Our second My TV Nominee Interview Series kicks off with one of the most engaging personalities in reality TV- Project Runway's Seth Aaron Henderson. The fun and forthright designer took some time out of his day to talk to me about the show and share some insights into his winning attitude and philosophy.
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I’m really honored to be nominated, this is totally cool. I love feedback, the good and the bad. Everybody's opinion is different and it's all valid.
You could really see that on the show. Tim would go into the workroom and have a really positive review of something then it would go up before the judges and end up in the bottom.Well yeah. Take Mondo for example: I was there for most of season 8, for many of the episodes, I was there for the final. Watching it being filmed, hearing everyone’s thoughts- the outcome this year was totally different from most peoples’ opinions. I think there were only 2 people who thought it was right: Michael and Nina. But I give Nina the pregnancy pass, she was a little hormonal, Michael was not. I was literally sitting 50 feet from them while they were doing the debate and I was just shaking my head saying “no, don’t cave in Heidi!, don’t cave in.” It was a struggle, it was definitely a heated debate. But the thing is, Mondo’s still the winner: he’s everywhere, he’s lovable, you can’t help but like the guy, personally knowing him- he’s fantastic. Which is not to say that Gretchen’s not a nice person, because she is. How she’s portrayed on TV is.... yeah, she has that way of being kind of weird, but she’s really a nice person. But in my opinion she’s not going to succeed like Mondo. It’s the difference between fashion designers and apparel designers. Fashion designers are setting the pace, which apparel designers are following. Mondo’s innovative, he’s a fashion designer, Gretchen is an apparel designer. Yes she was making nice clothes, but they're clothes that are already available in stores. The judges kept saying “she's current, she's current”, but that’s not what Project Runway is about. We’re showing our clothes and it’s trickling down into retail. That’s what I didn’t get. But I guess it’s a good twist and maybe next year they’ll go the other way, they have to change it up a little.
One of Nina’s criticisms was that Mondo’s line was too much like your aesthetic.“The cousin collection”. Yeah, we do have the same colour palette, but his is very happy, joyful, while mine is very dark. We are in the same area, in a sense, but it is somewhat different. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I liked what he did, because it is so graphic and out there. But I’m happy for everybody, just to get on the show is such an accomplishment. They have 10,000 people apply.
What’s the process like, getting on the show?It’s just like American Idol. They used to have an open audition where you just show up with your garments and portfolio and have to stand in line forever. But it was just too chaotic. Each city had 1000 people show up and ¾ of it was not ready to even audition. So now they have a different process where you send in stuff and only a certain number of people audition, they’ve narrowed it down so they don’t waste as much time and money. But it’s still a big process, a couple of months of applications and interviews, portfolios. You never know where you really stand. You could get a really great criticism when they look at your garments then two weeks down the road you could be dropped. You don’t actually know until a couple days before you leave. You’re really kept in the dark, and I understand that fully because otherwise people are gonna be out writing on the web and they’re just going to spoil it.
It’s well worth it if you can handle it. It’s one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, the entirety of it. But I like pressure and stress, it fit me perfectly. I auditioned several times. I thought “this would be cool, it could launch my career” but they could see, you know Tim said “he’s not quite ready yet- work on this, work on that and come back”. This last time I auditioned I walked in and the whole panel said “yes” and Tim said “you’re ready”. I’m thankful that he could see that and didn’t put me on two years ago when I would have made it halfway through and gotten out. They really want you to succeed- the production company, the Weinsteins, everybody- so I was thankful for their experience in that area.
What’s Tim Gunn like? Were his critiques helpful or mostly just stressful?All criticism is helpful whether it comes from Tim or it comes from Nina or it comes from fans. How are you going to evolve and grow if you’re not gonna listen to anybody. The process of the judging is very long, it has to be edited down or it’d be a two-year show. The very first episode I told the judges “at home I get pats on the back all day long, from friends, from fans… that’s not helping me grow. I don’t really want to hear ‘good job’ I want to hear how I can do better”. And Nina was right on board with that. She was actually my favourite judge because of that, she was gonna be honest with me and she wasn’t gonna blow smoke up my ass. If she said “you’re a little heavy here” I really took that as a positive thing to grow. But Tim’s critiques, absolutely, I listen to every word. Like Michael told me, 80% of what you hear you can throw out the door, but 20%’s gonna resonate with you and it’s gonna help you grow into a better designer. You’ve gotta really listen to him and extract what’s really gonna help you, because that’s all he wants. He’s the nicest man in the world. He taught at Parsons, it’s not like he’s just some yahoo who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I think the people who don’t listen are really narrow-minded. Eventually it’s gonna be your death.
Were you always so clear in your aesthetic?When I first started, I had my aesthetic. Basically where I’m at now is who I am, that’s really just me personally. But like anything, in the beginning you have to find your way. Like Maya, she needed to find out who she was, so I personally understand why she left. I think she made a life decision. She’s not quite sure who she is yet and it’s a scary thing going up against people who knew exactly who they were. When I started I knew what I liked but I was trying to please everybody. I’ve made it all. I practice for 18 hours a day, I’ve been sewing non-stop for 5 years, every day. So you learn, yes I can make any style of garment, that’s not a problem, but how does that fit into me, am I happy with that? What you’ve gotta do is, it’s gotta come from your gut and make you happy. Some people are gonna hate it and some people are gonna love it. That’s what you have to learn, you can’t please everybody, you’ve just gotta be you.
Were you always into fashion or is that something that came later in life?Yeah. I was about two. I always loved department stores and clothes. My whole family has commented “this is what you were into since you were two”. I was a boy, I raced dirt bikes, built forts, did all that, but I did that in my play clothes. I couldn’t go out in public in wrinkled pants, I had to have everything put together. And I’m still that way today. There’s appropriate items for every type of event: you don’t go to the theatre wearing short pants and a friggin’ t-shirt, you dress for the occasion. You go to the gym, you wear gym clothes. But it’s a cold day in hell before you catch me filthy, working in the yard and then stay that way. I’m gonna take it off and be ready for the day. First impression’s everything. Every minute of the day there might be an opportunity, what happens if an opportunity passes by because I was too lazy to change. I look at every day as an opportunity, every situation, no matter where I am.
When did you decide that this is what you wanted to do, be a designer?Since I was a kid, like 12 or 8, I thought this was something I’d like to do. I used to look at the magazines. My mom always had them around and I thought “this is something I really want to do. My dad and my grandfather would always say “be an actor” because I was always into doing performances and all that, which I really loved too. But I was more like “I want to make those clothes”. I first started working 10, 12 years ago in television as a producer’s assistant. Then I got on a print shoot with a fashion stylist and within a year or so I was hired as a stylist and I’ve done that for 10 years. For magazines, for music videos, for billboards- dressing the people. And I’ve always made stuff for me. Being in that industry, models and photographers were all like “with your style, why don’t you make your own clothes?” I said “yeah, I know, that’s always the dream, but how do you get there?”. Then like 5 years ago my wife bought me a sewing machine for Christmas and I just haven’t stopped since. I went the day after Christmas, grabbed some fabric from my mom’s house and just started practicing. I was selling clothes within a year.
You were always praised for your construction skills. That was all self-taught? Practice makes perfect?Yes. I grew up in a very structural family. My dad worked for Disney, he was a cartoonist, he was an artist with painting and all that kind of stuff. My mother was a crafty person, she made clothes, curtains… she used to macramé in the 70s. So I always understood shape. Just looking at, say, the female form- I do both men’s and women’s- but the female form, there’s so many curves, so many things you can enhance or decrease- it’s more of a challenge. How do I enhance this? How do I change that? So yeah: shape, dress form, cut, sew. I taught myself pattern making by trial and error. For a solid 8 months, every day, trial and error. You don’t know what you can do until you try it. Every time I finish a garment, even today, I look at it and say “I love it. Now, what can I do better next time?” That’s how I evolve.
What are some of your greatest strengths and weaknesses as a designer?Strengths are… my ability to execute, for one. I’m a perfectionist so it has to be done right or why do it? The ability to listen and grow. Weakness? I don’t even know what that means. I’m kidding, my biggest weakness is that I’m impatient. I’m learning that I can work on a project and walk away or I can slow down. But if I over-think, I can go on forever, I do better on a deadline. That final collection for Runway, we had a couple months, the collection that I showed I did all in the last 3 weeks. I finished the last garment the night before they picked them up. If you have so much time…procrastination…I just over-think it. It comes from your gut, you just do it. So I like to do it at the last minute. I can make a dress in 2 hours, I could have done that on Runway. I could have made a dress that could have hung in Macy’s or wherever else. But, you know, why? This is our chance to really expand ourselves and learn so I utilize all the time. Tim says if Picasso had had another hour on this, could he have done better. Well why would he just stop? A lot of times I could have been done halfway through our allotted time on Runway but, again, it could be a wasted opportunity, so I used the entire time and grew from that.
Do you think that made you more suited to Runway that the other contestants? Because a lot of them really struggle with the timeline.Yeah, well, everybody’s different. Everyone on the show knows how to sew, how to design, or they wouldn’t have even made it through the first stage. That first stage is all about “what can you do? Can you sew? Can you design?” It’s not about personality, that comes down the road in auditions. It’s really, if you pass Tim and Marie Claire, and whoever’s on the panel (I was on the panel for season 8), if you can make it past that then that’s it, we know you can sew, they’re looking at different elements of who you are. So everyone works at different speeds. I’m really really fast, that’s a strength of mine, I’m really fast and really precise- that comes with practice. But some people, they can make beautiful clothes, but it’ll take them 4 days when it might take me or another contestant 12 hours. It doesn’t mean that they can’t accomplish the same amount that we did, they just need more time. Maya, for instance, is a phenomenal designer, just beautiful, her clothes are gorgeous, she’s more conceptual- she likes to think about it a little more. So she had trouble, she never didn’t finish, she did beautiful stuff on the show, but if she had had another day or two, what could she have done? I would have been looking forward to see what she could have done if she had more time. The same goes for other people, Jonathan, for example, he’s great, but sometimes it was just too many time constraints.
It’s only the first round of auditions that judge your design abilities?Well that’s the initial one. We bring in our portfolios, we bring in our garments and we scrutinize them. Down the road they’re still gonna look at it as a whole “this personality, this type of aesthetic” that’s gonna be evaluated through the process. But that’s the only time that we as auditioners are confronted with construction skills.
From there on it’s more the producers making TV considerations instead of design considerations?Like I said, we’re kept in the dark. I have no idea. I have no idea if the committee sits down a week after auditions and evaluates everyone’s construction skills. It’s all assumption but this is my idea of probably the way it works.
You were always one of the most engaging personalities in the workroom. Do you generally joke while you work or were you specifically aware of the camera?This is one of the few reality shows that’s not scripted, prompted. You’re never told what to do. When you get there they say “look, you’re cast, go do what you do and we’re going to film you”. They never tell you to cause trouble. They’re very good at casting, you be yourself, that’s what you do.
Yes that’s me in the workroom, that’s the way I work, I’m really spastic, really hyper all the time. Some people are quiet, so that makes good TV right there, just from the casting. And no it’s not because the camera’s there. Anthony is Anthony 24 hours a day, he is that way. I know him, I’ve been at other events with him, I’ve lived with him! He is that way all the time, that’s not a TV thing. At least my season, everybody, that’s the way they are, all the time. It’s not a camera thing at all. The cameras are there 21 hours a day, or whatever. It’s not like “I’m gonna act this way because this is my 5 minutes”, they’re there all the time, you just ignore them, or you’ll never be able to get your work done.
A lot of the drama comes from the challenges. Were there any you found particularly crazy, particularly tough or particularly rewarding? What were some of your favourites?Each one I was enthused to do and get through, do my best. Some of my favourites, it showed in the work, I loved the Harlem challenge and the HP one where we designed our fabrics. I loved the kid one, I knew exactly what I was gonna do, I didn’t even sketch. Actually I didn’t sketch for probably 2/3 of them. They told us what the challenge was, I thought about it, I knew what I wanted to do, I went to the fabric store, got my fabric, came back and just made it. But that’s the way I work, I don’t sketch a lot. I mean, I can, but some of them I just wanted to be free. When I see a bolt of fabric I can visualize what garment that can be made out of it. I like to leave it kind of loose like that. It develops as you go.
Tell me about the other contestants- anyone you particularly liked or didn’t like?I wouldn’t say there was anybody I didn’t like. I get along with pretty much everybody. People I really liked, personally, not just on a design standpoint, was Jay, Emilio, Anthony, Jonathan, Ben, I really connected with those people. I talked to Jay yesterday. That’s probably the person I talk to the most, him and Emilio. We’re totally different people but we really get along. It’s kind of like the odd couple. He’s really great. I talk to him almost every week.
What about the models? Have you hired Kristina or Valeria since Runway?Yeah. Valeria was unavailable, but I did an event with Kristina in September down in Los Angeles. I’ve used Cerri, I’ve used Lorena in New York for television appearances, different events. They’re good at what they do so why wouldn’t you use them?
What’s been the effect on your career?Runway’s a platform. It’s not like you're gonna be on it then get a ton of calls, you’ve got to work harder, once you’re done with it, to succeed. It’s a platform to go in any direction you want within your industry. Or even outside of your industry. I’m doing lots of things that don’t even deal with clothes but they deal with accessories or whatever. The only difference is that I’m doing exactly what I was doing before, except everyone knows who I am now. So if I call Macy’s corporate and say “hi, this is Seth Aaron” they know who I am, whereas before I would say that and they would go “who is this?”. It’s a platform, it does jump start you. You can’t pay for that kind of promotion. I get emails daily from all over the world. I could pay millions of bucks and advertise myself but no one would know who I am. The magnitude is huge, it does help.
You won your season. Did the prize really help with your line?I use my HP stuff, I use it daily. The money really helped, I used a lot of it to get started and promote. After taxes and everything, it’s not a lot. But I’m definitely not complaining.
What have you been up to since the show?I’ve done a couple of lines. I do a lot of personal appearances and stuff, Macy’s will hire me to come out and do meet and greets, etc… Colleges, in central Michigan, on February 16th I’m going out with Mondo to do a lecture. That’s a career in itself. Then you’ve got the other side, which is your clothes and your accessories. I’ve just signed with a company where I’m doing a whole collection of iPad accessories. Cases and everything, my style, they have my name on them. They’ll be in stores and on the web on March 1st. A lot of different stuff. The random stuff that comes out of it is stuff that you don’t expect, I led a tour at the Seattle art museum for Warhol, I was the grand marshal of the rose parade, I got a key to the city- it’s those things that you would never think would come out of a fashion competition. That’s the most interesting thing.
Is there anything you’d like to add?I’m just really honored to be nominated. Thank you. It’s all appreciated. You just have to be appreciative of what you have today because it could be gone tomorrow. Just stay humble and be thankful for what you have today. That’s what I think Mondo does well too. That’s pretty much the way he is too, he’s just a good-spirited person.