So, spoiler alert — I spoke to the winner of “Project Runway All Stars,” and I can only say so much before I have to reveal the gender, so let’s just say don’t click to the story if you don’t want to know.
Yes, Seth Aaron Henderson, the season 7 winner of “Project Runway” became the first designer to win a season of both shows. The Washington-based, self-taught designer beat out Korto Momolu and Elena Slivnyak on the final runway with a collection of color block, Spanish-inspired designs. The married dad gave me a call to talk about why he wanted to take on the hellishness of “Project Runway” a second time, what he hopes this win will do for his career, and whether or not Elena was really as nutso as she seemed to be.
Congratulations! Everyone was great this season, but I knew you had it sewn up when Korto sent that white peplum dress down the runway. Why did you want to do “All Stars”? I realize there’s prize money at stake, but I’m sure it’s more than that.
Money, that comes and goes. I wanted the title, and I did it for business. It was all business related, really. The public already knows who I am and what I design from my first season on the show. I was a brand new designer to them then, but now they already know me. It was about business. My stuff’s on QVC right now, so the clothes are available. I have plenty of custom and black label business, but as an independent designer there’s no way to do it. So, to partner with QVC and design a collection for them, one that reaches thousands of people, where there are quantities per item, a lot of sizes for a lot of customers, that’s what was important to me.
So that was what your big picture plan was, to reach the mass market?
I’m looking for different levels for the label, and this would be the next level. I’ll always have my black label, but that’s a higher end customer. I can’t do that on QVC, and that’s the mass market.
You have the capsule collection on QVC, but is it just a one-off or is this an open-ended arrangement?
We have a small collection that is open ended. If it works well for both of us, we move forward, meaning a larger collection, possibly seasonal collections for them as my mass market venue. That’s the high volume part of the business. My black label could be in Neiman Marcus or Nordstrom, for example.
When you won, you mentioned to the judges you’re relocating to Los Angeles. How’s that going?
We are moving to Los Angeles in July.
Why L.A. and not New York?
I’m from down there and we like sunshine and swimming pools. So my design studio, I’ll be opening in Downtown and expanding into menswear as well. Nordstrom has an interest in my menswear. When they first saw it, they wanted it and wanted it now, but I wasn’t in a position to give them what they wanted now. Opening my studio in Los Angeles, I have local production for my black label, and I have my sample room. The stuff that’s produced for QVC, that’s in Manhattan, though.
So, because people in the fashion industry watch the show, winning “Project Runway All Stars” gives you a level of exposure you wouldn’t be able to get any other way?
Right. There’s that element, but it’s not even about that. It’s just about having the opportunity to partner with retailers. I didn’t know QVC was going to be available, but I knew someone would be the retail partner for the winner to work with. I worked on that one dress for Milly for the challenge I won, but I’ve talked about doing more for them. We’re going to have a discussion.
Watching “All Stars,” the level of design is so high, it feels that some of the judging comes down to whether or not one of the non-designer judges would wear it.
That’s the good part of it, though. You have a designer like Georgina [Chapman], then you have the guest judge, then Zac Posen who looks at it more from a design point of view than, say, Alyssa [Milano]. So it gives everyone a fair chance.
You had to put your life on hold for a while to do this show. Did you hesitate at all before taking this on?
We shoot for seven weeks, so yes, but it took me two and a half seconds to say yes. I’m going to win this, I said that from day one. There’s no way to commit to this without believing that. It never crossed my mind I wouldn’t make it. I went there saying, I’m going to show this new panel who I am, number one, and then I’m going to do this collection. My final collection was already in my head before I even started.
But you didn’t win a competition for a very long time. You must have been thinking, what the hell?
As long as I made it through the week, I didn’t care about winning the individuals. I just cared about not going home. I was focused on the next challenge before it was there. The first challenge, I should have won that one, but it didn’t matter. I just moved on and started thinking about the next challenge.
Was Elena as loud and disruptive as she seemed to be, or was that just editing?
She’s loud, but it’s just in the workroom. Actually she’s pretty quiet outside of the workroom, so no, she’s not. Chris [Palu], he gets very quiet in the workroom, and outside of the workroom he gets very loud. But when he gets on the runway, it’s like he’s a three-year-old who’s gotten in trouble for something. He just becomes very, very quiet. But we had a good time in the workroom. There was no cattiness. It’s the difference between the first time around, when you have a bunch of fresh designers trying to make their names, to having a group of polished professionals. We all appreciate one another’s work, and it’s not about competing with one another, either. It’s not, I’ve got to outdo you, it’s, I’ve got to do my best and they’ll either like it or they won’t. But you almost had double the time to make an outfit in the regular season.
It’s amazing that you guys actually created mini collections in just four days. It was even more amazing that looked so polished. On “Project Runway,” we might get really bad execution.
That’s what it comes down to, execution. You had to make an outfit in half a day. The laser cut fabric, my interpretation of lace? I made the pants in 22 minutes. I had to, because they added another look to the challenge. Because of that, and because I had all solids and had to find a way to incorporate a print in another outfit, I also had to create a leather skirt with a scarf top. Therefore, I had to make the pants. Isaac told me that was very smart, because it’s a color block collection, and that was the only scarf out of the 40 up there that would work with my collection. That was the only one. I lucked out.
Your heart must have sunk when they announced the scarf twist. You did lunge for that one scarf, I’ll say.
There’s not one other one I could have used, and we’re standing there looking at the rack, so, I did go for it. It made sense with it. Before they added that look in, there was a leather skirt and another monochromatic white outfit and I had to rework everything.
How do you feel about the unconventional challenges? As a viewer, I think they’re fun to watch, but I’m not sure they really show who’s the best designer.
It’s the challenge. We had the school challenge, and it does push people to think outside the box, like, how am I going to make something believable with this? I think Christopher did an amazing job on the school challenge. If it doesn’t work out, I don’t know. I think they’re fun challenges, for me. They’re fun to watch. Just because, what you have is what you have. We have three or four minutes to grab everything we could. If we had time, an hour, things would have turned out differently. Then you get back to the workroom and say, shit, what am I going to do with this?
I just hate to see anyone go for an inability to make a dress out of soccer balls or whatever.
Things look nice but someone has to go. And you are attached to the designers, so it’s hard to say goodbye to anyone, any week. I’ve seen every episode of every season of the show, so you get attached to certain designers. There were designers on “All Stars” I’ve admired and loved their work, like Mychael [Knight], and Jeffrey [Sebelia]. They were always favorites of mine. That was the hardest part of it. You want to win, but you don’t want these people to go home. Viktor [Luna], we’ve collaborated on a collection and he’s a really good friend of mine. But at the same time, I’ve got to focus on winning. That was the hardest thing, when people you admire go home.
How did you become such an accomplished tailor? The judges always gushed over your skill, but you’re a self-made designer.
It’s 18 hours of sewing a day. I had a retail showroom and I opened the doors at 11 a.m., closed at 6, go home to eat, then sew until 2 in the morning… It was practice, all day, every day. I’ve always naturally understood design, so I got my machine, and the next day got my fabric. I used vintage patterns when I first started, because they didn’t have stretch fabric back then, so all the patterns had to be precise. I taught myself tailoring that way. I like structure. My interest is in very structured designs.
The judges loved your designs, but Isaac Mizrahi hated your styling. I don’t really understand what he hated. It looked very clean to me, really.
He called it a disaster. But Gayle King loved my styling. Georgina loved my styling. He said, you could have ditched the glasses, pulled her hair back in a ponytail and then it would be perfect. And what I think is then it would be your show. Georgina and Zac [Posen] and Gayle King, they loved the chains and the glasses and the hair.
It seems that “Project Runway” offers much more than a win — advice, too.
That’s why I still am very active with the show. I go do their events, and I really back the show, because it gives us a platform. There’s no way in hell you could get that kind of exposure to the public, to the fashion industry without this show. Michael Kors, from the first two episodes, he said it took me 22 years to get to this level. It’s a game changer. You learn all kinds of stuff, like life lessons. You learn about different personalities and you learn a lot about people from being stuck in a workroom with people you never met, and on “All Stars” you learn a lot about business and working with mass retailers like QVC.
Unfortunately, you didn’t get Tim Gunn. But I guess on “All Stars” you’re all grown-up and don’t need him anymore.
You can always use Tim Gunn. He’s an irreplaceable man. If I had him in my workroom every day it would be helpful. Zanna [Roberts Rossi] knows what she’s doing, too. She actually cast me for season 7, so when I’ve traveled with seasons 8, 9, 10 and 11, she’s been there, too. But mentoring is a totally different world than judging. Mentoring takes practice. And this is a brand new role for her. I don’t know if I’d be a good mentor.
Well, you could find out on Tim Gunn’s new show, “Under the Gunn.” I’m sure the mentors will rotate in and out.
It airs next week, and Mondo [Guerra] and Anya [Ayoung-Chee] and Nick [Verreos] are there now. Are they going to bring in new people? I would do it. It would be another experience. I’m good at critiquing other people’s work, that’s why they have me help with casting, but, I don’t know what the show is about. I could tell them what they would or could do, but I don’t know. I think it would really hard to be a mentor.
Now we have you on record as being open to it, so maybe Tim Gunn will give you a call. How do you feel about the editing of “Project Runway”? You come across as a decent guy, but a lot of people complain when they look like crybabies or jerks. Is it really editing?
It is and it isn’t. You did say it or do it, whether they mean to edit more towards one way or another. A lot of people can be really calm, but when they get in a pressure cooker, they flip out. I’m good under pressure. And that’s one of the advantages I have. Everyone on “All Stars,” give them a week, they can make something incredible, but 10 hours, maybe not so much. Melissa [Fleiss], that was her downfall, time management.
Who did you see as your greatest threat on “All Stars”?
I viewed the entire cast as a threat. Every last person. That’s the thing about “All Stars,” every last one of them could win. I knew that. Just because someone does poorly one week, they can do great the next. You’ve just to do the best at what you do. Again, it’s subjective. “I thought that dress was great, why is it in the bottom?” This type of show is 70 percent mental. It’ s mental challenge.
And yet it’s a grueling, exhausting grind that pushes people to the limit. I’m sure some of the people we see crying so much probably didn’t cry for years before they did the show.
Even me, I was just emotionally drained by the end. I’m not someone who starts crying. It really does you in.