Initiative 11

Creating, Fostering and Promoting Oklahoma’s Fashion Industry

“Our goal with Runway Tulsa is fairly simple,” says the show’s Executive Producer Jon Terry. “We’re bringing a fashion show to Tulsa meant to entertain, impress and inspire.” Terry is saying a lot in that short description. Runway Tulsa is the public face of Oklahoma Fashion Initiative, a nonprofit organization established to create, foster and promote Oklahoma’s fashion industry. With a focus on education and manufacturing, OFI will utilize educational programs, mentorships and a small batch manufacturing facility to create and develop a fashion district in Tulsa and cultivate fashion talent across the state of Oklahoma.

Runway Tulsa

  • Fashion on the Square

This year marks the second of the annual week of fashion events and activities. The 2017 edition will feature three public events beginning Thursday, September 28th with Fashion in the Square. The free event held each year at Utica Square features a runway show of Utica Square retailers, in-store activities and giveaways, along with a Passport Promotion. For more information on Fashion in the Square visit UticaSquare.com.

  • Fashion Friday

Friday night Runway Tulsa moves into the Cox Business Center’s Assembly Hall for Fashion Friday. This year’s Friday night runway show will feature some of Tulsa’s finest boutiques showing their favorite selections of the season and will close with four of the organization’s specially selected emerging designers. The Fashion Friday show will be produced by Runway Tulsa with 100% of the proceeds going to Martha’s Foundation – a local non-profit organization providing pregnant teens with a safe residence and assisting them in becoming independent and productive community members. Tickets to this event are available at RunwayTulsa.com.

  • Finale

Saturday night, September 30th, Runway Tulsa remains in the Assembly Hall for the 2017 Runway Tulsa Finale. The show, one of region’s best, features four designers from across the United States alongside two of Oklahoma’s finest. “Our intent with the Finale each year is to bring four outstanding designers to Tulsa and always mix in two of our best Oklahoma designers,” says Terry. “We believe this year’s lineup continues the excellent momentum of last year’s show.” The OFI team delights in the fact that when showing photos from last year’s Finale viewers are never able to identify the local designs. This year’s lineup includes: a Project Runway Season Winner from Portland, a Nigerian-born, Canadian transplant, a Miami-based art student turned designer, a self-taught designer recently voted Denver’s Best Fashion Designer, a Tulsa fashion icon, and a young local designer honing his skills at one of the country’s top fashion schools.

The Designers

  • Michelle Lesniak

Native Portlandian and thrift store junkie, Michelle Lesniak hasn’t followed the traditional path down fashion lane. Born into a family of quilters, seamstresses, and interior decorators, needle and thread were predestined to find their way into her hands. From a young age, Michelle took her minimal clothing allowance and hit thrift and vintage stores, where she purchased wacky pieces that she altered to fit her taste. By remaking previously worn garments, she learned construction, destruction, and how to tailor garments.

Michelle continued to fill her closet with her own creations while attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where she studied the art of printmaking. Lithography, silk-screening, etching, and woodblock printing eventually found their way onto fabric and the Michelle Lesniak textile was born. Using these textiles, she constructed artist gowns and sculptures.

Determined to jumpstart her career in fashion, Michelle tried out for Project Runway, landing a spot on Season 11. Her lack of formal training gave her an edge; there were no rules to follow. As a self-proclaimed, professional rule breaker, Michelle won the season and the ability to design full-time.

  • Esé Azénabor

Esé Azénabor’s designs are inspired by the arts and her culture. They are daring, luxurious, extravagant, and shows her artistic side through her beading and attention to detail. The Nigerian-born, Canadian transplant got to Texas as fast as she could, although her arrival on the fashion scene required a few additional detours.

Hailing from a family who considered fashion design more of a hobby than a career, Esé swept her creative urges under the rug. The Azénabor name was grounded in the fields of medicine, law, and engineering, and she, in turn, attended the University of Windsor in Canada, majoring in accounting; and later pursued a Master’s Degree at Southern Methodist University, during which time she started designing dresses for herself, friends and family.

In 2012 Azénabor launched her self-titled ready-to-wear line. Sitting at her sewing machine, she conceptualized her fascination for heavy hand-beading, crocheted lace, exquisite fabrics and embroidery. Inspired by a combination of vintage African, Egyptian, and contemporary European influences, she merged these influences to create the debut of her Couture and Ready-to-wear luxurious collection.

Esé Azénabor has now debuted five collections including her Fall/Winter 2015 collection inspired by Henry, her Spring/Summer 2016 Garden of Eden Collection during New York’s Fashion Week and has proven to be a creative force and an innovative designer to watch.

  • Lisu Vega

Lisu Vega, began her design career fully immersed in the visual art world. As an art student, she explored several art languages, including graphic art, which helped her later to develop her own visual patterns as part of her holistic process of investigation and exploration of concepts and ideas for each project.
Among her runway appearances, Vega has showcased her collections at Miami International Fashion Week, New York Fashion Week 2014 – 2016 in NYC, Dominican Republic Fashion Week, Kansas City Fashion Week, Salon LEXUS and The Collection Moda-Jamaica.
Her work has been recognized and included in art exhibits in the United States and Venezuela; in editorials in publications such as: Ocean Drive Magazine, Venue Magazine, Revista Uno, Tinsel Tokyo Magazine, Complot Magazine, Vogue Magazine, and Innova Magazine; and seen on: Fashion TV, E Entertainment, Cosmopolitan TV, AFP, NBC News, Univision, Telemundo and CNN en Español.
In 2014 Lisu won first prize in the Eastern Air Lines Flight Attendant Uniform Competition and became the Head Designer for Eastern Air Lines from 2014 to 2017. Her clothing lines and accessories are available in exclusive locations in New York, Miami, Atlanta, Panama, Venezuela, Jamaica and Brazil.

  • Gino Velardi

Gino Velardi is a Colorado native who is fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming a fashion designer. Despite no formal fashion design training, Velardi’s dedication, hard work and continuous research have enabled him to establish himself as a working designer. His efforts have been validated with awards and media attention culminated in Gino being voted Denver’s Best Fashion Designer at the first annual Denver Style Expo in 2011.

Velardi’s style focuses on apparel created with luxurious fabrics, elegant designs and fearless sexuality. He has created a niche by providing custom order designs for his clients, with the most often requested being gorgeous evening gowns, flirty cocktail dresses, stylish suits, coats, and one-of-a-kind wedding gowns. Velardi’s vision is to make every woman feel sexy, confident and beautiful when wearing his designs. His grandmother, mother and sister serve as his inspiration enabling him to design for women of any age.

  • Nikki Warren

Tulsan Nikki Warren has been designing ready to wear clothing for women for over 15 years. As a child, she was mesmerized with clothing and fashion. Spawning mainly from her home environment where her mother was an aspiring designer, she was heavily influenced by her mother’s sewing and design. She learned her basic sewing and design skills from her mother, and refined them as she matured as a designer.

Today, Warren creates ready to wear clothing for women in simple and chic silhouettes. She delights in varied fabrics, colors and prints, depending on the season, and enjoys mixing unlikely textiles to create unique looks. In addition to developing her creative vision one of her primary focuses is to create ready to wear collections full of silhouettes that compliment many body shapes and sizes.

  • Raul Flores

“Raul Flores is the prototype Oklahoma Fashion Initiative story,” says OFI’s Associate Director Wade Bray. “Timing is everything, and Raul – while on the leading edge of our program – has everything it takes to be our first real success story!” Flores, who grew up in Tulsa took his considerable talents to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York City last year and hopes to return after the Runway Tulsa Finale. Through their scholarship program OFI hopes to contribute to Flores’ continued development at FIT and believes he has the talent to be the first recipient of their Launch Grant – an annual grant designed to provide financial, marketing, manufacturing and distribution assistance to a designer launching their brand to the world.

Giving Back

In addition to the afore mentioned grant, OFI’s Educational Program utilizes scholarships, mentorships and an intern program to develop designers, merchandisers, and other fashion-related professionals. The scholarship program includes an in-state scholarship program, and an advanced scholarship to send students to elite programs like Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City, and Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) in Los Angeles.

Looking Forward

Phase 3 of Oklahoma Fashion Initiative’s effort is centered around the creation of a small batch manufacturing facility in Tulsa. Small batch manufacturing caters to designers that require lower quantities of their apparel than can be feasibly produced at standard manufacturing facilities. This facility will be constructed to provide apparel in quantities from 6 to 2,000 pieces per unit at prices affordable to developing designers

OFI is currently working with charitable foundations, state and local entities and interested individuals to fund their programs. 
To get involved or get more information about Oklahoma Fashion Initiative visit OklahomaFashionInitiative.org.