Jay McCarroll: Rough Landing on the Runway
Thinking about starting a fashion line? Jay McCarroll says: Don't.
"Go be an accountant," says the 34-year-old Philadelphia designer who won season one of Bravo's "Project Runway" four years ago. "Don't be in fashion."
McCarroll knows something about the trials of a new designer setting up shop. His grueling journey of designing a collection and staging a runway show at New York Fashion week in 2006 is captured in the documentary "Eleven Minutes," released this week in theaters.
In the film — a spin-off of McCarroll's TV special that followed his post-Runway win — he's constantly battling his own naivete, the unspoken rules of the business, budget problems and fatigue. If the experience didn't send him running to become an accountant, it did downscale his dreams. McCarroll now sells clothing and jewelry only through his Web site.
"At every turn, there was some pitfall and he always fell in it," says Rob Tate, the film's producer and one of its cameramen.
Tate and the documentary's director, Michael Selditch, said they had no idea what the fashion industry was like when they agreed to film McCarroll as he worked on a collection. And even McCarroll didn't know that months of headaches and trial-and-error would be behind the glamorous facade of having a fashion line and runway show.
"There's such a mystique — such a thing about the fashion industry — that they don't want to let too much information out," McCarroll says. "They want to keep it elite, that whole kind of high-end luxurious nonsense."
The problems started with McCarroll's designs, which were based on inspirations of hot air balloons and vintage ads. As he picked looks to put into production for sale and manufactured showpieces for Fashion Week, reality sank in. Time restraints and a strict budget also limited the more intricate pieces, forcing McCarroll to rethink his vision.
"If you look at his original drawings, and then you look at what actually ended up on the runway, every one of them is compromised," Tate says. "Every one of them."
McCarroll and Tate blame the naivete on the secretive and "incredibly unnurturing" nature of the fashion industry in educating new designers about its business end. And despite McCarroll's access to established designers through "Runway," such as judge Michael Kors, he says he wasn't warned or given any sympathy.
"Michael Kors had a business for 15 years before anyone knew who he was," McCarroll notes. "My mother didn't even know who he was until 'Project Runway,' and I think probably 80 percent of America didn't either. But you don't ever hear him come out and say, 'Hey, give these guys a chance; it's going to take them a couple of years, that's what happened for me.'"
Billy Daley, a spokesman for Kors, said the designer was traveling and unable to comment. Tim Gunn, the designers' mentor on "Project Runway," also declined to comment, and requests for comment e-mailed to "Runway" were not immediately answered.
Simon Ungless, the director of fashion at Academy of Art University in San Francisco, tells students at the fashion school to put time into working the industry before venturing out on their own. By the time a student graduates, he says, about 35 percent to 40 percent of their classes are strictly business-related.
"For anyone today to think that they don't need to have some kind of business sense is very naive," says Ungless, who had spent years working on 10 collections with British designer Alexander McQueen.
A large part of the business deals with putting on a runway show during the annual spring and fall Fashion Weeks, the latter of which is taking place in New York this week. McCarroll wouldn't say how much he spent to produce the 11-minute show in September 2006 that's the climax of his documentary, but insiders estimate a budget of more than $100,000.
Ungless says the cost of the Academy of Art's show at Bryant Park was kept lower than other fashion shows because sponsors like MAC makeup and Aveda hair care provided free services, but the school still had to pay $50,000 to rent the largest tent space for four hours. He adds that sponsorless designers could pay up to $20,000 for hair and makeup teams, on top of doling out $5,000 to $6,000 each for lead makeup and hair stylists that create the models' cosmetic looks.
The models themselves could cost $1,200 to $1,500 each for seconds of stomping down a runway, and top models can charge up to $25,000 per show. An average show might require 10 or more models to show 20 outfits.
And then there are stylists (about $6,000, for six days of work) who help designers with the overall aesthetic of the outfits; publicists ($18,000 to $20,000) who invite editors and buyers to the show and persuade them to write stories about the designer; and dressers who work at $50 an hour to put the clothes on the models at the show.
The actual cost to make the clothes is relatively inexpensive compared to the production of the spectacle to show them off. Emily Melville and Ivanka Georgieva, two Academy students who showed their nine-piece collection at Bryant Park last week, estimate they spent about $5,000 on materials, although they haven't yet added up their receipts.
But even knowing the astronomical costs in putting on a runway show, both students say the price is worth it.
"The energy and the mood and the drama and the show... of the fashion show; there's nothing like it," say Melville. "It's all happening around you ... there's this really incredible energy to that, that I don't think can be replaced by just showing the clothes in a showroom."
But Melville, who graduated from the Academy this winter and hopes to spend $10,000 to open her own studio soon, knows dramatic runways don't translate to sales.
She says family members who attended the show told her afteward: "'I barely even saw the things — I couldn't tell you if there was something that I really want to buy unless I could see it up close.'"
In spite of this business model that doesn't always work, designers and their aspirants are loath to change it. McCarroll says he wouldn't change anything that he went through, although his pricey runway show failed to land him a sought-after deal with retail chain Urban Outfitters.
But he hopes the film, combined with the current economic crisis, will open the public's eyes to the unrealistic goals and pressures pinned to new designers.
"You don't expect an accountant to design a dress, so I don't know why the whole world expects me to know how to run a business," he says.
Photos: Getty Images
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