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The project continues

Nadine Kam
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"Project Runway" finalist Andy South organizes his Chinatown workspace as he works on a new collection.
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South makes some last-minute alterations on a model before showing pieces from his new line at last week's finale party at the Honolulu Design Center.
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Andy folds a large piece of red cloth as he tries to organize his work space.
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South's "Project Runway" Fashion Week collection included this avant-garde swimsuit.

In Andy South’s Chinatown studio, several mannequins stand undressed or in states of partial nudity, modeling fragments of a sleeve, a skirt, a yoke.

There’s a time warp as swatches from his spring 2011 collection, presented in September, still hang on his inspiration wall, and shoe pads from New York Fashion Week litter his work table.

A lone red suitcase sits on the floor, unopened for the week since the 23-year-old designer’s return from Maui, where he worked on the set of a photo shoot with renowned fashion and celebrity photographer David LaChapelle.

Before that there had been a quick trip to New York to meet with "Project Runway" co-host Heidi Klum about the three outfits he created on the show that were added to her sportswear line.

His schedule also included numerous appearances at opening festivities for the Waikiki Edition hotel, Morimoto Waikiki, Hawaii International Film Festival and the Eurocinema Festival awards gala, where he was interviewed on the red carpet by E!’s Debbie Matenopoulos.

South wanted to tidy up his studio for our photographer but couldn’t muster the energy, starting only when the shoot started.

"People think it’s glamorous," he said about fashion designing, "but it’s not. Here I am, picking up trash."

The designer has no regrets about "Project Runway," in which he made it to the top three in the Lifetime television competition, losing to Gretchen Jones in Thursday’s finale.

"I’m so happy for Gretchen," South said Thursday night at a viewing party in his honor. "I’ve gotten so close to the other contestants and feel like all of us were deserving, and all of us did our best.

"The prize could only go to one person, but we’ll all get there on our own terms. It doesn’t have to be through ‘Project Runway.’"

He’s barely had a moment to consider his next move, when every week seems to bring new offers and a change of plans.

The only thing certain is that he’s glad his work on the TV competition series is over. "I’m not closing off that part of my life, but now I can focus on the future," said South, even though the future is uncertain.

"That’s my life now. Everything’s up in the air. A lot of things are in talks. It’s exciting but it’s also scary."

IT’S BEEN A whirlwind six-month journey for the designer, which began with auditioning for the series in May, being whisked to compete for six weeks in June and July, completing his finale collection in August, presenting at New York Fashion Week Sept. 9 and, finally, playing a waiting game until the rest of the world learned of Jones’ win.

He still seems to be a bit shell-shocked, wistfully recalling the relative quiet of his life before "Project Runway," when he was working part time for another designer, Mahchid Mottale, for Baik Baik, and imagining he might still be doing the same thing if not for that fateful audition, his second attempt toward reaching a national audience.

Most immediately, he’s started collaborating with Hawaii hairstylist and designer Richie Miao to create a spring 2011 women’s line for Miao’s Lovelessizm brand, which focuses on menswear.

"I think it’ll be a good thing for both of us," South said. "Because of the show, people are looking at me and what I’m doing, and women who have been looking at Lovelessizm and wanting to get that same look for themselves will be able to find it. Our styles are very similar."

The brand is also gaining popularity in Asia, potentially delivering a sizable new audience for South, who’s also thinking ahead to his fall 2011 collection in collaboration with Swarovski, to be unveiled next spring.

Fashion is about mixing and matching and having multiple options to suit any circumstance, and it makes sense for the designer to remain open to as many as possible.

It’s a lot for the sensitive, at times fragile designer to cope with, although he’s left the show stronger than ever, due in part to criticism from the judges, but also viewers who hold nothing back in picking apart everything from his designs to his ever-changing hairstyles.

"Everyone has an opinion of what they see on TV, but nobody knows what context they’re judging on. They don’t know what we’ve been through.

"I think the show had two parts: one part talent and the other part was the game, being able to tangle with the judges and give them what they wanted."

Although the designer has become much more outspoken since appearing on the series, he said, "I don’t think I’m fully New York. I’m really an introvert."

Although he would be happy to be left alone with his imagination to create in silence, he said: "The show gave me a little bit of insight into what my life could be in the public eye. Part of me wants to go back to the old Andy, where I could work quietly and no one knew much about me, but there’s a little voice that can now be heard and be used to inspire."

That includes a vow to continue to speak to students and encourage them to pursue their dreams, no matter how impossible that might seem when toiling in this isolated part of the world.

IN SPITE OF the friction among designers TV viewers saw on the show, the group bonded in shared circumstance, and South said he remains in touch with many of them, including fellow Hawaii contestant Ivy Higa, Michael Drummond, Christopher Collins, Mondo Guerra and Gretchen Jones. The night before this interview, he’d spoken with Michael Costello as well.

"It feels nice to hear what they’re doing because we’re all at home but going through the same things," South said.

"I feel like the whole world is pushing me to do things now, now, now," he said. "I’m young. I feel like things happen when you’re ready. My goal is to be able to do things on my own terms and on my time."

Just a few weeks ago on Oct. 11, during Andy South Day at his alma mater, Honolulu Community College, he informed an audience of students, teachers and fans that he would be moving to New York.

But a stay with Higa at her New York apartment at the time he met with Klum gave him a dose reality.

"(Higa) took me to where her clothes are produced, but she makes the samples herself out of her apartment, on home sewing machines. She’s doing it, so it’s possible, but I feel like I have more options here," he said.

In Hawaii he’s already built the infrastructure for success, including establishing his studio and relationships with models, photographers and vendors.

He’s not living in Honolulu to be close to his studio, but his options include at times retreating to the peace and quiet of his family home in Waianae.

In the episode featuring Tim Gunn’s visit to Waianae, the two talked about the grounding influence of the countryside, and South says, "I’m grateful I can go and still be in the country and kind of revive myself."

He said his conversation with LaChapelle — who’s worked for publications as diverse as Rolling Stone, Vibe and French and Italian Vogue, photographing models and stars including Madonna and Lady Gaga — also influenced his decision to stay home.

"He’s good friends with so many designers. He’s been through it all and chooses to live in Hana, in the wilderness. He told me not to rush and not to be afraid to be alone and listen to myself.

"He’s met with major designers after their shows in Milan and Paris and said they just look tired and are not even happy because they don’t have time to enjoy what they’d done.

"I don’t want to be a slave to the business. All I need is to be able to do what I love and survive on that. At the end of the day, it’s about keeping the passion alive."


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