As a child growing up in Louisville, Frankie Lewis dreamed of being a singing, writing, designing psychologist. Or maybe she would be a cook, an actor, or a hairdresser.
In her own way, the entrepreneur who goes by the moniker Frankie Lew has become a little bit of each of those things as a fashion designer who creates clothes that embrace all kinds of body shapes and sizes.
“The Frankie Lew brand is now about freedom,” she says. “Be who you are, whoever that is, and don’t care about what anybody else thinks about it.”
Lewis, who now lives in Los Angeles, was a contestant on the reality television series Project Runway earlier this year. She appeared on KET’s Connections to talk about her work and her fashion philosophy. The program also featured RaeShanda Johnson, a stylist and fashion boutique owner in Louisville.
A Dream Comes True
When Lewis got the phone call about being on Project Runway, she thought it was a scam. She had applied for the show before, but had been rejected.
But this call turned out to be real. The producers wanted Lewis to reapply for the show. She auditioned, sent in demo videos, and prayed, she says. Then, the day before her birthday, she got the good news: She would be a contestant on the popular Bravo TV series.
Lewis says she was so excited she cried. The show she says she “obsessed over” for years selected her as one of 16 designers to be featured on its 17th season.
Then she got nervous.
“It’s one thing to sit on the couch and talk about what you could do,” she says. “But when you’re in the moment, and you see the cameras, and you see the lights and the set, you realize, this is real.”
The reality-show format also meant that Lewis had to adapt to being around cameras both on set and at home. She says her theater background helped her get comfortable with the experience. She had studied at Louisville’s Youth Performing Arts School, and then she got a degree in theater with an emphasis on acting and costume design at the University of Louisville. That’s where Lewis started sewing and making her own clothing.
“All clothes are costume,” Lewis says. “You’re trying to decide how you want to look at this moment in time.”
Creating ‘Wearable Art’ for Women of All Sizes
After college, Lewis did stitching, costume design, and styling for U of L as well as the Louisville Ballet and other local groups. She also worked on a recent concert tour for the pop singer Pink, and has been a featured designer at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft’s annual couture runway show.
“I am obsessed with creating wearable art, whenever I can afford to do it,” says Lewis. “It is expensive for the artist to create… It’s also hard to know if anyone will purchase those items once you’ve created them.”
So being selected to appear on Project Runway was a huge break for Lewis. But she was eliminated in the second episode of the 14-week contest.
“It was very tough,” Lewis says. “I took that as my personal challenge from God that this was not about Project Runway, this was not about TV or fame, this was about you learning how to overcome no – to not take that and internalize it and give up.”
The soul-searching that followed helped Lewis discover a new sense of freedom to pursue the work that means the most to her.
“It’s just reminded me that there’s so much more world out there for me to go tackle,” Lewis says. “You will live, you can do it, you can make it… Success on your own terms is attainable, and success on your own terms is the best kind of success.”
Now based in Los Angeles, Lewis creates custom clothing designs for women. Some projects she’s able to turn around in a few days, while other items may take three or four months to create. She says her designs can cost as much as $900, but she’s also willing to work with the budget constraints of her customers. Her goal is to create designs that embrace all kinds of body types, not just the pencil-thin models that walk most fashion runway shows.
“I believe that women, men included, are all very individual in their body types and body shapes,” she says. “We shouldn’t shame anybody or make anybody feel less than if they don’t fit the ideal.”
Lewis carries this body-positive ethos into her fashion shows, where she selects models that reflect a range of sizes, skin colors, and ages. She says she’s proud to bring more diversity to high fashion.
“Instead of worrying about what other people are doing in the industry to change, what am I doing to help that change move forward?” says Lewis. “It can’t be someone else’s responsibility. It has to be mine if I want to see real change.”
A Shared Love of Women’s Clothing
Earlier in her career, Lewis became friends with another Louisville fashionista, RaeShanda Johnson, who owns a boutique named All Is Fair in Love and Fashion.
“We occupy two different spaces in the fashion world,” says Lewis of Johnson, “but we bond over the fact that we love women, and we love women’s clothes.”
Johnson took a very different path into the fashion industry. The Army veteran and mother of four gave up a job as a financial aid officer at Kentucky State University to start a non-profit organization devoted to helping teen mothers.
“I had my oldest daughter when I was just 13, and I wanted to go back to my hometown in Mississippi and save everybody,” Johnson says.
But within months, her life savings and her military benefits were stolen from her. Destitute and homeless, she moved back to Kentucky and found a room for her and her children at an extended-stay hotel. As she worked to regain financial stability, she began posting fashion advice on her Facebook page.
“I’ve always been overdressed,” Johnson says. “I had heels on in high school.”
Johnson’s tips soon attracted tens of thousands of followers, one of whom helped her to start her own retail operation. That became the boutique in downtown Louisville that Johnson operates by appointment for busy women who need help finding the right fashions. To create a positive, welcoming atmosphere, Johnson says she has two rules for her clients.
“One is we do not beat up on ourselves in the dressing room because we are own worst enemy,” she says. “And two, you have to come out of the dressing room, no matter how you think you look in [the clothes].”
Johnson’s passions go beyond fashion. Her fashion shows raise money for veterans and to fund scholarships for teen mothers. She also seeks to empower women who struggle with body image concerns, mental health challenges, or even financial problems.
“Her gift is actually giving back and encouraging others,” says Louisville model Gwendolyn Brashear.
And like Frankie Lewis, Johnson wants to promote more diversity to the industry. She says her customers want to see themselves reflected in the models and clothing featured at fashion shows.
“They want to see real plus-size people on the runway with the tummy, with the butt,” Johnson says. “It is about not letting people think that they’re invisible.”