Runway Dreams: From Canton to Paris

by Stevie Zvereva

One local designer is out to prove that fashion has a place in Peoria.

She makes it sound really easy. “About four years ago... I bought a sewing machine, and a couple years after that, I was invited to Midwest Fashion Week, where I created my first collection,” explains Lily Scalf. “Since then, I’ve done Indianapolis again, Chicago and Paris Fashion Week.”

Scalf fails to mention her talent, but the evidence is all over the mix of impeccably-made dresses, hand-painted graphic tees and oversized, dramatic coats draping mannequins in her new studio space—a well-lit corner loft at State and Water streets, and a new addition to the First Fridays circuit this summer.

A native of nearby Canton, Illinois, Scalf had dreams of pursuing art at an early age, but when she had her kids young, she reworked those plans, determining hair to be the next best thing. Her work as a hair stylist was a creative outlet, but she eventually chose to stay home with her three kids—now 17, 10 and eight years old. Craving a creative outlet, she set out to teach herself to sew.

“I just started making everything—anything I could think of,” she explains. And she was a natural: like the rare musician who can hear a tune just once and recreate it, Scalf could glance at a garment and duplicate it. “It just came really easy, to the point where I knew this was where I was supposed to be the whole time.”

And so, she sewed and sewed, amassing a sizeable inventory of items she slowly sold online. Building her reputation by word of mouth, she began making a few custom pieces for people, branding herself as Lily V Designs, and selling at Urban Girl—a small boutique located inside Urban Artifacts, a vintage shop at the Sunbeam Building in Peoria. Eventually, an online contest got Scalf noticed by fashion designer Berny Martin—the Haitian-born host of Midwest Fashion Week in Indianapolis.

Getting Connected
Since 2006, Midwest Fashion Week has been a growing outlet for showcasing local, national and international designers. Its larger objective: to reposition fashion to extend beyond clothing, and put the Midwest on the fashion-world map as something more than a retread stuck between L.A. and New York. Believing that fashion is possible from anywhere, Scalf was thrilled to be invited to show her work at the event.

For her, it’s all about making connections. “You make one connection to get to the next,” she says, admitting that she’s been shocked at the speed of her success. “Through that show, I got invited to Paris Fashion Week,” she adds, again making matters sound so easy.

The truth is, Scalf’s energy precedes her. She speaks quickly, with an innate self-assurance, and carries herself with eyes on a mission far beyond fashion. Above all, she says, her goal is to empower young women, both through the clothing she creates—“When you look good, you feel good,” she declared at a recent presentation for 1 Million Cups, a weekly gathering of local entrepreneurs—and by example: wanting to prove that if she can do it, anyone can.

Bringing It Home
Scalf’s clothing is punctuated with a vintage flair—she calls it “old-school with a modern twist.” Vibrant colors, floral prints, swinging skirts, high-waisted pants and cropped tops dominated her Paris Couture Collection, which she also showed at the POSH Fashion Show—an event she organized in March at Kickapoo Creek Winery in Edwards. More than 300 people attended the first-time event, which highlighted the work of five other local designers as well. Determined to pursue fashion design from her central Illinois home, Scalf hopes to show other young designers that their dreams are possible from anywhere.

“I had done all these shows everywhere else, and everyone was like, ‘Oh, you’re going to move, you’re going to move,’” she says. “But I want to stay here, and bring it back.” She hopes the POSH Fashion Show will continue to grow, showcasing the region’s wealth of talent each spring.

In the meantime, Scalf is busy working on her new “Infinity” collection—centered around a versatile dress that can be worn 10 ways—and partnering with Natasha Dinkla, co-founder of Lily V Designs in its new riverfront location, on the next big step: manufacturing and getting the label into stores. Besides also teaching sewing to kids out of her home, Scalf and Dinkla will mentor a diverse group of high school interns this summer in PR, fashion, sewing and photography.

“We really want to grow the fashion industry in the Peoria area,” she declares. “When I was young, I told myself I couldn’t be a designer… But then when I picked up that machine and started sewing… and [with] some amazing support… I realized I could do this, and you know what? So can everyone else.” a&s

To learn more about Lily Scalf’s work or order a custom garment, visit