Rising Fashion Designer Natalia Fedner Credits Columbus, JCC Origins to Many Successes
Natalia Fedner, rising L.A. fashion designer and recent contestant of Lifetime’s Project Runway: Under the Gunn, has been getting a lot recognition in Hollywood for her unique, knitted haute couture line featuring woven metallics. But her star began to rise from very humble beginnings.
She credits her success to her parents and the Jewish community they chose to immigrate to when she was five years old—Bexley, OH. “We were so lucky to have come to this community. I grew up seeing and learning that just working really hard and being passionate and being good to people can really pay off,” said Fedner, whose family came to the United States from Ukraine 25 years ago.
As tensions continue to escalate between her former homeland and Russia, Fedner acknowledges how fortunate her circumstances have been. “The Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Federation helped us tremendously and were so involved in our immigration success. We were set up with an apartment, furniture, clothing. I owe my success to the JCC and the Federation, and I am so grateful for what America has done for us. I wouldn’t have had a chance to be a fashion designer in Ukraine. What is going on in the Ukraine now really highlights how lucky I am,” Fedner reflected.
Her success goes beyond luck, however. The talented artist aspires to have her garments one day appear in museums such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “When I just pursued my passion to work as an artist and stopped worrying about anything else, that’s when I found success. I believe if you just do what you really love, that it will be okay. I thought, ‘Why don’t I treat this as if I’m developing a gallery exhibit rather than a fashion show?’ That’s when I started creating a line that was more artistic and less built to be mass produced. Each item is handmade and that’s what makes each piece so special,” said Fedner, sharing the story of how she found her identity as a designer after graduating from Parsons the New School for Design in New York in 2005.
It was while at Parsons that Fedner first met her mentor, Tim Gunn. She auditioned for the second season of his reality fashion design competition, Project Runway, but it was not until early 2013 that her envelope-pushing designs would be featured on television screens across America.
Because of her inspired vision, she was one of the final contestants to be eliminated in a late March episode of Project Runway: Under the Gunn. The first season of the Project Runway spin-off hosted by Tim Gunn wrapped in April. It featured 15 up-and-coming designers who were whittled down to three four-member teams, each one being led by mentors from previous seasons of Project Runway— former contestants and successful designers in their own right— Nick Verreos, who mentored Fedner; Anya Ayoung-Chee; and Mondo Guerra.
Fedner recalled the fast-paced challenge of designing a new garment each day, in a matter of hours, as she and her fellow designers competed to win $100,000, a Lexus, and other prizes. “I feel very positive about the whole experience. I learned so much. I just made a garment the other day in a couple hours. Because the show had proven to me that I could do that. The audience is boggled by how quickly we can make stuff—and we as designers are boggled by it, too! Now we all can make a dress in a day! I joke that it’s fashion bootcamp.”
The show was filmed over five-and-a-half weeks during November and December, and as a result, Fedner missed both her favorite holidays: Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. “So the first thing I did when I got back from the show was I made myself a ton of latkes and ate them by myself,” Fedner laughed.
While she admitted the competition was grueling, she never lost her sense of humor or integrity, staying true to herself throughout each challenge. “If you are good to people, good things come back to you. I don’t understand the concept of jealousy or trying to prevent people from succeeding. I really went into this competition with a very non-competitive mindset,” said Fedner.
She came out of the competition with that same mindset, viewing the criticisms she received as learning opportunities. “I think because I was never 100% satisfied with anything I made— because of my very Russian perfectionist nature— I would almost always agree entirely with the judges. I think I was more surprised when the judges would commend me. I would think, ‘Oh, you love it? Awesome!’”
Creating fashionable art has been Fedner’s passion since she was two years old, when she started sketching. She was designing dresses and clothing for her dolls shortly after that. A career in fashion design was a no-brainer for her. “I don’t think I really had a choice, to be honest with you. When I was a little kid, I was inherently designing,” she remembered.
Her Jewish upbringing and values contributed to her design philosophy which states on her website, “Nothing is more fashionable than care.” For Fedner, this means that her empathy for other living creatures far outweighs her desire to capitalize on her design for financial gain.
“As a Jew I think you have almost a greater understanding of the value of human life, especially if you’re like me and your own grandparents survived the Holocaust. You cannot help but maybe care a little bit more. That empathy for other living creatures, combined with empathy for human life, all that definitely contributed to my fashion design philosophy,” Fedner ruminated.
Fedner has been building a reputation for her intricate designs and outside-the-box, creative celebrity styling. For the Academy Awards, Fedner styled Joanna DeGeneres, sister-in-law of show host Ellen. More recently, singer and The Voice judge Shakira took Fedner’s entire haute couture collection with her to Spain for the shoot of a music video. “She loved one of my dresses so much she asked to buy it. I was absolutely thrilled and humbled – I’m a huge fan of Shakira and her music,” said Fedner.
But she started out working in a very different world from Hollywood: at the Columbus Jewish Community Center in the women’s health center. During high school, between cheerleading practice and editing Bexley High School’s magazine, Fedner found time to work at the JCC where she said she learned many life lessons she applies today, including the importance of humility. “I worked at the JCC as a lifeguard, too. I started out as a health club attendant. You know, those old Jewish ladies, they don’t care, they were so friendly, and I was only 13 or 14 at the time,” said Fedner.
She has fond memories of her years growing up at the JCC, including when, in second grade, she attended JCC summer camp for the first time. “I remember loving it so much. It was nothing like I had ever experienced. As a little Jewish immigrant from Ukraine, I was like, ‘Omigosh, what is this amazing thing!?!’ I cherished it. Every time I see the campers when I’m around during the summer, I always think back to that time because it really left a very good impression.”
“At the JCC, just being a part of the whole Jewish community in Columbus, I grew up with a lot of role models. I was very lucky to have all these role models. I grew up seeing and learning that just working really hard and being passionate and being good to people can really pay off. I’d much rather fail and be good to people than succeed and be bad to people. I think that’s ultimately the life lesson I took out of that,” she said.
She marveled at how growing up in Bexley, being surrounded by a strong Jewish community, and attending Bexley schools helped her along the way to achieving success. “As a Jewish child, you grow up with a fundamental understanding that education is everything. Having come from the Ukraine, you learn at a young age that money comes and goes, not even at your own hands. Someone can just come and take it away from you without any rhyme or reason. But they can never take away your education. It all goes back to the idea of like where would I be if we hadn’t even immigrated? Especially considering the situation currently in the Ukraine, it’s so relevant.”
For Fedner, the community atmosphere of the Columbus JCC is irreplaceable. “When I moved to New York I looked for a JCC there, and there’s a very big one in NY and I remember going there and being overwhelmed because it really made me miss my Ohio JCC, my Bexley JCC, or my Columbus JCC. Because the Columbus JCC has always felt like a family. Because I go there and the people I worked with 12 years ago are still there. And I can say hi to them. I remember coming there to work out and joking with the older members, and I can come back over the years and still see them working out there. It’s a community. It truly is.”