FAYETTEVILLE — Local designer Leslie Pennel imbues her designs with the same elements of inventiveness and whimsy as her dreams.
“I want to get an RV, set up my sewing machines and just travel around from city to city, making my clothes and dropping them off to boutiques. That’s like my ultimate goal,” enthuses Pennel, with a mischievous grin that is quickly followed by her boisterous laugh. “I think it would be a lot of fun.”
Such an off-the-wall idea might engender incredulity, but when it comes to Pennel and her line Esque, one gets the feeling that anything is possible.
Pennel has been hand-making the clothes that make up her line, Esque, since 2005. She approaches each individual piece with the eye of a true artist, sewing innovation and versatility into each design. Whether it’s her one-size-fits-all wrap dresses, her cape tees for women up to size 14 or her drawstring dresses that can be worn nine different ways, these are clearly not your average cut-and-sew pieces.
“I try to make pieces that do a lot of different things, but still have a vintage feel,” said Pennel.
Hailing from tiny Morrow in extreme west Washington County, Pennel graduated from the apparel studies program at the University of Arkansas and has since cut a defined path to her dream job designing her own line. Her first jobs out of college included fabric testing at a consumer testing lab and managing the alterations department for David’s Bridal.
“That’s where I really learned to sew,” she said of David’s, referring to her time spent dealing with the complex layers of the average wedding dress.
Esque started with Pennel’s basic idea of making stencil-and-spray paint T-shirts and selling them at the now-defunct Fayetteville shoe boutique, Snapdragon. Over seven years, Pennel has taken Esque from a brand with simple origins to a line that once piqued the interest of producers of a Project Runway-type reality TV show. However, in keeping with her thoughtful DIY ethos, Pennel turned down the show's advances, and with it, an opportunity that most would see as a shortcut to instant notoriety.
“I still have the paperwork,” said Pennel. “I just feel like they pick the people who will fight with each other the most. I’m more focused on my designs than being on a reality TV show.”
She has hand-delivered dresses to Broadway starlets in New York City, and her designs have garnered interest from boutiques as far flung as Portland, Oregon.
Pennel has shown her wares in dozens of fashion shows, including the Designer’s Choice Fashion Preview in Little Rock in March of 2010. She’s been invited back to the show again this year as one of five All-Star designers.
She will premiere her latest collection tonight (March 8) at the first-ever NWA Fashion Week.
Fans of Pennel’s work should expect to see her casual, Bohemian silhouettes that portray an easy, timeless quality, influenced by ideas and styles ranging from actress Edie Sedgwick to flamenco to classic movies like Auntie Mame.
“I love her designs, and I love that they are for real women of all shapes and sizes,” said fashion week founder and Lola boutique owner Jade Terminella.
In the show hosted by her adopted hometown, she’s rolling out an all-black-and-white collection that will even include her first foray into evening wear.
“I’m doing some bigger showpieces,” said Pennel. “With this event, I want to really show people what I can do.”
What Pennel can do seems to grow more varied by the month. She recently designed her first wedding dress, which led to her being approached by She Said Yes Bridal to do custom bridal designs.
“There’s a limit to what I can and will do, though,” said Pennel. “I’m not going to make crazy, $30,000 dresses that take me a year to make, obviously, but [I’ll make] something for the little hippie chick, something a little more boho.”
Pennel’s immediate goal, however, is to gain further national exposure for Esque.
“I have a friend in Portland who is starting a stylist’s closet,” said Pennel. “So, I’d like to get my clothes in there and then hopefully through that get them in some bigger, national magazines. I’m going to have to branch out if I want to keep doing this and stay here in Fayetteville.”
Perhaps, the RV will have to wait.
Esque is available locally at Lola and Maude boutiques.