Finding Mad Inspiration in Portland"It's a portal for all types of people — you have the fishing industry, an arts district, conservatives and liberals. But people are all interested in living side by side."
"I'm not a fashion designer," says Meredith Alex. "I'm really an artist with a lifestyle brand."
Alex has had a widely varied life: She grew up in Maine, attended art school in Southern California, worked in costume design, then moved into large-scale fabric design for a Maine company that did installations for corporations at special events and exhibit halls.
Then she worked as a director at an arts center. "And that's when I started doing art installations on the side," she says. "It's my own madness."
Four years ago, she was ready to extend her professional life, and was also facing changes in her personal life. She decided to move to Portland.
"I love Portland," she says. "It's a portal for all types of people — you have the fishing industry, an arts district, conservatives and liberals. But people are all interested in living side by side."
The move wasn't nearly as fraught as it might have been, thanks to the city's generous nature. "It was exciting being a new entrepreneur to town," she says. "The other businesses were supportive, and weren't competitive at all. There was a feeling of being welcomed. They wanted to help you be successful."
Alex used her experience with installations and costume design to inspire her custom design business, Madgirl Custom. She made custom wedding dresses, crazy shoes and eye-catching installations for area events. Among her efforts: a series of outsize dresses for a culinary festival, including three huge dresses made variously of bread, pasta and oyster shells.
The windows of her downtown storefront served as a sort of installation in their own right, invariably causing window shoppers to stop in their tracks. Many would take pictures, then decide to wander in. "People weren't used to seeing this," Alex says of her displays featuring whimsical, colorful items, like a thigh-high boot covered with butterflies.
She recently closed her store to attend to Madgirl Custom while getting ready to launch a second venture: Madworld. The new operation aims to bring a more mass-market approach to design. She'll be manufacturing items ranging from automotive accessories to fashion to home décor to shoes. "It's really exciting," she says. "I feel like right now I'm packing the fireworks. And then when I light it, it's going to explode!"
Alex gets tremendous joy out of seeing an idea or concept go beyond the quiet confines of her studio, finally blossoming in the outside world. "What's important is when that inspiration goes viral — and it travels beyond you," she says. "It becomes energy rather than just something abstract, like the cost of goods."
"It's good for me to be in Portland," she says, since the city draws a healthy mix of shoppers. Locals are drawn to funky street-art design items like beer koozies made from old sweater sleeves. Yet the city also lures in visitors from New York, Boston and beyond, customers in search of high style, one-of-a-kind designs. "It's the New York visitors who resonate with my artistic vision," she says. They're also more likely to spend $400 on a pair of custom-made shoes.
"Somebody once said I'm a pixie elf with a rock 'n' roll edge — and that's perfect," Alex says. "Pixies spread magical dust wherever they go. But I'm more playful, in a rock 'n' roll way."
Check out Meredith's Portland, ME.