Long Island has produced a few top contestants on “Project Runway,” the fashion-focused reality competition series that premiered in 2004 on Bravo. But what happens to players in real life after participating in the show that's touted as a springboard for wannabe designers?
The series, which returns Dec. 5 at 9:30 p.m., promises spoils that now include $250,000, courtesy of Bluprint, a feature in Elle magazine, $50,000, compliments of Pilot and a mentorship with the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America). The format has remained pretty much the same through the years, though the original host and judges have changed save for Nina Garcia, the editor-in-chief of Elle. Heidi Klum is out. Karlie Kloss is in, and now the host. And former contestant Christian Siriano, the most successful winning alum, has taken over Tim “make it work” Gunn’s role as mentor.
Ahead of the premiere, we caught up with a few Long Island alums to find out where they’ve landed since their "Runway" debuts.
Selden's Jillian Lewis, 38, came in third on season 4. Lewis, the former director of design at Ralph Lauren, flaunted her well-honed fashion chops on the show with feminine, meticulously tailored pieces. For a candy challenge, she created an unforgettable dress entirely constructed of red Twizzlers. She went on to present during a few New York Fashion Week seasons.
After "Runway": “Twelve years after, I’ve taken some steps forward and a step backward. I got a lot of private clients, which I wouldn’t have if I had not been on the show … But when I went to show my collection to Barney’s, they said, 'we would never buy something that was on [Project Runway].' ” And without the series, she says, “I know I would still be creating even if I hadn’t been on the show. It did get my name out.”
Nowadays: Lewis, a classically trained dancer, has created costumes for several ballets, including The Washington Ballet. For the past year, she’s been developing and designing uniforms for Holland America Line cruises. “They hired me to create a collection of men’s and women’s uniforms so that their staff can mix and match pieces.” It is a very big gig (the largest scale she and husband Lewaa Abdulkhalek, who sometimes works with her, have ever done) and will include some 2,500-3,000 units.
Carry on: “Fashion is still my passion,” says Lewis, who works out of her own design studio in Long Island City. At some point, she plans to get back into ready-to-wear with a collection of weather-resistant evening coats. As to "Project Runway," well, she doesn’t watch it. "I don’t even have cable."
A finalist on "Project Runway" season 10 in 2012, Massapequa's Christopher Palu, 32, ultimately came in fourth, though he won four challenges. Among his most notable looks (and still his fave) is a silver ensemble with a skyline motif he designed for the Rockettes that fellow Long Islander and judge Michael Kors dubbed “a Bob Mackie moment.” He also participated in series spinoff "Project Runway All Stars" in 2013.
After "Runway": "I had a grand old time on the show because the judges really liked me. Heidi (Klum) loved me. But I thought after the show I would have instant success and that wasn’t true. I really had to look for a job. But it gave me a platform, fans and followers." To that end, Palu found work as a designer at Haute Hippie, and after "All Stars," at Elie Tahari. He also launched his own collection — his spring '19 work of slithery, sexy white and black attire can be viewed on his website.
Nowadays: "I am very busy, which is a great thing." With his penchant for the dramatic, Palu has become one of the go-to designers for the competitors of VH1’s Emmy-winning “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” His custom work is seriously razzle-dazzle, intricate and in high demand. “For these queens, it’s not a costume. So much goes into what I put into the looks. It’s big, over-the-top, avant-garde with feathers, sequins and more.” That includes working directly with the contestant from concept sketch to picking the fabric and fitting. He’s also designed for Tony Award nominees and YouTuber Todrick Hall.
Carry on: “Life is good, though it’s been a bit of a rough start.” He currently works out of his two-bedroom apartment in Jersey City. A few weeks ago, he re-watched his season with a relative who hadn’t seen it before. “It was a lot of fun.”
At age 13, A’Kai Littlejohn was the youngest contestant on season 2 of “Project Runway Junior,” where he was eliminated in the fifth episode. Now 16, the Hauppauge native says mantras from mentor Gunn stayed with him, such as, “the whole picture matters, and little things matter” when it comes to designing.
After runway: “It definitely affected my life,” he says. “People recognize me when I’m at the mall or walking around. Now and then I sign autographs, but mostly they want pictures and they always say how cool it was.” He has no regrets. “The experience was amazing. I learned a lot of new things about the fashion world.” And, he says, “it taught me to stay true to my own aesthetic.”
Nowadays: Littlejohn is committed to becoming an established fashion designer. He held his first solo fashion show at NYFW in September, where he presented some 33 looks — all dresses and gowns, many with strategic cutouts and slashes. “I did all the sewing myself for every look.” He defines his brand, sold on his website, as “high-end luxury woman’s wear." Oh, and there’s school. He’s a junior at Hauppauge High School, where his favorite subjects are art and science. "He’s always on the honor roll and maintains his grades, runs track and is in five or six different clubs,” his mom, Kari, adds.
Carry on: “My dream is pursuing fashion for as long as I can,” says Littlejohn, adding that he would’ve done this “with or without 'Project Runway.' ” He’s currently thinking about designing streetwear, according to his mom. “Something a little more for his age demographic. He’s still a teenager.” Stay tuned.