Cover Story: Michael D. Makes It Work
On-the-brink and uncensored, the “Project Runway” alum gets real about success and the St. Louis runway that launched his career.
“I know my being in this contest is a long shot, by all means, but I like to think that miracles happen.” Sent from his Gmail account, the included sentence pretty much summed up the uncertain sentiment of Michael Drummonds ?rst correspondence with me. It was February of last year, and as Saint Louis Fashion Weeks Fashion Director, I had just started to reach out to the designer hopefuls deemed likely to make it to the “?nalists” round of the events Spring 2009 Project:Design! Competition. A month and a half later, Drummond took the prize and, less than a year and a half after that, he was jetting off to join the elite group of designers chosen to compete on Season 8 of “Project Runway.” Of the reported 15,000 applicants, only 17 made the cut.
Having previously earned his supper strictly in the realm of knitwear, “Michael D.” (his handle on the show, thanks to the casting of Californian Michael Costello) was an unlikely contender for Bunim/Murray Productions multi-million-dollar contract-of-secrecy, to say the least. In a statement made on air during the season premiere, he compared the leap to all-design-encompassing “Project Runway” to “playing the harpsichord your whole life, then going into electric guitar.”
Being neither one of those superfans you hear about waiting overnight in the elements for the chance at starring on reality TV, nor a pop-fashion nut drinking his morning coffee (which he was sipping from a “Real Men Like Cats” mug on the day of our interview) while ?ipping through the latest issue of “Harpers Bazaar,” it seems the fashion industry sought him out. He long avoided glossiesbefore being ordered by Tim Gunn and “Marie Claire”s Zanna Roberts to change his ways during the ?lming of Episode 2; now shelves in his Art Lofts space are occupied by everything from mainstream “Vogue” to “Pigeons & Peacocks” out of London. “I do like them as reference,” he admitted. Whats more, it took the shows producers two seasons to convince him to even audition, upon discovering his work by way of online Saint Louis Fashion Week coverage. Convinced the show was “smart and respectable,” he ?nally agreed and braced himself.
“I knew what to expect,” he claimed, thanks to his experiences post-Project:Design!: “My world had ?ipped on itself. I went from an underground designer nobody knew to this local celebrity. I went through a whole year of, like, WTF?In [competing in] Project Runway, I knew people would start to treat me differently. I thank God for Project:Design! Had that not happened, I would be a crazy person right now.”
Understandable. Joining him for an afternoon shopping trip to Plaza Frontenac to scout wardrobe for his cover shoot proved an event, thanks to multiple fans spurring conversations and a tea sample-offering worker frantically waving from across the corridor, “Hi, Michael! I loved you on Project Runway!”
His elimination episode airing just days before our meet-up, Drummond, who was among the last nine standing, was able to openly discuss the design that sent him packing: a gather-pleated skirt Tim Gunn adamantly advised against showing, which was intended to be ?tting sportswear for a modern-day Jackie Kennedy. Though torn apart by the judges, Drummond defends his design to this day. “I have no regrets,” he said. “If they were going to send me home, they were going to send me home for something I believed in.”
A St. Louis native, Drummonds preparation for the fashion design-focused competition started at a very young age. “Coming home from Catholic school, I used to cut through peoples yards to get home faster. One woman had fabulous ?owers in her yard and I would play with them like they were dresseslike a little queen! Plus, my sister had Barbies, so it was inevitable that I would play with Barbies, and I started making dresses for them out of everything I could get my hands on.”
A young 31, Drummonds life experiences are considerably vast and have clearly molded his current stand-up character. He recalled having “fucked up a good few years” in San Francisco, where he had moved to attend the Academy of Art University; he now calls the stay “a bust” thanks to his getting caught up in the drugs and party scene. “Thankfully, I got that out of my system.” Before that, he lived alone in a cabin in the middle Washington State for four months, with the original goal of working on a book of knitwear patterns proposed to him based on his standout work while at Lindenwood University. When his knitting machine broke in shipping, he schlepped his plans (which he now calls “the only regret Ive ever had in my life”), yet decided to stay and spent his days sitting, thinking and chopping ?rewood. “I had chickens!” he laughed. “It was amazing. I would do it again in a second.”
His valuing of that time, it seems, now contributes to his level-headedness. “Its important for me to be able to go on a walk, and be quiet and still see the world from a calm, introspective viewpoint. If I get caught up in the fame stuff, I wont hear that voice anymore. I dont want to screw with that special gift.”
Far from the stereotypical television star, Drummond is no diva. He supplements his passion with gigs as a commercial stylist; a freelance designer for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, for which he creates
custom pieces for various productions, and a knitwear designer and patternmaker for The Hill-based Skif, a longstanding fashion house spearheaded by Nina Ganci, who is his inspiration for staying in town. “I dont have any real plans to move from St. Louis. I think a lot about the fact that if Nina can do it, I can probably do it, too.”
But lack of funds are making it hard. “St. Louis is famous for rooting for their own. I like it when people are supportive. I like it more when people buy things.”
Just weeks after returning home from showing his ten-piece collection at New York Fashion Week, an opportunity granted to “Project Runways” three ?nalists and a handful of decoys (one of which was Drummond; as the episode was to air weeks after ?lming, he was still in contention on September 9, as far as viewers knew), he was simultaneously recuperating from a weeks-long sickness (likely the result of either stress or exhaustion) and plotting.
“I want to strike while the irons hot. I need investors, an accountant, a business manager, someone I can trust to take it to the next level. All of the stars are aligned; its just a matter of doing it.”
He credits a number of competitors from the shows previous seasons with having “done it right” in his book, including Santino Rice, Nick Verreos, Chloe Dao and “obviously, Christian Siriano,” the Season 4 winner who, on top of designing a successful ready-to-wear collection, has signed deals with such major corporations as Payless ShoeSource.
Con?rming rumors circulating around the blogosphere that the judges this season were “extra bitchy,” he recalled a time when he wanted to throw in the towel. “Some days, we were getting up at three after going to bed at two. We had no music, no books, no time to talk when the cameras werent rolling. At the same time, I was disagreeing with what the judges were calling “winning” looks; it was unfair, and I was watching people I had come to care about fall apart in the
heat of the competition. I remember thinking, I dont want to do this anymore.”
Still, he carried on, and amidst his own light at the end of the tunnel, at the time of our interview, he was clearly excited about a few already-in-the-works projects he was not at liberty to discuss. Even so, based on my eavesdropping on a phone conversation, I was able to conclude that he is in discussions with fellow contestant Christopher Collins about selling some of his things in his San Francisco store. In addition, I retrieved that he was going to town on a dress for Heidi Klum, who had personally asked him to outfit her, and was about to hop on a plane to film a commercial with Ivy Higawith whom he insists he has a stellar relationship, despite Episode 7. To recap, a competition that paired the two left him defending his side of their opposing “jargon” (“She went to Parsons; Im self-taught.”) and her justifying a design on the grounds that it was “edited”-slash-dumbed-down for Michael who “doesnt know how to execute a pant.” He debuted two stellar takes on the style during his New York Fashion Week Show at Lincoln Center, under great pressure.
“It was the most nervous I had ever been. Its the most important Fashion Week in these three [American] continents, and almost the world!” But, following his colleagues approval, his nerves subsided. “All the contestants who were showing at Fashion Week were like, I would totally wear this stuff. Casanova was in love, he was like, I wanna come to St. Louis to learn how to dothis; Christopher Collins really liked it; April loved it; Ivy loved it; Gretchen said she thought it was genius.” And Tim Gunn shared the sentiment. “He said, Im a thousand times behind this. I think its interesting; I think its really, really sellable; its really beautiful. He was really impressed.”
Mirroring the uncertainty evident prior to his competing in Project:Design!, Drummond confessed that it wasnt until receiving Gunns stamp backstage that his attitude flipped. “Prior, I was like, I dont know what the fuck Im doing. I think I know what Im doing, but then I inevitably wonder, Is this really good, or is this just pure crap?”
Today, as he looks forward to a new season, he threads a different needle. “I feel really reborn,” he confided. “Im more excited, Im more confident, there is a really big spring in my step. Its not that Ive changed, Im just more proud of myself.”
Michael Drummond fits a model in his studio/loft.
Photo credit: Photography by Wesley Law