The fourth season of Bravo's hit series "Project Runway" kicks off Wednesday, and if the first episode is any indication, it is going to be a doozy. The challenges are brutal, the judges funnier and meaner than ever, and the contestants -- a motorcycle mama, a nature nut and a slew of designing divas -- give new meaning to the word kooky.
But Long Islanders, no doubt, will be rooting for Jillian Lewis, 26, who is none of the above. Lewis, who grew up in Selden, was chosen from thousands of applicants as one of 15 finalists on the show. Her goal, natch, is to be one of the last three designers standing, meaning she would get to strut her stuff on the runway during New York Fashion Week in February and perhaps win the whole shebang -- an editorial feature in Elle, $100,000 seed money for a business and a 2008 Saturn.
In the first challenge (a tape of the first show was made available to the press), Lewis shows moxie despite what she considers an athletic disadvantage. The contestants are herded into Bryant Park, lulled into a comfort zone with a champagne toast and suddenly confronted by host Heidi Klum (who, by the way, has gone positively dominatrix in her role as boss lady) and mentor Tim Gunn. Their mission: Sprint a decent distance in the park to a troika of tents that houses $50,000 worth of fabrics and, in frenzied "supermarket sweepstakes" style, snatch material to create an ensemble that defines who they are as fashion designers.
"I was really bad in gym class, and I knew for sure I was not going to be in the front of the pack but in the back with the kids who had asthma," says Lewis. But she gave it her all (running barefoot so as not to ruin her $600 Dries Van Noten boots). We can't reveal the results of the challenge, but Lewis says she was happy with the fabric she snagged.
Good work for the young woman who thought she would become a dancer. She became interested in fashion while attending Selden's Newfield High School and her mother bought her a sewing machine. "The very first thing I sewed was stitched on so you could stand still, but you couldn't walk in it," she recalls.
The fashion bug bit her hard in the late '90s, when big, wide-legged pants were making a splash on the high fashion scene but not sold in stores on Long Island. She did what any hardcore fashionista would: She made them. "People were really responding to what I was wearing, so I stopped dancing and turned my attention to designing." She became so focused on her own small manufacturing business, making silk-screened warm-up pants for $35 a pair, that, she says, "My boyfriend broke up with me, my friends stopped calling. I underestimated the time it would take."
Linda Murray-Wilke, an English teacher at Newfield who wrote Lewis' recommendation for Parsons, remembers the young woman well. "The two things that struck me about Jillian were her work ethic and her creativity. It didn't matter what the assignment was, she always had her fingerprints on it. She sees things differently than other people, and her gift is that she is creative and she trusts her imagination. She'll give it wings."
That held true at Parsons, from which she graduated in 2003. Her first job was as an assistant designer at Searle, where, she says, she learned "the old-fashioned way of tailoring." She left to try out for "Project Runway," but not before making a love connection with Lewaa Abdulkhalek, 29, Searle's director of sales.
Now her boyfriend of three years, Abdulkhalek says he could always see her talent. "When we went out on a date, I'd ask her, 'Where did you get that beautiful dress?' And she'd answer, 'Oh, I made it this morning.'"
While waiting to hear from "Runway," Lewis went to work for Rugby by Ralph Lauren, where she learned more about conceptualizing a full collection. "I got a lot of ammunition there. My position was artistic and fun." Just short of her first year at Lauren, she got the call: she had made the cut for "Runway."
Her family, of course, is not surprised by her success. "We've always known Jillian was going to be famous," says her mom, Karen Lewis. "As a child, she was extremely motivated to be on top of everything she did." As for the now-fabled sewing machine, Lewis' mother says, "It was the cheapest little Singer. I never thought she would take off with it."
Will she be in or out on "Project Runway"? That's anybody's guess, but a few weeks ago the young designer officially incorporated her business. She says her work embodies "femininity and sensuality," with a matching dose of "edginess." As for her new label? Simply, Jillian Lewis Inc.
We'll all be watching.