The producers of reality-TV hit Project Runway might consider renaming the Emmy-winning show Project PDX. Our little burg has had more designers—seven*—appear on the show than any other city (except New York and LA, but we don’t really count them). We’ve also had the most winners, including New York and LA: three, maybe four if this season’s Michelle Lesniak Franklin claims the crown. (She was in the final round of Season 11 as this issue went to press.)
So what makes us so special? If you listen to Runway star Tim Gunn (and you should), it’s our “high cultural intellectual base.” If you listen to the designers who have appeared on the show (and we do), it’s our independent pioneer spirit. “Portland really accepts being an individual, and you need that as a designer,” says Franklin. “You need to have a strong aesthetic, you need to have a strong will of character, and, by golly, you need to have some big cojones.”
But the show’s success hasn’t exactly trickled down to all of the designers. Runway doesn’t pay the contestants, and many must quit their jobs to be on the show. The winner may get a fashion spread in Marie Claire magazine, a new car, $50,000 in design software, and $100,000 in seed money to start a new clothing line, but not a cent for groceries.
And the losers? All they earn is their 15 minutes of fame. Plus, according to Season 9 Portlander Bryce Black, “Lots of people don’t realize that being on Project Runway also comes with stigma.” Post-appearance, Black says many a prospective employer turned him down because they believed their job wasn’t what he really wanted to do. “What I really wanted to do,” he points out, “was pay the bills.”
As Season 11 was wrapping up (its final episode airs April 25), we checked in with each of Runway’s past Portland participants to find out how the show changed their lives and to discover if asked to do it again, whether they’d be “in” or “out.”
*OK, so one’s from Vancouver. Technicality.
Winner, Season 5
Living in: Brooklyn
Pays the bills by: Designing for her Leanne Marshall bridal and ready-to-wear lines
If given the chance, would you do it again? I don’t regret doing it one bit, but if I had the choice to choose doing it right now at this exact time in my life with the show at its 11th season, I don’t know if I would. When I did it, I felt it was new and exciting; now I think there may be better venues to have exposure.
See a slideshow of Leanne Marshall's recent collections
Winner, Season 7
Seth Aaron Henderson
Living in: Vancouver, Washington
Pays the bills by: Designing his Seth Aaron Black Label, promotional appearances, and styling for local photography studio Iridio
Do it again? Absolutely, the show was nothing but a positive stepping-stone for me. That’s why I currently still work with them. I cast (seasons) eight through 11 for them.
See a slideshow of Seth Aaron Henderson's recent collections
11th place, Season 7
Living in: Brooklyn
Pays the bills by: Designing apparel for Li & Fung USA
Greatest career achievement post-Runway: I took the position as head designer for a new celebrity women’s wear line. I moved to South Florida for it, and was there for two years. I was able to design and develop the full range of the line and got to travel to Asia and Europe.
Do it again? Only to meet the people that I did. I was able to see NYC for the first time, meet Tim Gunn, and show at Bryant Park. It’s a little overwhelming looking back. The platform of “reality TV” is not my favorite; I’m pretty opposed to it on several levels. It ended up changing my life, though.
See a slideshow of Janeane Marie's recent collections
Winner, Season 8
Living in: New York City
Pays the bills by: Designing and running her Gretchen Jones NYC label
is it possible to make it as a fashion designer if you stay in Portland? I think its much easier to be based in Portland as an accessory designer; it’s more challenging for clothing, but not impossible. I felt I was isolated from the resources like wider production possibilities, easier access to sourcing agents, and definitely the community of like-minded designers.
Do it again? Of course. I wouldn’t have done it in the first place if I didn’t think it was worth the risk. You can’t win big if you don’t risk big.
See a slideshow of Gretchen Jones's recent collections
9th place, Season 9
Living in: Southeast Portland
Pays the bills by: Designing for his Bryce Black line and wardrobe styling at Iridio photography studio
Did the show accurately represent your style? No. I was too concerned with creating something the judges would like that I ended up creating boring clothing that they hated. I think if you were to look at my work before and after PR, you would see that I did not accurately represent myself.
Do it again? Yes. It’s an amazing journey of self discovery. If it wasn’t for Project Runway, I would not have the thick skin and the balls to put it out all out there.
See a slideshow of Bryce Black's recent collections
10th Place, Season 9
Living in: Northwest Portland
Pays the bills by: Creating clothing and accessories for private clients through the Becky Ross Line, wardrobe makeovers, and styling for photo shoots
Greatest career achievement post-Runway: Besides receiving my BFA, I’m thrilled to be part of FashioNxt, which takes place during Portland Fashion Week.
Do it again? Everything we experience defines who we currently are, and I think regrets are a waste of time. Yes, I would do it again. Project Runway All-Stars ...? Call me.
See a slideshow of Becky Ross's recent collections
TBD, Season 11
Michelle Lesniak Franklin
Living in: Northeast Portland
Pays the bills by: Sales from her Au Clothing line, working at Garnish boutique, and eating Top Ramen
Greatest career achievement once Runway aired: At the two shops where I sell, I sold out of everything in stock.
Did the show accurately represent your style? Most definitely. I have a pretty strong aesthetic. Everything I’ve created looks exactly like something I would do.
Do it again? It is the most challenging and most rewarding experience I’ve ever had. It made me really define who I am. I learned more about myself than I ever have in my 34 years. Yes, I would do it again.