Project Runway is in limbo. The show that's known for its fashionista cat-fights is now in the midst of a legal battle between the Weinstein Co. and NBC Universal's cable network Bravo. The drama stems from a breach-of-contract lawsuit filed by NBC after Weinstein decided to move the hit show to the Lifetime network. Both sides keep drawing out the fight with new allegations, but fans just want to know when their beloved show will air again.
Season 5 — the most popular season yet for the show — recently wrapped, and Season 6 designers are already heading home to work on their collections for New York Fashion Week, before returning to Los Angeles to finish out the season. While the battle rages on in the Big Apple, Charleston fans are buzzing about whether or not they'll recognize any familiar faces on Season 6 — whenever it does air.
When casting directors started the search for the next batch of bright, young design stars this past summer, they ran across videos on YouTube that had been shown at Charleston Fashion Week 2008, featuring designers from the Emerging Local Designers showcase. The explosive success of CFW — coming up on its third year — has played a major role in putting the Holy City on the fashion map, and its relationship with Project Runway has included guest judging appearances from popular designers Laura Bennett and Jillian Lewis. With the way things are going, it wouldn't be surprising if a local talent was the guest judge as soon as next year. Though thousands across the country applied to be on the show, talent scouts personally invited several local designers to be among the select few to audition. Some only made it through the first round, some went on to the second, but we suspect that one local designer made it all the way to L.A.
Ayoka Lucas, Charleston magazine fashion editor and the mastermind behind CFW, was a driving force in urging the designers to go for it.
"Some have a more national appeal, and some perfect the charm of Charleston," Lucas says of the designers who auditioned. "Together [they] propel Charleston even further on the fashion map."
"I can't imagine myself on TV saying stupid shit."
Megan Waldrep, 26, lives in a small, girly apartment on Folly Beach. Her design area takes up a good third of the living room, with colorful fabrics and spools of thread scattered about, half-made dresses draped over a form. Her open personality and playful designs personify the laid-back vibe at the Edge of America.
She's the kind of person who works well under pressure, who sometimes waits until the last minute to get things done, then churns it all out at once. She keeps her sketches in a number of notebooks that she has with her at all times, and she gets uncharacteristically bashful when asked to show them. Her company is called Mew Designs.
Waldrep majored in fashion merchandising at the University of South Carolina, and moved to New York soon after graduating. There she started a successful clothing line, making handmade reconstructed T-shirts out of her apartment. She could hardly keep up with the demand. She moved to Charleston in 2007.
Waldrep's show at CFW 2008 proved a stand-out from the very beginning. A pink-haired model skipped down the runway in a pink mini-skirt, the sounds of the Jackson 5 blasting in the background, and the crowd's collective mood was suddenly brighter. The Betsey Johnson-like clothes were playful and fun, and Waldrep received one of the most enthusiastic crowd reactions of the night.
Maybe this is why casting directors pursued Waldrep, even when she missed the first application deadline, and then the second.
"First I was like, I don't even watch the show," Waldrep says. "I can't imagine myself on TV saying stupid shit and doing stupid stuff. I was like, I don't really want to go that avenue."
When she finally got around to working on the application, she made sure to put her own spin on it.
"Some of the questions on the application were so serious. I was just doing it for fun. I was just gonna go balls-to-the-wall Megan — funny typical stuff."
A week later she received a call informing her that she was a semi-finalist and was invited to auditions in Atlanta. She didn't realize that she was one of 150 designers chosen out of around 10,000 applicants.
Waldrep headed to Hotlanta with a rack of her designs and her sister to model. Then she went into the interrogation room.
"It's like good cop/bad cop in there," Waldrep says of the interview process. "I think they told me that I should have stepped it up with my fabric choices, because I used cotton and stuff like that. I said I understand what you're saying, but I live in Charleston where it's hot as hell, and this is what girls would wear walking down King Street going to a party. I'm dressing my people.
"I said right now I'm just making stuff as I like it and I just want to bring variety to y'all. I guess that's what I get for taking a chance, but I appreciate the time."
She left knowing that she hadn't made it, but she was unruffled and overall flattered for the opportunity. She went up to the rooftop and had cocktails with two fellow Charleston designers, Foster Fox and Rachel Gordon.
"I guess going into it, it was all fun and games anyway, and that's the way you've got to keep it," Waldrep says. "You've gotta live in the moment with that kinda stuff, otherwise ... I don't know what. I think that it happened like that is a blessing, because what if I did really want it? I would have been really freakin' disappointed.
"I think it just validated me to get more serious about it and I definitely have. It's a definite sign that I'm doing the right stuff."
Back in Folly, Waldrep works as a nanny and designs when the mood strikes. She's working on getting organized, and with the help of her assistant and intern, she's creating a website, planning her spring 2009 collection, and designing a children's line called Kiddy.
The dangers of wearability
For willowy designer Rachel Gordon, applying for Project Runway was a more serious decision. When she was asked to try out, she jumped at the chance.
The self-taught designer, a graduate of the College of Charleston, is no stranger to the fashion world. At 25, she's already owned her own boutique on East Bay Street (which she had to close last year after the building was sold) and she has enough clients to make designing a full-time job. Her show at CFW 2008 featured lots of vibrant colors, glamorous detailing, and beautiful gowns.
For Gordon, the audition was a nerve-wracking experience.
"It was so intimidating walking into the actual interview," Gordon says. "I was just surrounded by people ... And everyone just stands staring at you. You're standing in the middle of the room next to your designs. It was very petrifying. Then they just start firing questions at you. And the first question was, 'So who are you?' That's like the worst question [laughs]."
But as the interview continued, she relaxed and the judges said they liked her designs, but they questioned if she was edgy enough.
"They said that my things were a little too commercial for the process," she remembers. "Going into it, I picked pieces that I really liked that sold a lot, that my clients had a really good response to. And when I got that criticism, I kinda understood it, because they were trying to go to the next step in design. And I was picking things that I thought were really cool and sold and people really liked. I think they were looking for something that was really dramatic, that had more design elements than what I was showing."
Despite their critique, Gordon says she wouldn't change her designs unless she was trying out for the show again.
"I try to make things that fit well and that people like, that will sell. Stuff being commercial, I don't think that's a bad thing. Some of the things that are designed on the show aren't really that wearable. Like everything's on a red carpet or a celebrity. I don't think those types of designs are really realistic. What I'm doing is trying to outfit people for their real lives."
Gordon's wearable designs kept her from the next round of auditions. Back in Charleston, she's still designing full-time in a studio downtown, hosting trunk shows, and planning to open another store soon.
A wall of Foster
Foster Fox's line at CFW 2008 was arguably the most innovative out of all the emerging local designers. Models wore full skirts and crisp white shirts, many emblazoned with the face of CFW doyenne Ayoka Lucas. A memorable moment came when one male model strutted the runway in a speedo, while others sported riding boots and hats.
The line was inspired by the movie Casino, with a dash of equestrian chic thrown in. This is reflective of Fox's unique design philosophy, which he describes as Oscar de la Renta meets Michael Jackson.
"The high end part with a little Michael Jackson twist — not the child molester twist but like the jeweled glove kinda thing, a little exclamation point," says the 29-year-old Ravenel native.
But when he went to Atlanta to try out for Project Runway, that's not what he told the judges.
"They kinda asked me what my design philosophy was and I said whatever pays me, and I guess that wasn't the right answer and I think that kinda turned them off a little bit," he says. "I was just saying whatever came into my head. I didn't practice anything, so that kinda just came out. They didn't think I was that serious about being a designer, and I totally disagree because I know that I am. But that wasn't a very designer-y response."
Despite being nervous, he says he felt more confident because everyone who left the room before him was smiling.
"All the people that left the room, I kinda got the impression they had picked them, so I got that complacency, OK, they're going to pick me, because I think my work was good enough."
But that last-minute dose of confidence may have been the last thing he needed, as he focused more on charming the judges than talking up his designs.
"I was trying very, very hard to bring my personality into the whole thing, being real ... I think they said I was trying too hard with my personality and not focusing on how I am as a designer. Because I was so nervous, and when I get nervous, I get really flamboyant. That's how I cope with nervousness ... It's like a wall of Foster coming at you."
Fox admits that he felt a little devastated when he found out he didn't make it.
"I cried quietly. I really had the feeling they were going to pick me ... Maybe if I had lied or made something up I would have been on the show. I guess it all comes down to it wasn't my time. Maybe I'll do it next season."
Fox got his start in design when he couldn't find any clothes that fit his tall, slender frame. He studied design in Florida, then moved to New York for two years, then moved back home to Ravenel in 2005.
When he heard that Charleston would be hosting a fashion week in 2007, he found the idea laughable, but ended up modeling in a show and loving the whole idea. He made connections with the CFW crowd, then entered the Emerging Local Designer competition in 2008.
"Basically up until that point I wasn't doing that much when it comes to design. I had kinda stopped. So when I heard they were doing the contest, I started getting back into it."
Since CFW 2008, his designing has petered off a bit. He works as a bookkeeper for his father's company in North Charleston and designs clothes for himself on the side.
"I don't get rushed or frantic trying to make a collection. I'm just taking my time and enjoying the process. Just designs for myself to wear on the weekends, because you know you never want to wear the same thing twice, at least not in the same place, because, you know, people do not forget."
But don't expect Fox to give up his passion for design anytime soon. He's slowly working toward creating a small line in the "little laboratory" he works out of at home in Ravenel.
"I'm working on getting some pieces together, kinda being detail-oriented with each piece," he says. "My next collection will be very beautiful and subdued, very different from my first collection. My first show was kinda just like, hey, look what I can do, and now it's more like, hey, I can actually design more than one show."
Representing the Holy City
Megan, Rachel, and Foster have taken their audition experiences and used them to inspire and strengthen their design philosophies. Other Emerging Local Designers like Carol Hannah Whitfield and Krista Beth Huff, who made it further in auditions but not far enough, undoubtedly have reaped the same benefits from the process. While nothing's been confirmed, we're placing our bets on one established local designer who may have made it all the way to L.A.
Gordana Gelhausen is the owner of Goga on King Street. According to Waldrep, she was accepted on Season 5 of Project Runway, but at the last minute, producers changed their minds. She attended Season 6 auditions, made it at least to the third round, and when we called Goga recently, we were told that the designer was in L.A. "indefinitely."
Ayoka Lucas wouldn't comment on who might have made it, but her hopes are high.
"Right now Charleston's fashion and design community are on the radar of many," says Lucas. "If a Charlestonian makes it on Project Runway, it will certainly validate all of this even further."
Designers, you still have time to submit applications for the Emerging Design Competition for Charleston Fashion Week 2009. Up-and-coming designers in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia are urged to submit their designs for a chance at having a show at CFW 2009, and a cash prize of $1000. Deadline is Nov. 17. Go to www.charlestonfashionweek.com for details.