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    "Project Runway" Season 5 finalist Blayne Walsh, right, hosted a design competition in Honolulu in 2008, during which Andy South was named the winner for the ensemble shown.
    Ivy Higa jots down some measurements on "Project Runway."
    "Project Runway" competitors include Hawaii designers Ivy Higa, standing right, and Andy South, standing center with gloves.
    Andy South fits his manikin on "Project Runway."

What a difference a few months have made for two Hawaii designers appearing in Season 8 of "Project Runway," which debuts tonight on Lifetime.

Andy South and Ivy Higa will compete against 14 other designers for a spot in a New York Fashion Week show on Sept. 9, but when last I saw them, the design competition was a distant dream. Now both have completed the preliminaries leading up to the runway showdown and viewers will just have to tune in to see who makes it to the finals.

Rivalries are a given on the show, but don’t expect these two to be duking it out. They had the same word for each other — "sweetheart" — and together they might give the rest of the nation a big slice of local flava.

"She’s such a local girl, and when we talked some of our pidgin came out," South said.

"When that happened, everyone around us was like, ‘What the hell are they talking about?’" Higa said.

An ensemble from Hi-
ga’s Fall/Winter 2010
collection, presented
in February during
the last New York
Fashion Week.

Although Higa, who now resides in New York, has debuted collections in Spring/Summer 2010 and Fall/Winter 2010 gallery presentations during New York Fashion Week, a spot in the finale would mark her first time in the premier venue, which moves from Bryant Park to Lincoln Center this fall.

In late March, before she was tapped for the show, Higa was back home in Honolulu and the Big Island for some R&R. We met for lunch with Lynne O’Neill, a fashion show producer at New York Fashion Week, and briefly talked about the merits of "Project Runway." Higa had auditioned twice for earlier seasons, and I left our lunch thinking she had written off trying to make the show a third time.

Meanwhile, early in May, South was preparing his second audition package and had the opportunity to quiz Season 7 finalist Jay Sario about his experience on the design competition. Like South, Sario had been a student in Honolulu Community College’s fashion technology program, and was back in town for, among other appearances, a homecoming party in his honor.

"He reaffirmed everything I believed I should do, telling me to stay true to yourself, what you like and what you believe in," South said, now that major filming has wrapped and finalists are working on their collections. (With a publicist for the Lifetime series listening in, he couldn’t say just which finalists are headed to the final showdown.)

South had earlier auditioned for Season 5 of "Project Runway" and absorbed the criticism at that time to take a step back and look at his work objectively, after the show’s fashion guru, Tim Gunn, told him, "I’m not sure who you are as a designer."

"I showed so many different things and thought I was ready. But in hindsight I didn’t realize I didn’t have a (fashion) voice," South said.

His dilemma was one that many young designers face, the battle between following their heart or serving a market that doesn’t necessarily move fashion forward or satisfy the soul, but pays the bills.

In South’s case an initial love of evening gowns led to demand for his work in the beauty pageant world, which meant playing to a showy, middle-of-the-road standard of dress that has little appeal on 7th Avenue.

"It was a compromise," he said. When working for a particular client, "nothing is ever completely your own. I was so caught up with the pageant world that I neglected my own collection, my own career."

He showed his aesthetic during a local design competition in 2008, when more than a half-dozen local designers were scrutinized by Season 5 "Project Runway" finalist Blayne Walsh. South won for a coat ensemble that showed the darker, edgier side to his work, which he has continued to develop.

"Right before auditioning, I made the decision to exit the pageant world and work on my fall (2009) collection."

South’s audition was in Seattle, and the call to New York came quickly.

"A whirlwind is the best way to put it. The auditioning process seems like a long time ago. The whole process was beyond my expectation, and it was a lot harder than I expected because of the stress you’re under."

After so many years of watching the competition, you’d think designers would know the routine and rigors of the show. South said he did his best to brush up on menswear patterns, just in case, and mentally practiced by walking into stores and musing, "What if I have to get everything from here?"

But he said, "It’s so easy to sit at home and watch, with your popcorn and your feet kicked up, and think, ‘It’s so easy. I can do it,’ but to be in the situation is very different. It takes its toll mentally and emotionally, but it also made me work harder because I didn’t want to go home."

All the while, he said, he kept his ears open to criticism not only of his own work, but the other designers, to learn from their mistakes as well.

No doubt the viewing audience will be seeing some tears in the process.

"I’m a sensitive Hawaii boy," he said. "It was like an emotional roller coaster for me, but that’s the beauty of it. Sometimes a really difficult challenge was what I needed to fail at in order to grow, learn and come back stronger.
"The main thing was having fun with every challenge, good or bad."


» On TV: Season 8 debuts at 6 tonight on Lifetime.

» Online: Vote for your favorite designer.

I COULDN’T imagine much fazing Ivy Higa, whose sweet, demure appearance belies her fierceness and tenacity. As a veteran of two New York Fashion Week collections and her own growing Ivy h. brand, she’s accustomed to real-world sleeplessness and deadlines associated with the business, but even she was not without her meltdown moments.

"The schedule was totally what I’m used to," she said from her home in New York. "I’m used to sketching things quickly, coming off the spring shows and going directly into fall planning. I’m very decisive. I have to commit to designs quickly because there’s no time to go back and edit. It’s do or die.

"The only difference (on the show) is you’re being continually criticized. But (judge) Michael Kors said, ‘You can’t just surround yourself with people who tell you you’re fabulous all the time.’ You have to make sure that you take what will help you grow and filter out what’s negative, and it’ll make you a better designer, a better person."

While male designers tend to create for a fantasy or idealized woman, Higa creates garments for the 24/7 lifestyle of contemporary women, with designs that are modern, chic, functional and detailed.

Higa is a University of Hawaii art graduate who worked in the menswear department at Neiman Marcus prior to moving to New York. Exposed to fashion every day, she got the idea that she could be a designer, and decided to enroll at Parsons The New School for Design, home base for "Project Runway."

Earlier this year she was one of nine designers nationwide chosen to compete in the Oscars Design Challenge 2010 to have her original gown worn by one of the onstage presenters during the Academy Awards ceremony. She had taken her brand to the brink of a mainstream breakthrough, with neither money nor connections, just hard work and talent. A little seed money would come in handy at this point in her career.

"The economy really hurt everyone, especially new designers," she said, explaining that retail buyers have been less willing to take a chance on unknown entities.

"I was very melancholy about auditioning again, because it would be my third time, but it was the opportunity of a lifetime."

After our lunch in March, she flew out the same afternoon. "As soon as I got back, there was an e-mail alert about auditioning for the show. We’d been talking about signs and it was totally like that. It was very serendipitous, so I took it as a sign I was supposed to audition," she said.

"The last two times, I’d made it pretty far. This time, I went in not expecting anything. I left it up to the universe."

As for whether she will make Hawaii proud, she says: "I hope so. I love my style. I love the things I designed. I was very true to who I am. I didn’t play a role or character. I hope I’m not going to be eating my words in a couple weeks.

"I feel grateful. It was hard, but as Bruce Lee said, you need to ‘be like water.’ Water adapts to the glass that holds it. When adapting, you can never be too prepared for anything, especially ‘Project Runway.’ It was definitely the best and worst experience of my life."


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