For SUEDE There Was a Lot of Life to Live After “Project Runway”

Have you binged on fashion reality television shows since the COVID-19 health pandemic? If you have, you’ve probably wondered what has happened to many of the talented fashion designers from “Project Runway.” In the 18 seasons of “Project Runway,” only Christian Siriano has become a household name.

Still, there was a lot of fantastic design talent on the show. (Fashion Reverie is very familiar with several designers from “Project Runway.” Some of them are friends to the site.) Did most of the contestant leave the fashion industry, move to other countries, become reality television has-beens, or just quietly get jobs in the fashion industry without much fanfare?

The latter is true for most. And that is true for SUEDE (Stephen Whitney Baum) from season 5 and “Project Runway All-Stars.”

You may remember SUEDE for his witty comebacks, blue spiky hair, and avant-garde fashion creations. And if you do, that was the plan!! However, SUEDE is so much more than that.

In this revealing interview, SUEDE talks about his stint on “Project Runway,” the opportunities that opened up for him after “Project Runway,” his love of fashion, and his new passion.

Fashion Reverie: First, how did you get the name SUEDE?

SUEDE: I attended Kent State University, where I have a lifetime endowment. Back in the day when I was just a student, I was the only guy in one of my fashion classes. We had this project, which was a very challenging project, and everyone was on edge. So, to take some of the edge off I had every gather around the fabric bin and pick a fabric. Whatever fabric you picked, you had to be that fabric for the entire day. I choose suede and the name just stuck and it became my nickname all through college.

When I auditioned for “Project Runway,” I was trying to set myself apart from all the other potential contestants, so I resurrected my nickname from college for the show. I am so glad I did that because it separated me from other designers, and it helped with branding after the show.

FR: Was fashion always something you wanted to do?

SUEDE: When I was a kid, I wanted to be an actor. I would get the Village Voice every week and look at all the apartment listings and dream about living in New York City.

Still, early in life, I was not tuned into a career in fashion. I applied to NYU to Tisch School of the Arts and my parents would not let me go to school in New York City at 17. I knew that I was creative, but I didn’t know what to do with my creativity. I knew that Kent State had a fashion program. I applied and got accepted. Even though, at the time, I wasn’t sure if a career in fashion was what I wanted, I excelled in all my classes, and over all Kent State was a great fit for me.

I moved to New York City soon after graduation and started working for Geoffrey Beene. I ended working with Alber Elbaz while at Geoffrey Beene.

FR: How would you describe your design aesthetic?

SUEDE: I believe I am very street savvy and edgy. However, when I design it is not about my personal taste, it is attempting to embody that brand. I worked for Jordache for five years, FUBU ladies, Rocawear, Polo jeans and a bunch of denim brands and working for those brands was a part of who I am because I love denim. Still, you must be able to put yourself in the consumer’s head.

FR: What brands have you worked for and in what capacity?

SUEDE: Polo jeans company, Lee jeans girls and junior division, and I worked for Geoffrey Beene on two separate occasions, Van Heusen on the sportwear side, Rocawear jeans, a lot of denim-based brands. This was in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Interestingly, that is what made being on “Project Runway” so challenging for me, is that because I had worked at these denim brands for so long and had not created or sewn a garment in some time. I was involved with merchandising and designing the denim collections and the actual production was done in some factory in another country.

When you are working for brands that are very consumer-based and mass-produced it is a huge challenge to incorporate embellishments and more advanced design aesthetics. For the most part those things don’t fit into the budget of mass-produced garments because you are making everything on a much larger scale.

FR: Everyone knows that you were on Season 5 of “Project Runway.” According to your bio, you dreamed about making friends with Tim Gunn and being on “Project Runway.” Is that true?

SUEDE: Yes, that is true. Prior to being on “Project Runway,” I was working at fashion brand that was racist and treated it’s African American and Latin workers very badly. I was having battles daily and I ended up leaving that job.

While I was in between jobs, I had a dream that Tim Gunn asked me to be on “Project Runway.” At the time I was living in Sullivan County, New York, and I decided I needed to work on my sewing skills if I was going to be a contestant on “Project Runway.” From scratch, I created this beautiful black dress which served as my audition garment for the show. And that garment got me pass the first “Project Runway” audition process.

FR:  What is your biggest takeaway from your appearance on Season 5 of “Project Runway”?

SUEDE: My participation on the show did open a lot of doors for me. That said; the fashion industry does not respond well to the talent on “Project Runway.” I was hoping that all these great fashion opportunities would come my way from the show. And that did happen to some extent.

However, what did happen from the show was the amount of notoriety that I got from appearing on “Project Runway.” I was quirky and spoke in the third person and that was a good sell for the show. And even though Obama was running for president and we were in a deep recession, people would stop me and ask me about fashion and my turn on “Project Runway.” Crazy, right?

“Project Runway” opened my eyes up to what it means to be a celebrity of some sorts and to be constantly identifiable and recognized. So, in a nutshell, “Project Runway” opened doors for me, making things easier and difficult all at once.

FR: What doors did “Project Runway” open for you?

SUEDE: I started making money by doing public appearances. You would be surprised the organizations, group, and people that will pay good money to have some one who has been on television show up at their event, party, etc.

Simplicity Patterns approached at an event, where I was making a public appearance, about working for them and making patterns and designing fabric for their company. Within a week, I had my first licensing deal with Simplicity Patterns.

FR: What was not so great about appearing on “Project Runway”?

SUEDE: I was not prepared for the hate and viciousness that was directed at me because of “Project Runway.” There was a certain drag artist that really came for me in the gay press in a series of interviews. Because I was under contract from Bravo at the time, I could not respond to this person’s venom and lack of respect.

FR: Apart from Christian Siriano, very few contestants from “Project Runway” have gone on to became household names. What is your take on that?

SUEDE: First, we are talking about two different things. We are talking about pop culture versus the fashion industry. The fashion industry is a very tight market. When you look at the fashion industry closely, the movers and shakers in the industry mostly concentrate on luxury or high-end fashion. 

Christian received a lot of support after his stint on “Project Runway” to get him to where he is now. Most of the contestants did not get that. Also, you should consider that “Project Runway” makes good television; however, good television is not the fashion industry. There is this trickle-down process in fashion and certain folks in the industry really decide who gets support and who makes it in this industry. “Project Runway,” even though there were very talented designers on the show, does not fit into that paradigm.

FR: What has your life been like after “Project Runway”?

SUEDE: My lifestyle brand SUEDEsays did very well after the show and the brand was in over 4,000 stores. I had mass brands that were buying my patterns and products and before my mom based away, we were trying to get a stronghold in the craft industry. That said; once you get into a particular market, it is very hard to go back into ready-to-wear fashion.

FR: What exactly was SUEDEsays as a brand?

SUEDE: SUEDEsays was fabrics that you could purchase to make clothing. We also produced patterns that was geared toward that home crafter. With every SUEDEsays package, I offered three patterned looks. We gave the consumer the ability to put fashion in their own hands.

Images courtesy of VERY New York

Re: You are currently selling real estate. Could you talk about that?

SUEDE:  I was recently recognized for having my real estate business increase over 2000 percent in 2019. Real estate is a great fit for me after my mom passed in 2017.  I become very depressed after my mother died. Within the two years after my mom died, I took and passed my real estate exams. And of the end of 2020, I passed the $4 million sale mark which is huge in Ohio.

FR: Are you still designing clothing?

SUEDE: I am working on a project with a company that is working on designs for the government. So, I am still working on fashion projects on the side, but it is very, very niche.

—William S. Gooch

 

 

Comments

  1. What we have to do after completing b.des to get very good company for working on projects?

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