made me slow down significantly. My design process has become both more intuitive and contemplative, and my aesthetic has become even more reverent to the natural palette around me: the water flow matched with the architectural rigidity of rocky cliffs.
Living here, I have an opportunity to see firsthand how what we do as humans and consumers impacts the environment, with less orcas swimming in the ocean, as more shipping tankers sail by in the sea just north of the island. This has made me conscious of how I can make my work more appreciative of natural resources and more sustainable.
VH: Can you speak about your heritage? Have you been to Scandinavia?
MT: My Swedish heritage played an important role in my upbringing. My dad was born in Sweden and emigrated to the United States when he was a young boy. My Swedish grandparents were longtime volunteers at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle and made sure we attended as many Scandinavian celebrations as possible.
I am very proud of my heritage, and I think the impact of it on my design work has been more subliminal than literal. I have a tall and broad “Viking” frame, and because of that, I have always been drawn to draped garments that accentuate those features. The Swedish tendency of restraint, and not overdoing it has also informed my work: I try not to add too much or too little to the detailing of my garments.
Unfortunately, I have never gotten to visit my family in Sweden. It is, however, on my short list of travel destinations. I would love to take my son there to show him our roots.
VH: I have read your style described as follows: “Melanie’s Scandinavian inspired design aesthetic is clean and streamlined, which is achieved with geometric shapes and rich fabrics.” Can you define your idea of a Scandinavian aesthetic?
MT: I see the Scandinavian aesthetic as clean, streamlined, and celebratory of the natural beauty of the materials the design employs: elegant, timeless, and well made.
VH: What made you decide to apply for Project Runway?
I was going through a very tumultuous time in my life. My mother passed away at the end of September 2018, and my son had been born two months prior to that. I had always had the show in the back of my mind and figured if everything else in my life had changed this year, why not go after professional change, too.
VH: As a viewer of “Project Runway,” it looks so stressful to be a contestant. What were the challenges of being on the show and what did you discover about yourself on this journey?
MT: The experience was stressful in unexpected ways for me. I was most stressed about being true to myself and creating garments that were uniquely me. Challenge specifics, team dynamics, time allotment, and material limitations were certainly all things that contributed to stress, but it was largely the stress of knowing how much my family and I were sacrificing to be a part of the show and not wanting to squander the opportunity by creating something inauthentic or boring.
I discovered that I have been really hard on myself and critical of my capability to “make it happen” in terms of my career as a fashion designer. I realized that my upbringing and the way my parents fostered my inclination to be creative have prepared me for whatever path I choose to take forward, it is simply on my shoulders to keep pushing myself and using the skills I have gained.
VH: Can you speak about your custom work? How are you able to make it affordable?
Of everything fashion-related I do, custom design is the most rewarding. I have been lucky enough to work with many clients who trust me as a designer and give me relatively free rein when it comes to concept, styling, and materials. I live for that moment when a new client tries on their custom garment and transforms in front of my eyes. I love the confidence and feeling of “coolness” I get to see my work spark in my client!
I think the word “affordable” is really relative. I think (and hope!) people are start-ng to shift values when it comes to spending money in meaningful ways. I can see the difference between a T-shirt I spend $30 on at a commercial sales rack and something I have made to fit myself with high quality materials. When it comes down to cost per wear, higher quality garments that last will continue to win out over mass-produced garments that may be cheaper from the get-go. With that model in mind, I think a $200 dress that is handmade with naturally dyed materials and can be worn for many years is really quite affordable!
VH: What are your future plans for KLÄD Apparel?
Through the exposure from the show, I look forward to reaching more people that believe in personal style and its ability to help tell the story they are trying to tell. I really resonate with musical artists and activists and would love to build relationships with people in those fields (and any other field, for that matter) who know who they are and want their clothing to match their message. I am also working on an annual five-piece capsule collection of ready-to-wear clothing for grown-ups and possibly kids, too—depending on how willing my baby boy is to model for me.
VH: Is there anything you wish to add? MT: We are living in an uncertain time right now, geopolitically, socially, and culturally. I think that now more than ever, we need to double down on our support of the things that add beauty to our world: art, design, music. Those are the things I live for, and protecting our future generations’ ability to enjoy those things is of utmost importance to me. I think we all have a role in creating a more beautiful future, and I hope in my own small way I can help shift my audience’s appreciation of how what they choose to have in their closets can help build that future.
I watched Episode 5 of Project Runway when Trygg was eliminated. Guest judge Cyndi Lauper was incredibly kind and encouraging upon the designer’s departure: It felt sad, but in my book, Trygg’s ability to merge her values with a successful clothing line, together with her zest for protecting the natural environment and her creativity and tenacity in persevering what she loves, already makes her a winner.
This article originally appeared in the February 7, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.