A’kai Littlejohn was like a yo-yo.
First, the eighth-grader from Hauppauge was at rock bottom, as “Project Runway Junior” judges told him on national TV that the avant-garde outfit he helped design was the worst of the contest and the aspiring fashion designer would be going home to Long Island.
Tears seeped from his eyes.
Moments later, Littlejohn was back on top, as show mentor and co-host Tim Gunn used his ability to “save” one contestant to return Littlejohn to the second season. The 10-episode, elimination-style competition for teens ages 13 to 18 culminates with a college scholarship to the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in California, $25,000 to produce their line and more.
“It’s a roller coaster, but it’s really fun,” Littlejohn says of being on the show, which filmed in Brooklyn during the summer but started airing on Dec. 22 with 12 competitors from across the country. It’s on Thursdays at 9 p.m. on Lifetime; this Thursday marks the fifth episode, with young designers competing to make clothes incorporating LED lights.
Littlejohn, who was 13 at the time of taping, isn’t the only contender from Long Island — Chris Russo, 17, a Riverhead High School senior from Calverton, is also in the ring. He says it’s hard for him to sleep on Thursday nights after watching, because he goes over in his mind what he could have done differently or better. “I’m sure I’ll love it two years from now,” he jokes.
The look Russo comes up with for tomorrow’s LED challenge is “my favorite outfit of all time,” he says. How far does he go in the competition? “We’ll see if I get the scholarship to FIDM or if I’m just staying here in good old New York,” he says cagily.
Russo started sewing in a home economics class he took in seventh grade, and began by making pillows — so many that Russo’s paternal grandmother, Marilyn, suggested, “Let’s make some clothes.” Russo’s first project was a skirt with a cupcake pattern that his younger sister Cordelia wore.
Russo originally thought he might focus on designing bridal gowns. “Snore,” he says now. Instead, he focuses on graphic designs. “I’m all about mixing prints,” he says. He takes a BOCES fashion class through school. He changes his hair color often — since the show, when it was blond, he has dyed it blue, and now it’s brown.
Littlejohn says he started sketching outfits when he was 3. “My mom and dad said they didn’t know what I was doing at first,” he says. “When I was 4, my aunt taught me how to sew.”
Littlejohn’s personal style includes donning a bow tie, flat cap and sweater for every runway show, and he makes most of his bow ties himself. He calls his education “The University of A’kai.” “Things I don’t know how to do, or I want to learn how to do — I just go on YouTube and see what I could learn from there,” he says. He offers his collections for sale at akailittlejohn.com.
‘Cool to be pushed’
So far this season, the weekly challenges have included coming up with a look inspired by Manhattan’s Central Park; using unconventional objects (pool toys) to create an outfit; designing an avant-garde look inspired by fencing uniforms; and coming up with an outfit that can go from daytime activities to an evening out.
“I think I really stepped outside my comfort zone a lot,” Russo says. “It was really cool to be pushed creatively, and now I’ll be better because of it. It was a nice way to spend the summer because I don’t like swimming or going to the beach.”
Russo’s mom, Diane, 45, says she’s very proud of his effort. “It was like going to work every day for him. It’s like having a summer job doing this. A lot of stress, a lot of pressure. And it was emotional.”
The best part of the filming, Russo says, was meeting the other kids. “We were all best friends by the end of the first episode,” he says. As one of the teens says on the show, “I found my people.” They all stayed in the same hotel and ate dinner together nightly. The sad part was eliminations: “It was like a piece of the family leaves every couple of days,” Russo says.
Littlejohn says he is enjoying his notoriety. Every Thursday at Hauppauge Middle School, his principal reminds students of the night’s coming episode. Littlejohn had a viewing party the first night of the show — “The entire Hauppauge eighth grade came,” he says. “I felt pretty famous.”