From farmhouse to fashion: “Project Runway” contestant Tessa Clark puts local style on primetime

Tessa Clark lived a fairytale childhood. She grew up in a renovated barn in the small town of Greenville, Ohio. Outside, there were picturesque woods and a gristmill. Her mother was a potter, her father, a miller. For fun, she made and sold her own greeting cards to their rural neighbors at a roadside stand.

At 27 years old, the small town girl continues to live a fairytale life. Currently, it takes place in the city — and on national television.

Season 17 of Project Runway premiered on Bravo this past Thursday, March 14th, and Clark was among the 17 talented fashion designers chosen to compete. The show challenges artists with a new project each week. It follows them from inspiration to fabrication to competition in a fashion show — and then to judging and, ultimately, elimination, until only the strongest designer is left standing.

A $250,000 prize is up for grabs, so the competition is intense. That type of money and the fame that comes with it are hefty assets to aspiring designers trying to get their wares produced and sold.

Clark’s road from farmhouse to fashion star was fraught with artsy indecision. She began her college education as a fine arts major, then gravitated toward graphic design, finally coming to rest on fashion design as a career choice, much to her mother’s delight.

Seven years after beginning college, Clark graduated from UC’s DAAP program and hit the ground running. As a result of her educational dabbling and meticulous choices, she’s found her true calling and is living a life many 20-somethings can only dream about.

One hour before the Project Runway premier watch party and fashion show featuring her designs at the 21c Museum Hotel in downtown Cincinnati, Clark is being pulled in several different directions. Half-dressed models bustle about a hotel room as Clark directs clothing choices and manages logistics questions while being interviewed — never missing a beat. She smiles almost constantly with a wide, childlike grin, and her pale skin glows from beneath her jet-black hair, cut cleanly in a modern, pageboy style.

“It was exhausting, but I thrive in under-pressure environments,” she says of her experience competing on Project Runway. “And I loved having the prompts of the challenge. It’s like being back in school, kind of. It weirdly felt like sewing camp.”

Clark feels a sense of camaraderie rather than competitiveness with her fellow Project Runway contestants, and is glad to have made designer friends across the nation.

“We all really like each other. We text every day,” she says.

When she’s not competing on national television or hosting her own fashion show, Clark is an average Cincinnati gal working a nine to five.

The entrepreneurship she displayed in childhood is now embodied in a retail fashion boutique, Idlewild Woman, located in Over-the-Rhine. There, she proudly sells her own locally produced line of dressy, minimalist-style women’s clothing, Grind and Glaze, as well as her mother’s pottery and her cousin’s handbags. She says she is attempting to help nurture a daytime leisure setting to complement the thriving nightlife for which OTR is known.

Clark is appreciative of her Cincinnati home for practical reasons.

“I can get a sense of community here, but it still can be a metropolitan city if I want it to be,” she says. “I also love the arts here. I love the food here. And I can afford to live here. That’s a huge part of why I chose to have my business here.”

She wants her fellow Cincinnatians to understand that the fashion and textile trade is not all glitz and glamour. She warns consumers to be aware that the choices they make in clothing have a global impact.

“The textile and fashion industry is one of the largest polluters in the world. It’s so wasteful, and it’s really harming the environment and people who produce clothing — especially in countries where there aren’t a lot of regulations,” she says. “It’s important to me to educate consumers and try to get people to think about where their clothes are made — and not buy something just for the sake of buying.”

Mere moments before her fashion show at the 21c is set to begin and her image and talents are broadcast to the world for the first time on Project Runway, Clark exudes calm, excitement, and pride simultaneously.

“My professors are here. I feel like my entire family is staying here tonight. Cincinnati and Greenville have been so supportive,” she says. “I just feel so loved, and it’s great. I’m excited!”

Season 17 of Project Runway airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on Bravo.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Eliza Bobonick.

Eliza Bobonick is a Cincinnati-based writer and a mother of three. Her work has been featured in such local and regional publications as Cincinnati CityBeat and Kentucky Homes and Gardens Magazine. She is a former musician whose interests include photography and interior design.