So how realistic is it for a struggling clothing designer to appear on television and have a big-time label when the show is over? Not very, of course. Most people will never know this level of success.
Andrae, Santino’s former suitemate from 35D, is acutely aware of this. When he auditioned for Project Runway, he was waiting tables at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, because his boutique wasn’t making enough money. After he was eliminated, the Walt Disney Concert Hall is exactly where he returned. “I was still working there while it was airing,” he tells me over lunch. “Boy, was that surreal. The guests were freaking out. They were like, ‘I can’t believe it’s you! You have to take a picture!’ He gestures to an imaginary plate. “And I was like, Uh, I have this tray.”
Even with a boost from Project Runway, it takes years to build a fashion business. “Unlike American Idol, where your voice is your vehicle and you can be on a marquee in Vegas the next week, this industry is very, very different,” says Gunn. “Unless you have a huge financial machine behind you that allows you to have businesspeople and a publicist and access to Bryant Park, it happens in small increments—it’s not, you’re on Project Runway, there’s interest in your work, and—pow!—you’re in Saks and Macy’s.”
Which means Bravo may have to wait a while before it can claim to have launched America’s next big designer, if ever. The career of a chef may be a bit easier to get off the ground, in the sense that restaurants involve one investment in one space, but the failure rate in the restaurant business is still frightfully high. In the aftermath of these shows, Bravo’s guiding criterion seems to be to help the contestants who are most inclined to help themselves. It’s not a venture-capital firm, after all. It’s a small cable network, trying to stay on top of the lives of nearly 100 alums. But holding the hand of each would be hard. “This show is an opportunity,” says Heidi Klum, the host of Project Runway. “But guidance? You do that with children. As an adult, you have to find your own way in this world.”
Which is why Andrae has decided he’s going to make a change in his life. Appearing in Pittsburgh as a former reality-show star isn’t going to give him a career in fashion, this he knows. “You get everything you’re promised from the show,” he says. “I am now a famous fashion designer. But that is so different from a successful fashion designer.” And so his current plan is an eminently mature and unglamorous one: He’s looking for a modest, semi-anonymous job in New York as an associate designer for a larger label. “Third designer from the left,” he says. “Sign me up.”