Seattle designer creates with a uniquely Norwegian inspiration and imagination

Fashion flight of fantasy reaches new heights

By Lori Ann Reinhall

Seattle designer Madison Leiren will celebrate her Norwegian heritage with her first runway show at the new Nordic Museum on Norwegian Constitution Day on May 17, 2018, featuring her ready-to-wear line and magnificent custom gowns as seen on the model above. / Photo: Calysta Sarah

When you first encounter Madison Leiren somehow doesn’t fit the usual stereotype of a fashion designer. Sweet, down-to-earth, and demure, she is the opposite of the “devil who wears Prada.”

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting her in my home for my own private trunk show to learn about her custom work and new ready-to-wear line, and I learned that kindness and high fashion can, despite all preconceived notions, go hand-in-hand. In the case of Leiren Designs, the result is something very special and, above all, very Nordic in a unique way of its own.

Madison Leiren was born in Canada into a Norwegian immigrant family, and while she has only been to Norway once, her Norwegian heritage has always played an important role in her life. The family has its roots outside of Bergen, in the areas around Dale and Voss, rich in folk tradition.

As a young girl, Madison grew up with Norwegian food, Norwegian traditions, and Norwegian fairy tales. “There were always a lot of stories about the old county in our family,” she told me, “and our houses were filled with trolls.” It made a big impression on her as a little girl, who has always been intrigued by a world of mythical fantasy. Even to this day, Madison is a huge fan of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and she loves Viking history and legend.

An affinity for Viking lore is in Madison Leiren’s blood, and she creatively incorporates historical costume elements into her designs, giving them a modern twist. / Photo: Calysta Sarah

This interest in Viking lore is without a doubt something in Madison Leiren’s blood. Her uncle, Dr. Terje Leiren, is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington and is regarded as a leading expert on Viking history. As I talked with Madison, it took me back to the days when I sat in his classes forty years ago, as I found myself swept away by visions of fjords, long ships, and helmeted warriors of the Viking era. For Madison, it was the clothing of this Viking world that made the biggest impression, and she was inspired to participate in reenactments at festivals around the area, including the Nordic Museum’s summer Viking Days.

The designer’s interest in period clothing continues down to the Baroque period, and she loves the fine embroidery and opulence of the men’s Rococo court jackets. Madison also admires the precise tailoring of the Victorian era, always looking to history for ideas to reshape in her own work.

And then there are the traditional Norwegian folk costumes, with their bright colors and embroidery. All the women in her family have one of their own, and Madison proudly wears a Bergensbunad that was handed down to her from her aunt.

Leiren’s colors are reminiscent of Norwegian nature: icy blues, deep forest greens, wildflowers in all colors of the rainbow, iridescent shades like the frothy foam of the sea. / Photo: Rhoscoe Coquia

With time, the Leiren family made its way to the United States, landing in Pasadena in sunny Southern California for several years before landing in the Pacific Northwest. Madison grew up in Friday Harbor in northern Washington’s San Juan Islands, but after graduating from high school, her interest in fashion took her back to California, where she studied at Pasadena City College and the Art Center in Los Angeles.

The move was a natural one, L.A. a center of art and design with its famous garment district. Leiren learn the tricks of the trade, both the creative and technical elements required for a career in fashion. She returned to Seattle, where she completed internships with industry heavyweights including Luly Yang. She learned about the various roles and components that go into producing and marketing a successful collection: design, construction, makeup, and photo shoot — and she loves them all.

The designer crafts her dresses in flowing fabrics that are all at once beautiful, comfortable, and practical. / Photo: Calysta Sarah

Madison incorporates an element of fantasy in her dresses, crafting them in flowing fabrics. She often embellishes them with buttons or buckles that come from Norway or are custom crafted after Viking patterns. Her colors are reminiscent of Norwegian nature: icy blues, deep forest greens, wildflowers in all colors of the rainbow, iridescent shades like the frothy foam of the sea. Her trip to Norway a few years back left a deep impression as experienced the colors of the Nordic skies, the purples and reds of the sunrise and sunset. She encountered the dramatic landscape of the mountains and fjords, and it has left a lasting impression on her work.

But there is also a practical aspect to Leiren’s designs. The gowns and dresses in her ready-to-wear collection are designed for the woman who requires a sense of freedom and security in her fashion choices. Many of the pieces can be dressed up for a gala, but also dressed down to wear for a date night or a casual shopping day on the town. A carefree spirit might even put on a pair of sandals and throw a basket over her arm and wear the same dress to a farmer’s market.

For this reason, Leiren carefully selects fabrics that will wash and wear well, with many garments crafted in easy-to-care-for viscose. Off the rack, these dresses sell for $650–700, with blouses and skirts starting around $200. They are designed for timeless appeal and produced with quality to last.

Leiren is highly sought after for her custom designs. / Photo: Calysta Sarah

Madison Leiren is also highly sought after for her custom design, which is no wonder, given the extraordinary detail and craftsmanship put each creation. She is known for the intricate jeweled details of her evening gowns, which require hours of hand sewing. She will first meet with a client and get a sense of what they would like and then makes suggestions to ensure they will be satisfied with the final result.

The cost for custom orders generally starts around $1,000 and can go up to $5000, depending on the fabric and detail of the design. Leiren is celebrated for her bridal designs, elaborate wedding gown creations of heirloom quality to be passed down from generation to generation.

But making it as fashion designer in today’s world carries its challenges, as it is not always easy to get clients to understand the cost and value of a quality garment. In Madison’s view, “fast fashion” has had a negative impact on the industry, as shoppers have become accustomed to the low prices offered by mass clothing retailers. This inexpensive clothing, however, often comes with an extremely high price to the both the environment and the humans involved in its production in less fortunate developing countries.

For this reason, Madison has chosen to have her garments sewn in Vancouver, B.C., where working conditions are humane and wages are fair. While her hometown Seattle is more focused on the production of sportswear, tents, and nautical sails, Canada, a NAFTA partner, was a good choice just north of the border. The young designer believes that “no one should ever have to suffer for beauty,” and her clothing is a testimony to her beliefs.

With ten years’ of experience behind her now, the innovative designer is now ready for her first major runway show. Most appropriately, it will take place at Seattle’s new Nordic Museum on Norway’s national holiday, Syttende Mai on May 17, at 8 p.m. shortly after the traditional Ballard community parade.

Leiren is working on every detail for her first runway show at the Nordic Museum, from the designs themselves, accessories, hair and makeup, and even floral crowns. / Photo: Calysta Sarah

The Nordic Nights Syttende Mai fashion show will feature about 30 pieces from the new spring collection, inspired by the colors of nature as it awakens from the winter. Set in Fjord Hall with its sweeping ceilings, the designs inspired by the Nordic landscape and mythology will be shown against the perfect backdrop, the long narrow hall forming a natural catwalk.

The majority of the designs to be featured will be form the ready-to-wear collections, with a few custom and wedding pieces highlighted. Leiren is working to ensure that every detail will be in place, from handpicked vintage accessories, perfect hair and makeup, to beautifully crafted floral crowns.

Tickets to the this special way to celebrate the 17th of May will be available to for $18 for museum members, and $20 for non-members, with details forthcoming at www.nordicmuseum.org/events/syttendemaiafterparty. Bar service will be available at the beginning of the evening, and there are plans for a post-show concert.

The evening at the Nordic Museum will be a special opportunity to experience the unique world of Madison Leiren as her fashion flight of fantasy reaches new heights, yet for those not fortunate to be in Seattle, her website offers a portal into this magical realm. Everyone is invited to visit www.leirendesigns.com to view more of the collection and learn more about a distinctively Norwegian-American approach to design.