From Southern Regional to NYC, ‘Sewing Girl’ Storms Fashion Industry

By SANDRA WEYANT | Jul 24, 2019
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New York City — Success feels sew good to Melinda Danko, a Southern Regional High School alumna who attributes much of her career success to the school’s sewing program. Her passion for fashion and sewing first developed in fifth grade when she attended Russell O. Brackman Middle School in Barnegat.

“I was always an active student growing up. I was in competition dance. I was a soccer player, but I was never the number one. Once I started sewing, I realized I was really good at it,” Danko said. “We had to have a sewing license and be able to start the machine in less than 60 seconds. Since I got my license, I never stopped sewing. As soon as I went to Southern Regional, I sewed every single year and they even made special programs for me.”

In high school, Danko excelled in her classes and finished her graduation requirements one year early. Since she had some extra time on her hands during her senior year, she took pre-college classes and devoted two hours every day to sewing. Teachers began to refer to her as the “sewing girl” and even requested her help with making costumes and wedding dresses. She never sketched any of her designs, but instead let the texture and appearance of the fabrics guide her.

“I was getting sent all over the place and I was really appreciative. These moments were the start of it all. In my senior year, I really knew that sewing, fashion and New York City were all things I needed to have in my life,” Danko said.

She was so excited that she was practically bursting at the seams. Danko’s personal fashion taste was highly influenced by her environment, the casual beach atmosphere. She sported popular surf and skate brands like Volcom and Roxy. It wasn’t until later on that she learned of high-fashion brands like Prada or Louis Vuitton.

After high school, Danko was accepted into the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York where she completed a four-year program. She earned an associate’s degree in New York and finished her bachelor’s degree in Italy, where she specialized in knitwear and became fluent in Italian.

“I tried to put all of these pieces together to build a future. Knitwear is really cool and it’s a whole other language. I ended up graduating and being the first person out of my program to get a job with a Japanese company called Shima Seiki, so that took me by complete surprise,” Danko said. “They make their own knitting machines and the parts for the machines, computers, etc. They own restaurants and have fashion brands. You name it, they do it.”

Danko spent the next four years working for Shima Seiki, further developing her craft and spreading her talent far and wide. She lived in Japan for one month and took on projects for American fashion powerhouses like Oscar de la Renta and Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen.

At Shima Seiki, Danko utilized a new form of technology called wholegarment, a process in which designers program a specific garment into the computer and the machine knits it in one whole piece.

“It’s very eco-friendly, and there are a lot of positive attributes for this style of knitting. I made knit gowns, fashion-forward pieces that I still wear to this day. Some have cutouts, and they’re not like an itchy wool. They are very comfortable,” Danko said.

Some of Danko’s designs appeared in well-known fashion publications like Women’s Wear Daily. With several years of experience in women’s fashion under her belt, her next gig revolved around designing menswear for Vince Camuto for two years.

“After this, I wanted a change. Fashion was always a passion for me, and I was always excited to come home and sew. I love going to fashion shows and I love seeing people dress funky, but I ended up shifting gears,” Danko said.

With her insatiable appetite for learning, Danko left the fashion industry and ventured down a new path into the world of cinema. She devoted 2½ years to being a wardrobe stylist and creating movie sets. Some of her career highlights included dressing actor Alan Cumming for a commercial about the Oculus and designing garments for an Israeli snack commercial.

At the time, Danko was unaware that her career was about to catapult into another direction, yet again. For about six to eight months, she was an assistant to one of her friends, a street artist named Gazoo ToTheMoon from New York.

“I got to help him with all different kinds of props. He taught me how to use power tools, how to use a saw and how to nail things and paints things. He is a very well-known and serious person, and he took me under his wing,” she said.

One day, while Danko was building furniture with Gazoo, a local business owner who managed a dumpling truck and a sewing factory stopped to chat with them. Gazoo raved about Danko’s vast abilities and passions, and the woman referred Danko to Circle Visual, a visual merchandising manufacturer, for a potential job opportunity.

“I didn’t realize what it would turn out to be. I never knew this job or industry existed,” Danko said. “If you go to a store of the mall, they usually have a storefront window that is decorated with a theme or with mannequins. Someone has to make all of those props, the same for fitting rooms and upholstery. My current job is the company behind all of these creative visuals. I had an interview and an instant job opportunity. My life literally turned around in a snap.”

Danko is currently project manager for Circle Visual, where she specializes in visual merchandising, creating window displays, décor and props for special events. The position literally combines all of her talents and passions into one perfect role.

“I design, I create, I quote, I go to meetings, I install … whatever you need. My company makes everything for the display: tables, furniture, décor, props, jewelry racks. Everything you touch, we make in our factory. The opportunities for what we do are endless. We will take it all on,” she said.

Danko’s current clients and projects include Diane von Furstenberg, Michael Kors, Barneys New York, Kate Spade, Tommy Hilfiger, Abercrombie, Hollister, Victoria’s Secret, Bergdorf Goodman, J. Crew and more.

“You’ve probably seen some of my curtains in fitting rooms at your favorite retailers,” Danko said. “My favorite part of my current position is that I never have the same task or project ever. It is never redundant and always fresh and brand new. I am never locked down to one single client or brand, one identity. I work with everybody, so I get to dip my hands into all kinds of projects, events and designs. It’s always a learning process.”

Even though she has come a long way from Southern Regional, she holds her education and her experiences near and dear to her heart.

“I can’t even express how much gratitude I have for my upbringing, my family, my teachers and my peers. I love going back to Long Beach Island, and the entire area means so much to me. My parents own the Garden Market in Barnegat. Sometimes, I make little handmade crystals and they shine like rainbows in the sun. I like to hang out with my parents and give back. They’ve done so much to enable my creativity and push me,” Danko said.

“Southern Regional was a huge player, and when I’m home, I still feel so connected to the area and I’m still so inspired. I love it so much. It’s not the same as when I was growing up. Everything is evolving and that’s what I am looking to do as well.”

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