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Designer Sheila Frank went to school to be an artist, but encouragement from her professors led her to pursue a career in fashion. After an internship at Charlotte Ronson, she struggled to find a job in the industry and ended up moving back to her parents' house in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania—an area not exactly known for being a hotbed of fashion and design. Despite the challenges, Frank has built her own fashion line and has even expanded into new categories like jewelry. Racked spoke to her during a break from her day job to find out just how she's accomplished it.
How did you get your start?
"I went to Moore College of Art & Design and before that I went to Pennsylvania College of Art & Design where I studied fine arts. All of my projects started to center around fashion so my professors persuaded me to do fashion. I had never dreamt of being a fashion designer but it all kind of unfolded. During my studies at Moore I received a lot of awards and when I graduated, I moved back home to Harrisburg, PA."
Behind the scenes of a lookbook shoot.
"I didn't seek to be my first company when I first started. I was looking to move to the city, New York, like everybody else and work for someone. It's funny how it happened. I kept hearing [in interviews] that I wasn't the right fit, that I should go do this for myself. That was 2007. I don't know how it all began, I just jumped into it and did a lot of research and started my own company!
I put a website together through Yahoo and I found people. The internet is how everything happened for me. Years ago, the only way you'd make it in fashion is if you were in New York. But time have changed. The stuff that I do is pretty much online and the majority of my sales are online."
Samples in the designer's studio.
Are you still in Harrisburg?
"Yep. I produce locally. I have a little team. When I first began I started with swimwear. I don't know if you're familiar with Newville, PA—they actually do, well they did, costumes for dance companies. So I found them. I launched my first swimwear collection in 2008 and they did swimwear for me. They closed last year so that's why the whole relaunch came about. Right now we're manufacturing with my own team. It's crazy, it's really overwhelming.
The jewelry [in my line]—I met this girl randomly and she did glass jewelry and we started doing a project together. I'm keeping her very busy right now."
You interned with Charlotte Ronson, is that right?
"Yes, it was when I was a junior at Moore College. It was a great experience because they were still very new. It was neat because I got to see the growth of a company. They started out so small and it was so amazing to see [how they grew].
When you're in school, you learn how to create a pattern, how to design, how to sketch properly. But you don't learn how to do a lineup and how to style a look. I got to learn the little things like having casting calls. I was on location for a campaign shoot and a lookbook shoot, and we didn't learn any of that stuff in school."
A shot from the moody fall/winter '13 lookbook.
Why did you start with swimwear?
"Honestly, because I could not find a swimsuit for myself that I liked and I was really into the retro style. But they still weren't modern enough for me. I made a swimsuit for myself and I was like oh my god, this is great. And then I found a pin-up model, Bernie Dexter, who's in California and makes a crazy-good living off of being a pin-up model. I had her model the swimsuit for me and then that just blew up so fast. It was a little too fast for me when I was just starting out and didn't know what I was doing.
I've learned that swimwear is a hard market because it's kind of a niche style, too. I wanted to go back, reign it in to what I really want to do, which is really the art of fashion. It's evolved over the past five years, especially with this latest collection. I'm using different types of fabric, finding new uses for fabric, getting more into the art part of it. And it's working!"
A hang tag. Image via Sheila Frank/Facebook.
How have you built a business in the middle of PA?
"It's crazy. At first, I was here by fluke—I had to move home because I just wasn't finding a job. And I kept fighting it, thinking I needed to be in a city. This past year, this is going to sound so cliche, I had a reawakening. And I know that, as a designer, I love the hyperness of the city but I also really love the laid-back calmness that this area gives me. And this area is just so inspiring.
To find [staff], I looked for a lot of artists. Harrisburg has a really nice art culture that I'm learning about. I've been meeting a lot of great people. It's interesting because not everything has to be done in New York or LA—it's cool to see what's happening in this area.
I will be honest and say that I still do have a full-time job."
Another image from the fall/winter 2013 lookbook.
What's your other job?
"I'm an executive assistant at a dental laboratory. They make teeth. I don't talk about that much, cause people don't need to know that! They build the teeth and mold them with porcelain. I [got into it because] needed a job when I graduated. I needed to pay my student loans and fund my business. People at my [day] job don't know what I do on the side. I'm like two different people."
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