Okay, I still think Brian Burkhardt’s swimwear-look necklace in the final challenge of “Project Accessory” looked like cotton balls on a chain (hey, judge Ariel Foxman thought the thing looked like it was going to hatch, so I’m not alone). Still, Brian took home the grand prize of $100,000 and bragging rights that his unicorn horn handbag will soon be carried in Kenneth Cole stores everywhere. Having had the chance to rest up from five grueling weeks of competition, the Florida-based sculptor-turned-designer was a lot more fun on the phone than I expected (on the show, he seemed more serious and focused, which might be why he won the whole shebang). Here’s what the big winner had to say about his stint on reality TV.
Even though it’s technically a spin-off, “Project Accessory” seemed very different from “Project Accessory.”
It’s totally a different animal and it’s a very interesting show because of that. You’re dealing with designers who each have specific areas of focus, but we had to take on challenges that required putting your skills to the test in every area, from jewelry to shoes to handbags and belts.
I was shocked they asked you guys to make shoes, since James Sommerfeldt was really the only guy who had that skill set.
All of our stuff had to be inspected by cobblers before it went down the runway for legal reasons. But that was definitely my first shoe. But I felt that, I can sew and I can cut leather, so I can do this. It may not be the best thing, but I can at least try.
Picking James as your partner for the finale seemed like a no-brainer — in fact, I was shocked that he wasn’t snapped up first.
Choosing James was a no brainer. I couldn’t believe no one else had picked him, either. Personally, James and I get along so fantastically, I knew he would be great to work with, plus I needed to do shoes and jewelry and really create a whole, comprehensive collection. I could have made shoes if I had to, but they can take so long to do, and I wanted to work with someone who had that expertise. Plus, I wanted to collaborate with someone who would want to work with me and not fight me. I’m responsible for my design aesthetic at the end of the day, and that doesn’t mean ordering someone around, but you need to be working with someone who wants to support that and really collaborate with you.
Of the three finalists, you seemed the most confident about your game plan in the workroom.
I wasn’t asking people’s opinion, which some people did. I’ve said this many times, I didn’t go on the show to win; I went on to be who I am. The judges asked, why should you win? And I said I don’t know. Everyone is so different and is really talented in their own way. All I can do is I can tell you who I am. Because I started out as a sculptor, I have been critiqued so heavily for so many years. I’m used to it. I own what I do. I might do it differently, and I might want to go back and change things sometimes, but at a certain point you have to trust your gut.
It seems that on every reality TV show, at least one contestant in the finale lets too much of their final vision be molded by their so-called assistant. This time, it seemed to be Rich letting Diego have too much of a say.
You have to remember, thought, that Diego was on the show up until that last challenge. He was tired and exhausted, and he really felt like, I’m okay if I go home now. Then, he had to get that call, “Hey, what you didn’t get to do last week, come back and do for someone else.” And remember, his clientele, and he will tell you this, is the 45-year-old-plus divorcee. He has lines of people waiting for his stuff and he knew when he went back home he had tons of work to do. When he went on the show, he said, I’m going to do what I do, period. Rich’s aesthetic is so not Diego’s aesthetic, so it was probably a situation destined not to work out. Diego wants to do what Diego wants to do. I respect that as a designer, but I would never have chosen Diego to be my partner in the finale because of that.
Still, was it hard sticking to your guns when Eva kept giving you harsh critiques?
Eva did that every single time, but I just think that, I can’t make something that isn’t me so I could listen to her and respect her opinion but I still needed to do what I needed to do. But she gave me fantastic feedback, like telling me, this is a piece of art and this is a piece of art, and because they’re together you don’t know where to look and you may want to edit. Some of the things I did she hated, though. The one leather cuff she tossed onto the table and said, you’re not going to put this in. But I did. She has an amazing aesthetic and I didn’t want to be disrespectful to her, but I’m going to make the decision that applies to my design process. I have to believe in my designs. I think that’s the most important thing.
You were the one designer to say the required reality TV phrase, “I didn’t come here to make friends.”
I said that, but then I said, yeah, right, I wish I knew everyone here and I ended up making tons of friends, so that’s the funny part. And I guess what I meant wasn’t that I was set on winning, but that if some people don’t like what I do, that I wasn’t going to try to please other people. And when I said that, it was when I was working with the resin and creating all that dust, which I realized was a frustrating thing for people. But the workroom wasn’t set up for what I needed to do. But even as I said it, I said here we go, I’m going to say the phrase! They edited me, but I think they did a good job of presenting me as someone who’s driven and focused and that’s great. I’m definitely more friendly and comical in real life, but I was happy with how I was portrayed on the show.
Really, except for some understandably cranky moments, no one came off looking like a jerk. Not even Nicolina.
That was the thing! We all got along great. Even if you think about the one person who was out there, which was Nicolina, I still like her. She was who she was. You may not like what she says, and she even said to me, I talked a lot of shit about you, but I can respect it. You may not want to be best friends with her, but you can respect the fact that she spoke her mind and was honest. We were all there to help one another. James helped us all with shoes and we became good friends. There wasn’t drama. We were all so different and had such different areas of expertise, it wasn’t competitive the way it sometimes is on other shows.
I’m sure the producers weren’t thrilled with how well you all got along, but are accessories designers just nicer than fashion designers?
I don’t know. I think end all, it’s as cutthroat as you want to be. But they found people who were excited to be on the show, and I’ve never seen 11 people work that hard. No one was sitting in the back room drinking coffee, ever, trust me. Everyone was there to work really hard. I think we all had enough respect for each other and we all had a background coming into it. But I think the accessories industry is as cutthroat as any job, especially in this economy when you have engineers working at Starbucks just to get by. I just feel we got really lucky.
Although you guys actually helped one another on challenges. You never see that on other shows.
True. On other shows, it would be tough shit, figure it out. There were people who asked for more help, especially from Diego, but I didn’t ask Diego how to make a handbag. When you figure out how he makes a bag, there’s no way to match up to it. When everyone else was patterning, I realized that if I do that, it won’t be me. Those machines were so fast, unless you were in that industry, it was like a machine gun.
Were you surprised you weren’t sent home for the insect challenge, in which you poured white resin all over your work?
In my artwork, I’ve done beetles and insects, so for me, I was like ugh, I can’t believe I’ve screwed this up. It was so late; we’d been up 20 some hours and I thought, I don’t love it so I have to be willing to mess it up. For me, I wanted to do a red carpet look, but if I did I would want to do it for Lady Gaga. Crystals and gemstones are not my thing, so I had to create something that was like a work of art. I think I pulled it off. I spent a lot of time trying to fix it. I think the judges knew I take risks and took that into account. People loved it or they didn’t. Really, people love me or they can’t stand me. No one is middle of the street. I think that’s the ultimate compliment. Ariel [Foxman] told me, I go to 100 shows a year, and I would fly anywhere to see you because I never know what to expect.
Were you surprised to win?
I think I was good enough to win and skilled enough to win and I had a certain design aesthetic, but let’s be truthful. I don’t think my work is as commercially viable as Ninas or Rich’s. I didn’t know what the judges were looking for, whether it was something more commercial or something like what I do. I was shocked that I won. I was shocked that they got me and I was able to design what I wanted without compromising anything. It was beautiful. Nina is young and beautiful, do they want this chubby little italian dude representing “Project Accessory”?
Was there any designer you thought went home too soon?
I was surprised to see Kelly go because she’s a phenomenal bag designer. She took a big risk on her shoe that didn’t work out for her. When they praised me for taking a risk, they didn’t praise her. Maybe because the shoe fell apart they couldn’t give it to her, but she’s definitely someone I felt went home too soon.
Who was your biggest competition, in your opinion?
Diego. He’s a master craftsman at what he does, and everything he makes is so well executed. I felt the judges loved his aesthetic, and we represented two opposite sides of the spectrum. If they were going for fine and clean they wouldn’t get me.
Were you surprised to win the Kenneth Cole challenge with your unicorn horn bag?
Definitely. He actually said to me, you didn’t capture my brand, this isn’t my brand. I said I have no disrespect for your brand, I own Kenneth Cole pieces myself. They’re timeless and have classic lines. I told him I wanted to create pieces of art to add risk to his collection. Finally, he said I don’t get it, but I love it. Which was so amazing.
So, now that you have the hundred grand (minus taxes), what are you going to do?
I’ve been working on a show with all exotic leathers for Triian, the line I have with my wife. I’m also planning on working with James in the future. Plus, I have an 8-month-old son. I’m thinking about him and providing for him. This allows me the time to focus on one-of-a-kind editorial pieces, which are what I really want to do. I want to do custom stuff and sit in my studio and experiment with materials.
Your son was only three months old when you did the show. Did it rip your heart out having to leave him for five weeks?
They take your phone away, so I was only able to call once during the show, before the hurricane. But that was probably for the best, because it wouldn’t have been fair to Trisha. I wouldn’t have been able to tell her anything about what was going on. She was amazing, though. She told me, this is the opportunity of a lifetime, I want you to focus and do the best you can. I’m good, don’t worry, just keep your head in the game.
Given how grueling the show was, did you get home and sleep for a week?
Oh, I got home and had nightmares for three weeks. Oh my God, everyone I talked to who was on the show did. I would wake up going, I have a challenge, I have to go! I had that for three weeks, nonstop. I think it was because of the level of anxiety and stress and sleep deprivation. It was a surreal environment.