Sept. 14 2011 12:00 AM

Designers Claire and Shawn Buitendorp can count Katy Perry and Betsey Johnson among their fans


In the busy halls of Lansing Community College’s costume
shop, Claire and Shawn Buitendorp greet their work with warm smiles.
Surrounded by cloth, costumes and the whir of sewing machines, the
21-year-old twins are truly in their element.

Years ago, Claire Buitendorp wrote an essay, “My Passion
for Fashion,” that secured her an honor scholarship to LCC. Today, that
passion is blossoming into success for both sisters.

Although they just turned 21 in April, the pair has
already graduated from LCC’s fashion design program, created a dress
for singer Katy Perry and secured internships with designer Betsey
Johnson in New York; they arrived just in time for the excitement of
Fashion Week.

Yet theirs is a story that begins, as such things often do, with family. 

Starting young

The twins got their first taste of creativity as far back
as elementary school, from their grandmothers. One loved to shop, one
loved to sew — and it was in blending the two passions together that
the Buitendorp sisters set out to find their own signature style.

It wasn’t until high school that things started to line
up. By then, Shawn and Claire were experimenting in making their own
clothes and modifying the ones they had. They cut out images they
liked, took painter’s grade masking tape and laid them into their
shirts for clean, sharp images and a unique blending, in what Claire
described as “guerrilla style.”

“In high school we were really good at mathematics,”
Shawn said. “Only now do I see how suited we were to fashion design.
It’s mathematical. It’s like being an architect, but with clothes.”

Like any great architects, they have started to create
their own images. Shawn’s styles are the edgier of the pair, while
Claire’s are more “floral” and “feminine.”

The two components merge in their designs; they both enjoy things that suit the body and flatter the physique.

They credit this union of thought as something that sets them apart in the fashion industry.

“We work off each other’s strengths and ideas,” Claire
said. “People have tried to split us up, but we can get so much more
done together.” 

“We know what we want and how to get it," Shawn added.
“We know what we like without having to say it. Together, we’re like
three or four people working.”

Betsey Johnson — a woman they eagerly hold up as
something of an idol — apparently agreed. Although the New York
designer only offers 10 internships a semester, both Claire and Shawn
were accepted earlier this year. 

“We bought our first Betsey dress senior year of high
school,” Shawn said. “In three years time, to be able to make quality
clothes and work in a room with Betsey is amazing. When you think about
it, three years isn’t very long.”

For the internship, the pair and their associate degrees
competed against designers from across the country, including
bachelor’s degree students from schools in New York.

“I think what probably helped was our first-hand
experience,” Shawn said. “It’s wonderful to come up with ideas, but you
need to be able to make them, too. It helps that we sew and construct a

The honor comes with its pressures,
though. The sisters arrived at their internship just two weeks before
one of the largest fashion events in the country, and the demands of
preparing for Fashion Week will put their multitasking talents to the

If anything proved they can handle it, though, it was their time spent designing for Katy Perry. 

Designers to the stars

It began in January, with a present
exchange. The Buitendorp sisters were turning 21 and wanted to get one
another something special. Given that both love Katy Perry, concert
tickets for her concert at the Palace of Auburn Hills seemed just the
thing — especially ones that came with meet-and-greet passes. 

For a once in a lifetime opportunity, they decided to
make themselves outfits. Then they took that extra leap and decided to
make one for Perry, too. Using pictures online and a few articles to
get an idea of Perry’s general dimensions, they came to the conclusion
that her measurements were similar to their own.

Then the real work began. After six
months of labor and hundreds of dollars of their own money, they
finished their dress, an outfit Claire described as a “one-piece
swimsuit with a skirt” and hearts on top, to fit Perry’s candy-themed

When they were able to hand it to Perry in person, they saw their reward. 

“I recall she said, even if it didn’t fit, she’d have it
resized to fit,” Shawn said. Perry has worn it 12 times since — that
they know of — often to greet other fans. Pictures of Perry in the
Buitendorp-designed outfit can be found on her media website.

Keep going

The Buitendorps credit much of their
success to the fashion programs at LCC, which they say are not only
comprehensive, but also teach one of the most important concepts,
according to Shawn: to think for yourself.

The sisters are concerned, however, that
the very program they say helped them reach this point in their careers
is going to be up for review — and possible axing — in December. LCC’s
interior design program has already been cut.

“Our skills are reflective of how
wonderful this program is,” Claire said. “We really have all of our
teachers to thank for teaching us the skills to do this.”

But while LCC’s fashion future remains
uncertain, the sisters are eagerly thinking about what awaits them in
New York. (Earlier this week, they were assisting with a photo shoot
for singer Nicki Minaj.) They might even venture into the blogosphere
while they’re away, both as a way to keep connected with friends and
family, and to document their own evolution of style.

“You can never stop the momentum,” Claire said. “You just have to keep going.”