“PROJECT RUNWAY” ALUM JILLIAN LEWIS ON DRESSING CELEBS, HER SAINT LOUIS FASHION WEEK DEBUT AND OVERCOMING CHALLENGESBOTH IN LIFE AND ON REALITY TV.
With an impressive résumé that includes Parsons School of Design and subsequent design stints at Searle and Ralph Lauren, self-proclaimed workaholic Jillian Lewis was more than prepared to face the “Project Runway” judges during Season 4 of the Bravo reality series. Placing second runner up, the 28-year-old fan favorite has since built a client list that includes trendsetters Beyoncé and Chloe Sevigny. Recently, I had a chance to chat with the Long Island native about her road to success, her spring collection and plans to stop in STL for Saint Louis Fashion Week next month.
ALIVE: Looking back at your childhood, was a career in fashion design always in the stars?
JILLIAN LEWIS: I always loved style, and getting dressed, and shopping—just being a girl. At 16, my mother bought me a sewing machine, and it kind of changed my perspective. I started to make a few pieces and it became very clear that it was a natural thing. I was like, “Wow! I’m good at this!” So, it just grew from there.
ALIVE: So, did you teach yourself?
JL: Yes; it was a constant self-teaching kind of process. The first
things I made were pants. I remember that the first pair were
sewn wrong and I couldn’t walk in them! It wasn’t until maybe
the third pair that the product was exactly what I wanted. I went
to class and everyone responded, “Oh my God! Where did you
get those? Those are so cool!” I started lending what I made to
my friends, and it just became this thing.
ALIVE: When did it become your business?
JL: I set up this little factory in my basement and started making warm-up pants for the dance school I went to. I designed them
and sold them for $35 a pair, which was a major mistake; they were way too much work to sell for $35 a pair. It was a huge undertaking and so I had no life, and my boyfriend broke up with me because I spent no time with him. So, yeah, I’ve been a workaholic since a very young age.
ALIVE: And when did it become the Jillian Lewis brand as we know it today?
JL: I always thought I would start a company. I was happy I did work for companies [including Searle and Ralph Lauren] for five years, because I think that those experiences were just extensions of school; in a way, it was my masters degree. To have started right after school would have left me limited. I worked at Ralph Lauren right up until getting accepted for “Project Runway.”
ALIVE: Is competing on “Project Runway” as strenuous as it seems?
JL: We filmed the whole series in 32 days, so that should say how sleep-deprived we were. We’d finish a challenge, then we’d move on to the next challenge; it was constant. If you think we took a day off, no. If you think we took half a day off, not at all. It was a 32-day boot camp. It is definitely not something that I would want to live through twice. I would say I’m really happy that I did it, but I’m also really happy it’s over.
ALIVE: What was your proudest moment on the show?
JL: It’s funny because, when we were on the first challenge, I looked around and really didn’t see that anybody was weaker than somebody else; I just felt that we were all really good, and I spent the first three challenges really trying to stand out. I think
that when I won the challenge that Donna Karan was judging, it changed my outlook; it was like I was on fire after that—everybody,
move out of the way, I’m coming through and I’m going to do this. When Heidi said, “There is a clear winner,” that changed everything for me.
ALIVE: And you went on to place second runner-up. Do you feel like the show launched your career?
JL: Well, I was looking for a way to not be anonymous; that I could design and have a label that people would recognize—but, really, I’m in control of my own destiny. I’m now shipping to 14 stores, including Harvey Nichols in Hong Kong, and I recently had something in Italian Vogue, something in W and something in Women’s Wear Daily; I feel like all of this has nothing to do with being on the show. In terms of having personal fans? Yes, that happened from being on television. The fact that I got to design ballet costumes for the Guggenheim Museum? That was definitely a result of being on the show. And people just being more flexible with me because, “Oh! I loved you on the show! Let me help you out!” But, it’s not like I can get a loan from a bank because I was on a television show, or get Barney’s or Bergdorf Goodman to buy my collection because I was on TV.
ALIVE: Is there a celebrity you are dying to dress?
JL: I think it’s great to dress celebrities, but, for me, it’s the coolest thing to know that a woman I don’t know is walking down the street, wearing one of my pieces. Still, I’m the first person to brag that Beyoncé wore my coat on David Letterman and Ellen Degeneres; Ciara wore the coat—it was passed to her by Rihanna’s stylist—and Chloe Sevigny, who has a very different style, just borrowed some pieces from my Fall show. I believe that, if you make good things, they’ll work for many different types of people.
ALIVE: What can we expect from the debut of your Spring 2010 collection at Saint Louis Fashion Week?
JL: I made these pants for the Guggenheim ballet; men wore them and they were a huge sensation. I decided to re-fabric them in black and put them on the models for Fall to go with different coats and sweaters, and they ended up being a bestseller. Because of all the attention that we got from those particular pants—they’ve been pulled by Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, they’ve been all over the place—I thought it would be appropriate to start with them for Spring, just the general concept of them. Lately, my sensibility is taking hard-edged, very sharp construction and contrasting it with the soft and feminine and breezy and beautiful.
ALIVE: In this season’s Project:Design! competition, you’ll have the chance to judge other designers. How can a designer stand out from the crowd?
JL: I think it’s just being really expressive and being very unique; taking chances, but with intelligence—kind of keeping it controlled and not taking it too far. It’s not looking too much like anyone else, but not looking so far out there that you’re just not part of the world. It’s a matter of having all the right balances.
ALIVE: Where do you see your line in 10 years?
JL: I’d like to have a showroom in town [New York], with my own facilities in the back room; I’d have my own sewers, my own patternmakers, my own staff and my own stores; I’d be distributing to at least a few department stores and also distributing worldwide—and I definitely think that’s something that is achievable. It’s going to take time, and I think having someone like Lewaa [Abdulkhalek, Lewis’ business partner and fiancé], who has a mutual passion for where we’re going, makes it a definite possibility.
Jillian Lewis will debut her Spring 2010 Collection at Saint Louis Fashion Week during the Bakers Project:Design! show and will serve as judge in the Bakers Project:Design! competition. For more information and tickets, go to stlouisfashionweek.com.
Photo credit: Dan Hallman