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From Wadena to Manhattan

Photo by Abdalla Emam Sarah Van Evera models a scarf she designed.

Sarah Van Evera is one New York fashion designer who was not completely shocked at the East Coast blizzard in late December.

That is because she is originally from Wadena.

"Everyone's freaking out," she said. "They don't have salt, they just don't know what to do."

VanEvera, a WDC class of 2005 graduate who used to sew her own prom dresses, made gowns for the Wadena pageant and designed the Minnesota State Knowledge Bowl T-shirt in 2003, now works at Coach designing small leather goods and evening bags.

"I work with color palettes a lot," she said. "Coach is a really good company to work for in the sense that, in a lot of fashion companies, you work your way up and maybe 5 or 10 years down the road, you're actually taking the ideas and sketching things. But Coach is really great because I'm sketching things already, and I already get to do things that are creative and that I want to do, and that's not normal," she said.

She said she interned with Coach during her junior year of college, spent three months job hunting, and was eventually hired.

"It was so fortunate. I have a lot of friends who are still jobless and still looking and you know it's not an easy time to graduate, and it's not an easy job market, and it never was before the economy happened," she said. "On the other side of that, a lot of my friends who graduated from school like are really doing big things. So I'll see them in 'Italian Vogue' or 'Elle' magazine."

Van Evera grew up in Wadena with her family, although her parents Bill and Donna moved to Oklahoma after her graduation and her brother Eli is living in Israel. She said she has found her calling.

"I always wanted to do something in the arts," she said.

Van Evera said she feels she is both right-brained and left-brained, and fashion was a middle ground to incorporate both creativity and business sense.

She also said that fashion and the art world in general was a way to gain influence in society, and that politicians, lawyers and doctors are not the only people with power.

"Unfortunately I think more people probably know the lyrics to Kanye's last song than what Obama said in his last speech," she said.

Her alma mater, Parsons The New School For Design, has a competitive admissions process, so she said she was excited when she got her acceptance letter and her parents were very supportive.

Getting accepted into Parsons involved an essay, self-portrait, photography samples, collage, side artwork and other tasks.

Van Evera said that her Wadena roots also probably helped her get accepted.

"They pick out people who think they will diversify the school and think outside the box," she said. "So I think the fact that I was from such a small town -- and that it is a completely different culture from Wadena to New York -- that, I think, was one of the reasons that I was admitted to the school in the first place."

She said that before she moved out, other people were scared for her.

"It's only as scary as you make it," she said. "It's really a good city and there are good people here just like everywhere else."

She said that college in New York was the right choice for her career path.

"This is the best city for fashion in the country," Van Evera said. "Fashion Week is here, and all the designers work out of New York. ... It's the perfect place."

Van Evera still keeps up with people she knows from Minnesota.

"Some of my best friends in the world are friends from high school," Van Evera said.

She heard about the June 17 tornado in the national news and was in the area the week afterward.

"My friend Andre Anderson's dad has a small plane so he took us out. So we flew over the city," she said. She compared the view to the track of a lawn mower.

The tornado aftermath was neither her first nor last trip to the area.

"I usually make it back to Minnesota once a year," she said.

Down the road, Van Evera said, she hopes to launch her own label and get back into apparel and evening wear.

"But I think that's at least half a decade away," she said.

Van Evera already has her own Project Theodore which she started in an accessories class in college, inspired by the recession.

"It's a small business I run making luxury teddy bears from sustainable sample fabrics and things that would have been otherwise discarded," she said.

She said that with luxury elements like real fur, Swarovski crystals, leathers, furs and found objects, the small bears have a psychological element for people to feel like they are part of a life they can't afford in the economy.

Van Evera does music on the side and has a March 2010 album on iTunes called "Rise and Fall." She said it is the soundtrack to a small indie film "Excuses For Jeff" by her friend Gibrey Allen.

She said that living in the lower east side of Manhattan has afforded many opportunities to meet and collaborate with a variety of artists. She does some modeling and helps photographer friends build their portfolios.

"So you just run into people and meet people and it's really easy to collaborate and it's a win-win for everyone," she said.

Is the fashion world at all like "The Devil Wears Prada" and "Ugly Betty"?

"It's exactly like that," Van Evera laughed. "I know people whose office life was pretty much the fodder for those movies."

She said there is also a different side to it.

"My own problem with the way the media portrays fashion is it's not that these people are devilish and cruel and anorexic -- I mean some of them are -- but for the most part, it's just a very different industry, and being nice isn't really the top of people's list," she said. "That's the way things get done."

Van Evera talked about the transition from a "Minnesota nice" culture to life in New York.

"When I moved here, I immediately started meeting all my classmates and becoming friends with everyone in the dorm. And it made me laugh because in hindsight I guess I was trying to recreate my small town. So I would like to think I'm still a very easy person to get along with and a very outgoing person. But you know, I don't automatically trust people, and that's probably for the best," she said.