Making her Mark(s) as a fashion designer

Madison Marks talks with a reporter  at the St. Louis Fashion Fund on Washington Avenue downtown. Madison, who just entered her freshman year at Parkway Central High School, will show some of her designs at an Aug. 18 event  at United Hebrew, raising funds for My Diversity Circle. Photo: Mike Sherwin

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

Madison Marks. Remember the name.

The 14-year-old, who just began her freshman year at Parkway Central High School, is well on the way to realizing her dream as a cutting-edge fashion designer with a unique aesthetic. Her sustainable creations embrace the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, giving new life to used clothes by transforming them through upcycling. 

You can see for yourself on Sunday, when Madison presents her collection of upcycled back-to-school designs at 3 p.m. at United Hebrew Congregation, where she celebrated her bat mitzvah. Madison is the featured designer of the Many Faces of Fashion Show and Tea presented by My Diversity Circle, which highlights diversity in the community by showcasing local young designers and models.

Last week, Madison and her mother, Melanie Marks, met me at the St. Louis Fashion Fund, where Madison has been taking advanced design classes since April. She says she always had an interest in fashion — “I grew up surrounded by women with a lot of personal style” — but didn’t start actively pursuing design until the age of 9, when she took her first sewing class at Joann fabric. 

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“It was like a light flipped on with that class, and it made so much sense for me to continue on that path,” said Madison, noting that while the class got her started sewing, it was too basic and mainstream. 

At Jackman’s Fabrics, however, she found a sewing teacher who stoked Madison’s creativity. “She taught me how to alter patterns and make the right fabric choices so that I could become my own designer and not just follow someone else’s vision,” she said.

Around that time it became clear to Madison, then a third grader, that she needed her own sewing machine. Her parents said they would kick in half of the cost, but Madison had to come up with the rest. Through the Parkway School District’s Granting Dreams Program, for students eager to explore new learning opportunities, she wrote an essay about her “passion for fashion” and was awarded the money to make up the difference.

Wasting no time, Madison began her own business, Clutches for Cancer. She wanted to raise money in honor of her UH religious school teacher who was then battling breast cancer. 

“I made felt clutch purses in different patterns and colors and embellished them. My mom helped me sell them,” said Madison, who raised around $500 through the sale of the clutches for the American Cancer Society.

Melanie Marks is Madison’s No. 1 supporter. Early on, she knew her daughter had a gift, but didn’t know how to best nurture it. So she searched out mentors for Madison, schlepped her to sewing classes in south St. Louis and sent her to a weeklong fashion camp at COCA, which Madison attended for four consecutive summers. 

“I kept complaining to people because I couldn’t find that next step,” said Marks. “Then we met Ellen Soule. We joke that she’s Madison’s fairy godmother.”

Soule, who lives in Clayton and attends Central Reform Congregation, met Marks several years ago in Portland, Ore., when their husbands were attending an American Bar Association conference there. Last year when the conference was in Nashville, the women reconnected and started talking.

“Melanie mentioned that her daughter was interested in fashion and had this talent,” said Soule, a veteran of the fashion industry and past regional director for Fashion Group International. “I told her I would be happy to connect Madison with what St. Louis has to offer fashion-wise and kind of took her under my wing.”

Soule introduced Madison and Marks to Susan Sherman, co-founder of the St. Louis Fashion Fund, which supports emerging designers and promotes fashion education. Soule also invited Madison and her family to several fashion-related events, including the April fundraiser for “Threads” at the Missouri History Museum, where Madison met several designers from her favorite TV show, “Project Runway.” 

“I got to meet three-time (“Runway”) winner Michelle Lesniak, who advised me to keep practicing my craft,” said Madison. “She said I didn’t need to be on the show to feel validated or accomplished as a designer — that the show isn’t a picture perfect experience.”

Sherman, meanwhile, encouraged Madison to take classes at the Fashion Fund, which turned out to be a game-changer. As an assignment for her sustainability and upcycling class, Madison had to transform a pair of men’s 2XL coveralls. After 30 hours of chopping and reconstructing, Madison turned them into a matching cropped jacket and pants ensemble sized to fit an extra-small woman.

“The sizing was the most technical part,” Madison explained. “I learned a lot about tailoring, how to take garments in so they don’t look bunchy and not to force the fabric.”

Particularly challenging were the two back pockets on the coveralls. Madison wound up relocating them to the front of the pants, placing one on the right thigh and the other on the opposite leg, below the knee. “The legs were so wide that I decided to do a jogger-style pant to give the look definition,” she said.

For Sunday’s fashion show, Madison will offer seven different outfits, all of which incorporate clothing and accessories she repurposed from second-hand stores such as her favorite — the National Council of Jewish Women Resale Shop. Marks says her daughter is adamant about only wearing clothes that she has recycled or upcycled.

“It breaks my heart to think of garments going into landfills,” said Madison, who notes that the textile industry is the second largest polluter after the petroleum industry.

“Fast-fashion (from chains like H&M and Forever 21) may bring instant gratification, but too many people are buying items because they are cheap and not because they fall in love with them or the clothes make them feel good,” Madison said. “We can wear fashion in a more sustainable way. Why buy what’s trendy or stylish for only a few months when you can go to a second-hand store and find something that is timeless, better quality and not mass-produced?”

As for her future, Madison isn’t looking to attend college at a fashion institute in New York or Los Angeles; she has her sights set on Washington University. One of the designers at the Fashion Fund, Lisa Hu, suggested Madison strongly consider a four-year college that offers classes in many subjects, including finance and marketing, especially if she one day hopes to run her own design business.

 “To implement a fashion business you have to understand how companies run in order to scale and grow,” said Hu, 33, who received a master’s in accounting from Mizzou and a MBA from Wash U before she launched LUX & NYX, an eco-friendly handbag line in 2018. “Madison is incredibly smart and very talented. She really seemed to understand what I was saying. I could tell it registered.”

With all the support and encouragement she’s been getting from everyone in the St. Louis fashion community, Madison wants to stay put. She’s interested in Wash U because it has well-respected but small fashion program, “so you get a lot of personal attention,” she said. “Some very talented designers have come out of there.

“I’d like a well-rounded education,” she continued. “I want to keep my options open so whether I decide to pursue a more traditional career path or my passion for design, I’ll be better prepared, either way.”

While she obviously has time before making a college decision, one thing Madison is sure about is a name for her future label: Blema.

“It’s my Hebrew name. The closest translation is blossom,” said Madison. “It’s a beautiful name on its own and when you Google it, or look it up, you aren’t going to find a million results, so it’s logical as well as practical.”

Blema. Remember the name. 

Q&A: Get to know 14-year-old fashion designer Madison Marks

Who is your favorite designer?

“Christian Siriano. I love his personality and background. After winning ‘Project Runway’ he became (a household name). His design aesthetic is so amazing with the big dresses he creates. I really wonder what goes on in his head with what he designs.”

Who would you love to dress? 

“I don’t think of a specific celebrity, but a more general person. Someone who is fashion forward and forward thinking and who knows and sees that the future of fashion is sustainability and makes an effort to spread that message. A girl who is edgy and wants to stand out in a crowd. Someone who radiates positive energy because what she is wearing makes her feel more confident.” 

Who first inspired you? 

“My great grandmother (Nana Cookie) who passed away a few years ago. She was one of the most fashionable people I’ve ever known. People think great grandmother and picture someone knitting and having cats. She was beautiful and so stylish. I wear a lot of her clothes; they are some of my favorite pieces.”

What are you working on now? 

“My brother (12-year-old Mason) asked that for his bar mitzvah, I make him something. For his past two birthdays I’ve made him something. He actually uses the Star Wars wallet I made him.”