FOR 14 weeks, the fledgling designers on Bravo's hit TV show "Project Runway" are fashion idols. Their creations -- stitched together in just a few hours, including meltdowns -- are studied by 3 million viewers as if they were the work of Karl Lagerfeld himself. They endure whiny models and broken sewing machines, insults from Nina Garcia of Elle magazine and designer Michael Kors, humiliating "challenges" that have them making gowns out of groceries or the clothes off their backs. And still, they produce some surprisingly intelligent, creative work.
But now, the TV cameras and the fans in the blogosphere have moved on to the cast for Season 3, which begins Wednesday. And one has to wonder about the frock stars past. Where are they now? Have they fallen off the runway, off the radar?
Nine out of the 29 contestants of the past two seasons came out of Los Angeles, and every one of them can tell you the pain doesn't end with Heidi Klum's "auf wiedersehen."
The cocky guy known for winning a challenge with a sexy little dress for Nicky Hilton to wear on the red carpet is struggling, meeting with potential backers for his own line. His sidekick, who won the Barbie challenge with a doll that was produced and sold by Mattel, has gone back to teaching and designing on the side. The two-timer who refused to give up, auditioning and landing on Seasons 1 and 2, is working out of his parents' dining room, and has managed to sell a few pieces to a hot L.A. boutique.
Last month, Santino Rice, 31, who was known for his outsize ego and scruffy military jackets, could be found autographing DVDs at Vidiots in Santa Monica. He was promoting the "Project Runway" Season 2 DVD release, and predictably, he was late to his own party.
The 60 or so guests, some toting cameras, don't seem to mind. When he arrives, a few people give him a standing ovation.
"What's your favorite kind of cereal?" a giggly teenager asks, one of a dozen questions posed with Trekkie-like fanaticism. "I want to say I think you were robbed ... and are you doing anything later?" Someone urges him to do the impression of Kors that he was famous for on the show.
"He has a big fan base," says Cathy Tauber, co-owner of Vidiots. "Someone called from Wisconsin asking if they could have him sign a DVD and send it to them. She even asked if she called during the event, if she could talk to him."
Rice has an impressive resume, having graduated from L.A.'s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, and worked for Tony Duquette as well as doing stints with L.A. labels Pegah Anvarian and Single. Still, he hasn't been able to get a clothing line off the ground.
"Even when the show was on, I had e-mails flooding in from people wanting me to design everything from wedding gowns to the dresses they'd seen on the show," he says. "But first I had to figure out who was serious about collaborating and who just saw me as a TV personality."
While he's still dreaming of a ready-to-wear line, Rice is doing custom work for private clients, just like he did before the show. "I've had several meetings," he says, "but things are still up in the air."
The show's producers don't do much to dispel the chew 'em up and spit 'em out mentality. "I don't know that we have career advice to give," says Shari Levine, the show's vice president and executive producer. "We are in the TV business, not the fashion business." This week, the show was nominated for three Emmys, including outstanding reality competition.
But Tim Gunn, the Parsons School of Design Fashion Department Chair and the show's den mother, has taken on the role of mentor.
"He's my advisor," says Kara Saun, 39, a runner-up on the first season. She showed her sophisticated eveningwear line at Los Angeles Fashion Week in March, and it was recently picked up by a couple of stores. She also continues to do costume design on the side. "He's given me opinions on everything from my price point to showrooms to go to. He's always been the one person on the show whose interest is in the designers."
"They are like my alumni association," Gunn says of Saun and the other grads. "But because of the way they are received by the world while the shows are airing and after, they sometimes have an inflated expectation about what the fashion world will do to embrace them. And depending on their level of experience, that varies a great deal."
"I thought honestly that it would open more fashion doors," Season 2 contestant Andrae Gonzalo, 33, says. Gonzalo launched his own label in 2003 but has put it aside to write a book on "taking the fascism out of fashion."
"The fashion industry was tough when I went on the show and it's still tough," he says. "You get a lot of exposure, but unless you have all your ducks in a row, to swing into production after you get this sort of attention, it doesn't happen fast. People talk about the show as a way to break into the fashion industry, but it's a lot more about breaking into the television industry."
Which may be why Daniel Franco, 31, who was eliminated the first season only to come back for the second, is pitching a TV show about himself, in addition to designing clothing out of his parents' dining room. Although he doesn't have a backer or a showroom representative, he has sold a few pieces to Iconology, where they will hang next to Karl Lagerfeld and Oscar de la Renta. His holiday collection includes a black hammered silk ball gown, draped and knotted, with a windowpane-like opening in front, and a terrific black cocktail dress with silk insets tracing the curves of the body.
"If I design for friends and insiders and they know I do good work, that's one thing," says Franco, who talks about his clothes with the fervor a mad scientist would have for a secret formula. "But promoting it, getting it out there is important. I'm trying to get to a benchmark where I'm not going to be the best TV designer or the best L.A. designer. I want to match up to the greats."
Kirsten Ehrig, 38, who was eliminated last season because she refused to use her heirloom Hermes scarf in the "Clothes Off Your Back" challenge, found her experience on the show to be enormously helpful in finding financial backing for her O Maillots de Bain swimwear line.
"It was a quick way of making me legitimate in terms of being a designer," said Ehrig, who practiced law for seven years, then left the firm for fashion. "When you are a lawyer meeting with potential investors and you tell them you are a designer, they are wary. But when you say you were on 'Project Runway,' it's instant."
"Part of what the show does is bring people to the designers," Gunn says. "But that stops once the show stops. So they have to reach out and they have to be realistic about what they have to offer at this time and place. Younger designers are not ready to oversee a line yet. Even though they have visibility, there is no substituting for experience."
With the show's success, it's probably no coincidence that enrollment in fashion schools across the nation is up. "When I first heard the concept for 'Project Runway,' I thought it would make everyone think they could be a designer," says Gunn. "But because we have real designers, people see what it takes. In general, students who are fresh out of school are not ready for the show. And with each successive season, fewer students show up."
Indeed, he says the Season 3 cast is the most professional yet. Among the local contestants are Jeffrey Sebelia, who designs the avant-garde Cosa Nostra line, sold at Maxfield and a favorite with Gwen Stefani, Billy Bob Thornton and others; Bradley Baumkirchner, who helped re-brand Speedo's Girls' division; Robert Best, a designer at Mattel who has worked on the Barbie Collectibles series for a decade; and Bonnie Dominguez, who heads women's design for Reef footwear in San Diego.
At least they're starting with good day jobs.