Passion for Fashion from Vanessa Walilko

Last weekend Ellen March, our editor-in-chief, judged the Passion for Fashion show at the American Sewing Expo. 12 contestants were given a mystery theme and $100 to purchase supplies from the expo floor. They then had roughly 36 hours to make a garment.

One of the contestants, Vanessa Walilko told an inspiring story about her garment. We asked for her take on the Passion for Fashion Sewing Challenge, and she delivered. Here is Vanessa’s story:

This past weekend, I participated in the Passion for Fashion competition at the American Sewing Expo. I found out about the competition a few years ago when I was aggressively searching for every contest and competition I felt I was remotely qualified to enter. While the timing didn’t work out for the past two years, this year my schedule was wide open and I decided to apply. When I was chosen as a finalist, I was thrilled and honored! After the excitement wore off, I started feeling anxious.

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I’m a jewelry designer by trade and a good amount of the clothes that I make are made of metal. I’ve been sewing since I was a kid and I love it, but I tend to work at a more lackadaisical pace at home.  After I received the letter to finalists outlining the timetable for the show, I knew that I was in for an intense experience. Thankfully my summer schedule full of art fairs kept me too busy to do much worrying about the show, but I was concerned about being able to finish an outfit in the time allowed.

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However, I got lucky because I was able to select the model and inspirational insect image that first called out to me. My inspirational insect was the Baltimore Checkerspot. It is a beautiful butterfly, and early in the morning on the first day of the challenge, I found the perfect fabric.

Becky Fulgoni, our mentor for the weekend, asked us all what our story was for our design. I knew as soon as I was able to pick that butterfly: the story was my own. My name means butterfly, my business is Kali Butterfly, and I’ve spent the past three years doing daring things and taking risks to completely break out of my personal cocoon and be free.

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The outfit was a way to express my journey. I used the initial fabric I found to make a pillowy jacket that would serve as an abstract cocoon. It was gathered with elastic on the bottom and in the sleeves. The dress underneath would be the butterfly. I decided to make the dress in black and red because red is a more passionate color than orange. Plus, black and red are two of the first colors that babies are able to distinguish (tying into the whole theme of rebirth―I got really deep with this outfit).

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The dress itself is an abstract butterfly. The two straps on the shoulder represent antenna. The spaces between the red/black sequin fabrics are the veins of butterfly wings. The sequin fabric was my favorite part of the piece even though it was a bear to hand sew to the bodice of the dress. Aside from being attention grabbing, the sequins were a nod to the structure of a butterfly’s wings. Butterflies are covered in thousands of hair-like scales. (Their order, lepidoptera, means “scale wings.”)

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I told the judges all these descriptions, and that the dress represented my journey as a designer. What I didn’t tell the judges is that the outfit I made was dedicated to my grandfather. Three years ago, in the last conversation I had with him before dementia stole his ability to speak, he held my hands and said to me, “Enjoy every minute of your life ‘cause it’s all you get. Spend time with nice people.” For most of my life, I had hidden myself away from the world, doing what I loved in the safety and comfort of my home. After that conversation, I decided to take risks and make my life-long dream of working as a designer a reality. I wouldn’t have even applied to the contest were it not for my grandfather. Every day I more thoroughly realize how magical he was.

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It was an awesome and exhausting weekend that pushed me creatively and made me work outside of my usual skill set. The only thing I won was a stuffed bat from a crane machine at Meijer (I love a crane machine), but the free magazines will keep me busy with projects for the next few months. I also made a lovely new friend and met some very talented designers. I would recommend everyone who loves to sew to apply to the contest. There is no other experience like it.

Vanessa Walilko lives in Illinois, where she makes her one-of-a-kind jewelry and chainmaille. If you are lucky enough to live near Chicago, she would love to teach you a thing or two about jewelry making. Pop over to Vanessa’s fantastic website, or read more of her inspiring tales on her blog,

(All images in this post are property of Vanessa Walilko.)

 Passion for Fashion from Vanessa Walilko
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