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Curiocity: Local Designers Discuss Life On ‘Project Runway’

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Sara Boyd Sara Pelissero
Sara Pelissero joined the WCCO web team in August of 2009. You can...
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When it comes to fashion, one day you’re in and the next, you’re out.

And for season six of “Project Runway,” two local designers were in. Christopher Straub, of Shakopee, and Ra’mon-Lawrence Coleman, of Minneapolis, represented the Midwest in this year’s competition — one that nearly didn’t make it on air.

After a controversial back-and-forth through the courtroom, “Project Runway” moved from its home on the Bravo Network to a new home on Lifetime and a new Los Angeles backdrop. For a season that nearly wasn’t, the drama and the designs seem better than ever — or perhaps that’s the Minnesota bias talking.

Even though the show was shot nearly a year ago, season six is finally in full swing. WCCO.com had an opportunity to talk with our homegrown designers Tuesday on everything from designing with newspaper to being in the work room and, of course, what Tim Gunn is really like.

Last week, we had to say goodbye to Ra’mon-Lawrence Coleman, 31, of Minneapolis, who was sent home after the film genre challenge. Coleman, who was born in Chicago, caught up with us via phone in Milwaukee, before heading out to Los Angeles.

WCCO: So I think I can speak for a lot of people when I say, when you were sent home on the last episode (Thursday), it was shocking. I think everyone in Minnesota gave a collective gasp. What was your reaction?

Ra’mon-Lawrence Coleman: Well looking at my Facebook and seeing everything, and Twitter, yeah, I think it was a collective gasp. It’s kind of interesting, now, it’s kind of like in hindsight because for us it’s been about a year since that actual experience happened, so I’ve obviously had time to accept it.

But in the moment, I think “shocked” would probably be the most appropriate word. I don’t think just myself but everyone was a little bit shocked afterwards. I think even Louise in the moment was a little bit shocked. I never thought, given the success that I had up to that point on the show, that would be the moment I would be off, basically.

WCCO: You had so many great moments leading up to that point and seemed to be one of the front-runners of the show. So what do you think was behind the judges’ decision?

RLC: I think it’s a couple of things. One interesting part that is good and maybe a little bad as well is the fact that there are so many guest judges. The whole thing about that is you know, L.A. has definitely a different spin on fashion so it’s great to have visibility of people there doing things in the industry in a different way, which is why I think they’ve had all of these various guest judges. The problem with that, is I don’t know how much visibility they have to everyone’s previous work.

So I think that part, I do have to take responsibility for the fact that I am not a safe designer. I like to push the limits. And sometimes unfortunately that can be a bad thing given the timing restraint. You can see in the episode, I kind of went through the motions with my design which pretty much gave me very limited time to work something out, that in my mind, could’ve been fantastic but unfortunately, I do have to make it a little bit short of my personal expectations as a designer.

WCCO: How much is time a factor in the challenges?

RLC: Oh it’s a huge factor. If you have an idea, you have to believe in that idea because you have very little time to make any changes. Anything from coming up with a concept in a half an hour to something to actually executing, it’s very fast paced. And before you know it, it’s like the day of runway and you’re like, ‘Wow, where did that come from?’ It’s kind of par for the course though for ‘Project Runway.’

WCCO: One person that seemed sad to see you go, among others, was ‘Project Runway’ mentor Tim Gunn. In your experience, what was Tim Gunn like?

RLC: I would not want to be Mr. Gunn. I think he has it really, really bad. Just in the sense that, well, he’s very genuine. What you see is very much who he is. It has to be very difficult to be in a position, as a mentor, to censor yourself, to not say, ‘Hey, don’t do that, do this instead.’ Because he has to be a little bit impartial. Which, I think there’s been cases with all of us where I can see he wants to go there but obviously he is a respectful individual and would never do that.

He’s really witty, he has a great dry sense of humor, very sweet, very nurturing, I think everything you see on television, at least in my experience, is really who he is.

Life Before ‘Project Runway’

WCCO: What made you decide to go on ‘Project Runway?’

RLC: It was actually interesting, because at first I did not want to try out for the show. It’s kind of a really brilliant way they did casting this season and it was a very much a grass-roots approach where they looked at certain communities and asked who were the people who were using kind of emerging fashion in your community, and my name happened to come up through various ways.

I was actually contacted with the inquiry of would I be willing to come try out. And actually I hung up a couple of times because I thought it was a joke, because my friends tried to get me on the show for a couple of years. I never felt like I was prepared, not as like a designer, per se, but the whole opening up your life to the public and having people feel like they know you when you don’t actually know them.

But for some reason, it just felt right. This is going to be a major opportunity — and it is — so I felt like I couldn’t really pass that up.

Life After ‘Project Runway’

WCCO: Now that you’re seeing the episodes, are you happy with the way you’ve been portrayed on the show? Do you think that’s pretty true to what was going on?

RLC: I have to be honest, I have not been watching the show regularly. I’ve only seen in total, about two episodes. I have never even watched the episode where I won the challenge and I actually didn’t watch the one where I got eliminated and part of that is, it’s a little bit odd to see yourself on television.

From what I’ve heard and from what people have told me, what the bloggers have told me — and obviously I try not to read the blogs either — is that I’ve been portrayed in a very positive light, which I’m appreciative of. Anyone who knows me knows that pre-Project Runway, post-Project Runway … you’re always going to get the same thing. I just see myself as an average person who has a dream I’m trying to pursue. Because I’m passionate about it. It’s kind of interesting, the whole TV aspect of it.

Am I appreciative of it? Yes, I am but I think It’s important to remain humbled through the whole experience. Plus it’s kind of awkward, I don’t know if I want to hear my own voice. In all honesty, I’ll probably do a marathon with like Christopher (Straub) or somebody.

WCCO: Do you keep in touch with everyone since the show?

RLC: I do. There’s probably only two or three individuals that I don’t talk to on a regular basis. Christopher and I talk several times a week. We’re very close and he’s kind of a brother to me. We also have matching tattoos.

WCCO: What are the tattoos of?

RLC: You can actually see it a lot on the show. They’re three stars on our right hand. If you notice, you’ll see they kind of pop in and out on the show, but it’s something we actually got tattooed afterwards.

WCCO: That bond of being the Midwest representatives, what was that like with other contestants from these fashion capitols?

RLC: The thing that’s interesting about our cast — one, it was amazingly put together. Whoever did the casting did a phenomenal job of doing a strong representation of different backgrounds, regionally different, as far as our design levels and perspectives, everyone was very unique. … Everyone had this really great, wonderful passion and drive for what they were doing. So that made it really easy to be like, ‘Hey, this is who I am, this is what I do.’

I just think it’s like definitely the great thing that people are seeing on the show, from what they’ve seen from my run and hopefully from what they’re seeing from Christopher right now, is that the Midwest does have a very strong point of view. We’re not just … putting out your average design perspective, it’s something very unique and very strong. I think people will pay more attention now to cities like Minneapolis, or Chicago, and everywhere in between.

WCCO: Did you have a favorite challenge?

RLC: The one that I loved and wished for even before coming into the experience was the first one, the red carpet challenge. I love evening wear. I really have a great eye for it, so being in the top two, even though I wanted to win that challenge so bad, you know, I’ll take it. The other one I actually thought was so great was the newspaper challenge.

I think that partially comes form my background of being trained at an art school versus a fashion school. So I’m used to working with mixed media and unconventional materials. And actually I was very surprised I wasn’t in the top three, I’ll be honest, for that one. My piece was beautifully constructed, very unique and different and I actually created a print out of the pattern of the newspaper. I felt like it was a little more refined than some of the pieces in the top.

WCCO: Has the show changed your life and how?

RLC: I don’t think anyone can say that the show hasn’t changed their life. I get noticed a lot and it’s interesting because my personal style and appearance are a little bit forward for some people — especially now that I’ve committed to a Mohawk. So I always assume people are looking at me because of the way I look and it always turns out they’re like, ‘You’re the guy from ‘Project Runway,’ can I take your picture, can I have an autograph’ … so it’s really crazy in that there is no barrier. People are very forward in coming up and asking questions or saying what their perspective is of each challenge was. I get compliments but I also get people coming up to me like, ‘Ooh, I don’t know about that color you used.’

So it’s also been really amazing as far as my career. I’ve had so many opportunities coming my way. I still design for Kohl’s and I’m taking my own personal line to the next level. Actually looking at some national retailers to distribute that in. I’m actually also doing a local collaboration with a company in the Twin Cities called Holy Cow. We’re doing an organic clothing line, which I’m very excited about.

The whole sustainable fashion, I think is really the future of fashion and more designers should be aware of that. And then on top of that, hopefully, after the show the public will continue to see me, not just as a designer but — it’s going to sound hokey — but I hope as a television personality. … It’s definitely all been linked to this fast-track exposure that I’ve had from the show.

Dreaming Of The Future

WCCO: What’s your ultimate goal or your dream job?

RLC: Well my ultimate would be to establish myself as a very strong independent designer and really focus on building the Ra’mon-Lawrence brand … really building a great franchise. And ultimately I believe I will be doing that, just continuing down that path that will lead me there.

WCCO: If you could design an outfit for any celebrity, who would you design for?

RLC: Oh my gosh, that’s such a tough question. I can only pick one? Oh my gosh, that’s so hard.

WCCO: OK, OK, I’ll let you have more than one.

RLC: OK, well it’s going to sound so crazy but my dream person right now would actually be Michelle Obama. I think she epitomizes this grace and elegance that we have not seen in a very long time, probably not since the day of Jackie O. I love that there’s something so practical about the way she dresses, but still, it’s very unique and her kind of personality.

I’m a fan of strong women, I think they’re so gorgeous and beautiful so why not celebrate that. I would love, absolutely love to dress her. Maybe someday I will — hopefully that Chicago connection will pay off.

Then, kind of the other spectrum of it, which would be completely different, would be someone like Lady Gaga. I love that she is so over the top and fearless. She goes for it. Even if you don’t get it, you can’t help but recognize it and somewhat respect it because she does it very unapologetically. And that’s very much my philosophy as a designer.

I love a person who loves to take risks and they don’t feel as though they have to apologize for it or feel subconscious. I would love to create something for her. As far as a look, I think a lot of what I’ve done on the show could be more of a Lady Gaga outfit. But whatever either of them would want, I’d be happy to do.

WCCO: What advice do you have for up-and-coming designers?

RLC: My number one thing would be, if you feel it’s what you want to do in your heart then listen to your heart. Don’t be afraid to take that risk, at the same time, be prepared for it. I think there are a lot of people out there who maybe call themselves designers, and I don’t want to disrespect anyone by saying they’re not, but having a design perspective is one thing.

The thing that you need to do to is hone your craft. Be able to actually back up and execute the ideas you have. It’s great to be passionate about something and follow your heart but at the end of the day, if you don’t have the ability to translate that, then no one is going to take you seriously.

——-

Christopher Straub, 30, of Shakopee, continues to maintain his position as one of the judges’ favorite designers. Straub, who has always lived in Minnesota, grew up in Edina and graduated from Edina High School.

WCCO: What was it like to represent Minnesota on ‘Project Runway?’

Christopher Straub: I love it that, number one, I’m able to represent Minnesota and the Midwest on the show but also have Ra’mon there, as like my friend on the show where you automatically have someone who you have something in common with and it was a great experience.

WCCO: With a lot of contestants coming from New York or L.A. what was it like for you to show the world that Minnesota does have some great talent when it comes to fashion?

CS: The Twin Cities is not known as a fashion Mecca at all and I think it was just a fun, unique story that, here I am, stuck in the middle of Shakopee but I can compete with those New York designers and L.A. designers and be able to, not only hold my own against them but be as successful and more successful than some of those designers.

Staying Alive

WCCO: You’re doing very well on the show. Did you go in thinking you’d do this well and be one of the best?

CS: Oh no. I had basically two goals in mind, that number one, I didn’t want to get kicked off first and to just try to make it on and like, count up the episodes and it was great to not get kicked off the first one but to win the first one and get immunity. I automatically made it to the third episode.

So that was really exciting just to be like, ‘OK, three episodes down … ‘ And the other thing was, not to play it safe or be boring. Like the last thing I wanted was to be safe on any episode. So I didn’t care if it was putting me in the top or putting me in the bottom. I took risks and I wanted to talk about my work. That was the most important thing. I didn’t want to get shuffled in the back and be safe and not be able to tell my story.

WCCO: So what do you do with all those clothes that you make? Do you get to keep them?

CS: Nope, they belong to the production of the show. Every week, each of the garments get auctioned off at projectrunway.com. You can view and purchase, or bid on, designs from episode six. And that’s fun because the public can decide what their favorite is and then get to take that home. …

The people who buy my garments usually get in touch with me through Facebook or e-mail and they tell me, ‘hey I bought this!’ I hope they see all the work that goes into a garment. It’s great to connect with people who just love the show.

WCCO: How difficult is a show like “Project Runway?”

CS: It’s so different from real life. It’s hard to even compare it to anything that’s going on in your natural environment. Because everything is taken away from you and you’re just given the things you need to perform the task. It’s the most surreal experience that I’ve ever encountered. It really doesn’t compare to any real, everyday activities. It’s just a completely different life.

WCCO: What’s been your favorite challenge so far?

CS: Ohh, I’m trying to think. I guess I would have to say I loved the paper challenge. I remember saying to a contestant, early, early, early on, you know what would be great, if we all got the exact same thing. I never thought it would be a newspaper, I thought it would be like white satin or something like that.

I thought that would be just a fantastic way to showcase everyone’s ability. I think, as of right now, that is my favorite runway show is the paper challenge, because everything was so vastly different and (seeing) what people did with literally just paper, some tape, some glue and some paint. That was by far my favorite. And the most nerve-wrecking because you were hoping your model’s dress didn’t fall off on the runway.

WCCO: So what was your most challenging, er, challenge?

CS: The one I was most nervous about going into was the most recent challenge. The movie genre challenge. Just because we were asked to do a movie quality costume, with a back story and all that stuff, in one day. And really a one day challenge is not 12 hours of sewing. It’s no more than five, six, seven. To do what we needed to do, and to go movie quality, was a really big challenge. But that’s when you see everyone’s creativity. It’s when you have to create a product that same day.

WCCO: Unfortunately with the movie challenge (last Thursday), we had to see Ra’mon go home. What were your reactions? Did you think that was going to happen?

CS: No. I’m a fan of Ra’mon-Lawrence, absolutely. I thought that he created something that really made sense to him, knowing what he does. He sure wasn’t boring. I think that in another world, the judging would’ve gone another way. I was really sad to see him go because he was a great friend and we really connected. So it was hard to see, you know, my brother go home.

The Show That Almost Wasn’t

WCCO: Obviously there was a lot of drama going on with this season on who was going to air the show and if it was going to air at all. What were your thoughts during all of that?

CS: It was definitely saddening, because we really didn’t even know if the show was going to air. Every once in a while there’d be a news story about the legal issues and you’d sort of grab any information from there to try to piece together when do you think it’s going to happen and where do you think it’s going to air.

That time was really, really difficult because we worked so hard to get on the show and then worked so hard on the show and to not have it air was really saddening. But the good thing that came out of it was that it gave me an opportunity to create the collection, the pieces that I have on my Web site, to be available right when the show airs. No other season had that much time from the end of filming to when the show aired to be ready to make money, basically, right out of the gate.

Behind The Scenes

WCCO: Beyond the challenges, what’s it like living together with your competitors?

CS: Well me and my partner built a house in Shakopee and it’s a four bedroom, four bathroom house. Going on the show, it was four of us in one room with one bathroom. And I kind of warned them all, this is totally different, I never went to college, I never had to bunk or dorm with anybody so four adults sharing all this stuff, I said this is going to be a task for me. But I was able to get through it with minimal stress.

The other three in the room with me, and that was Epperson, Mitchell and Nicolas, we sort of had each other’s backs. Even in the workroom. The second episode, the pregnancy challenge, I had actually made gloves for Mitchell’s outfit because I had a little extra time and he was falling behind. You kind of get that camaraderie going, even though it’s a competition, you still want to be a good person. Or I did.

WCCO: We asked Ra’mon this too, but what’s Tim Gunn really like? What about Heidi Klum?

CS: For me, Tim Gunn is exactly who he is on the show. I’m a huge fan of the show so I went in kind of hoping that wouldn’t get diluted or anything. He was exactly the same person we see on the show. I really see him as a mentor and someone who has your best interest in mind.

In terms of Heidi, she’s a judge, so I don’t get to see her that much. Only when I’m up on the runway. So I don’t get to shake her hand or kiss her cheek or walk hand-in-hand with her down Rodeo Drive. I really haven’t met her, met her, but she’s as stunning in person as she is on television.

WCCO: Where do you get your inspiration from?

CS: I get my inspiration from nature, natural elements, repetition. Everything from leaves on a tree to sticks on the ground to water in a pond. That’s really where I find my own voice.

Where Are They Now?

WCCO: Are you still living in Minnesota?

CS: Yep, I’m in Shakopee. As of right now, I’m working with overseas manufacturers and I’m working with people all over the country but I don’t need to be in the same office as them. So if I can do what I need to do from my home then I’m going to continue living here.

If I get an offer, for a designer off in L.A., New York, Dallas, then that will be up for discussion when that happens. As of right now, I’m going to do what I need to do right here in the great state of Minnesota.

WCCO: So what’s it like being back from the show and being back home?

CS: Well we started filming a year ago, so during that time of being back and not being able to talk about being on the show, I really had to go into hiding a little. I quit my job and I got a job where people didn’t know anything about me and sort of had to lay low for a while. And now it’s fun because I can finally tell people I went through this experience and they can watch me on screen.

WCCO: So what have you been doing since the show?

CS: I have a Web site with handbags and accessories and that’s christopherstraub.com. I’m also working on a collection for a major retailer and that will be announced soon.

WCCO: What is your ultimate dream job?

CS: I would love to just have my own label, my own brand. And just do everything from apparel, to accessories, to luggage, sunglasses, jewelry. I’d love to be a lifestyle brand, where I’d have products available, really, for all different parts of your life for all different people, for affordable prices.

Sara Boyd is a web producer and columnist at WCCO.COM.

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