'Runway' Winner's New Project

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'Runway' Winner's New Project

Jay McCarroll won the first season. Still designing, he's also a mall ambassador. July 17, 2013 | By A.D. Amorosi, By The Inquirer, Philly.com

The Hamilton Mall in Mays Landing, N.J., isn't so far from Lincoln Center in New York. Yet in spirit, the mall that just welcomed a new Forever 21 and the site of the most prominent fall and spring fashion weeks in the country are a million miles apart. Philadelphia designer Jay McCarroll, 38, winner of Project Runway's first televised competition in 2005, knows about that distance better than anyone. Eight years ago, his colorful techno-bohemian couture was expected to make him an industry superstar. It didn't. He's OK with that. These days, he's selling his own fabric and designing a self-named line out of a South Philly studio - from T-shirts to greeting cards, eyeglasses to scarves - and last month, he was named Hamilton Mall's ambassador, a role that has him selling his wares at the Never Too Spoiled shop, hosting catwalk events, and overhauling both the mall's image and his own.
 
"We're going to rebrand together," he says with a laugh. "People still recognize me from Runway. I love the show. It's just time that I got to be Jay McCarroll." As Project Runway debuts its 12th season Thursday, many bloggers and fashionistas still wonder why McCarroll didn't become the next Zac Posen or Vivienne Westwood. And, McCarroll admits, teaching at Philadelphia University (his alma mater when it was Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science) and working at a mall were never his life's ambitions. Yet, McCarroll stresses that he isn't just about fashion. He is an artist, and he wouldn't mind being the next Martha Stewart and Kate Spade - houseware and accessory goddesses. "We've had a great time working with Jay," says Megan Brewster, who, with Erin Waxman, owns Northern Liberties' Art Star Gallery & Boutique and its spring Art Star Craft Bazaar on Penn's Landing. When they approached him about doing a trunk show at their store, the day was spent brainstorming ways to collaborate on projects that would enhance the local design scene.
 
McCarroll will soon contribute a custom quilt and pillows to a forthcoming exhibition that Art Star will host in collaboration with DesignPhiladelphia, called Farmhaus & Friends. Whether it's selling his goods at craft fairs or doing meet-and-greets, he views each opportunity as a way to get closer to his goals. ("I'd love to design Kleenex boxes," he says.) "I'm sure there are people going 'Ha, he's at a mall,' but I'm a mall kid," says McCarroll, recalling his childhood of painting rocks with four sisters and one brother in Lehman, Luzerne County. "I'm not Marc Jacobs. I've never been a Fifth Avenue person. People believe that they know what I should be doing, but based on what? That it's a shame I'm not designing for Julia Roberts or some star? Julia Roberts isn't paying for those clothes, and that's no way to make money. The red carpet is not for me and never has been. It's all smoke and mirrors." And reality-show appearances are no proof of success, McCarroll has learned, especially considering he also appeared on Bravo's Project Jay (he headed to New York City to market his fashion line) and VH1's Celebrity Fit Club (he lost weight for charity). Right out of the Project Runway gate, McCarroll was at a bit of a disadvantage: He rejected a clause in his contract - and with it, the prize money - that allowed the show's producers a 10 percent stake in any of his professional endeavors, in perpetuity. (Apparently, that clause has since been removed.)
 
But without the money, McCarroll had to get cash - difficult for an artist unschooled in matters of finance. "Literally overnight, you see yourself being called the next great American designer, and you think, 'Maybe I could be that,' " says McCarroll. "There were people promising me $40 million and all I could think was whoa, hold on." Without any business infrastructure in place, he felt nervous accepting so much money - especially because he'd owe them more later. There was also a matter of his self-esteem. Despite the invitations to the best celeb parties (he happily recalls Debbie Harry's 2006 birthday bash with Lindsay Lohan and Nile Rogers), he didn't feel confident. "I'd shoot Project Runway promos with the director telling me to look into the camera and say 'I'm a winner.' I didn't feel comfortable saying that because I'm not a competitive person. I joked to myself that I'm a loser."
 
He did debut a spring 2007 collection during the September 2006 New York Fashion Week, his line sponsored by the Humane Society because his clothes are cruelty-free - no fur, no leather, no wool. Although none of the pieces from that collection sold, "lots of interest came from it, like selling to Urban Outfitters and QVC." By then, it was too little, too late, especially after New York magazine published "The Near-Fame Experience," a 2007 story saying he was homeless. In reality, McCarroll said, he was transitioning from living in Lehman near his ailing father to a New York studio where he often slept. He eventually had fun with that characterization by making a YouTube video of himself lying in the street, holding a sign that read, "Will Design for Food." But the fun was over. His father, William "Butch" McCarroll, a concrete contractor for the state, died, and the designer was tired of struggling to afford publicists and studios.
 
"I wanted a more manageable life like my father had," McCarroll said. "I wanted to be happy like he was where I could be around my friends and my resources." McCarroll moved to South Philly in 2008, found a manufacturer in North Philadelphia to produce his apparel and accessories, and started making gear that he could sell and market easily. The absence of New York City rent, and the fact that he isn't doing couture (although he hopes to again, one day) allows him to price everything between $20 and $75. "People think it's less, but it's way more," he says. " Why aren't we celebrating the fact that I'm selling stuff that people can - and do - buy?" As for his mall gig, McCarroll says he is proud to be associated with Hamilton. He calls malls and retailers like Macy's the nuts and bolts of the fashion industry. "People give [Project winner] Christian Siriano grief for his deal with Payless, but he's making money," McCarroll said. "[Project judge] Michael Kors? His designs only see so much action on Fifth Avenue, but I bet he sells tons more at T.J. Maxx or Marshall's. I would love to have my work in Sears or Target. That's where my customers are."

 

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