N owadays, most reality-show contestants arrive on set with a plan, a story arc, or an identity they’ve cobbled together from watching other reality shows for the fifteen years since that first season of The Real World. A little Puck here, a little Trishelle there. Jeffrey Sebelia, Project Runway’s third and most recent winner, certainly did. “I thought I’d start out really dark and annoying,” he says.
Unabomber would be his look: hooded sweatshirts and sunglasses. His neck tattoo would seem intimidating until later in the season when—plot twist!—he revealed that it spelled out the name of his totally adorable 2-year-old son, Harrison Detroit, around whom he turns to goo. He talked about his difficult past: the abusive dad, the years of drug addiction, the suicide attempt, his redemption. And the clothes would follow a similar trajectory: shredded and aggressive and dark to start with, far lighter and nearly pretty by the end.
True to his script, Sebelia arrived with irritating pranks, like hand buzzers for introductions and foghorns for early mornings. And he was annoyingly cocky. “I’m looking around, and it’s just all remedial, intermediate stuff happening,” he sneered on the first episode. He was an arrogant winner, a sore loser, and he made another contestant’s mother cry. He picked fights with a pregnant redhead named Laura, who played the uptown bitch to his punk-rock kid. In the final round, she accused him of outsourcing some pleats on leather shorts. Milking his possible disqualification for maximum effect, producers aired lingering shots of a depleted, ghost-white Sebelia on a balcony, chain-smoking in the rain, while Laura lurked in the background. When he was exonerated, at last, he crumbled in a sobbing heap on the shoulder of a cute blonde rival named Uli—his transformation to beloved underdog complete.
In the final episode, his red sundress imprinted with little white apples stole the show. For all the entertainment value he’d added, his collection was, simply put, the most accomplished. It was the most varied in range, the most successfully assembled. “He was the most connected to what’s happening right now,” says Elle fashion director and Runway judge Nina Garcia. “He’s more editorial, more edgy, he has good ideas … John Galliano-esque.”
“It certainly was not his charming personality,” adds Michael Kors, another judge. “I guess he was acting that way in order to become more famous. So now it’s like, ‘Fine. You’ve got everyone’s attention. Now what?’ ”
That’s the question on Sebelia’s mind as he drives his spanking new Saturn sedan (part of the Project Runway loot) around the factories of downtown Los Angeles on a drizzly afternoon. Sebelia is dressed, as might be anticipated, in carefully filthy punk-rock layers of sweatshirts and plaid. Like most people you know only from TV, he’s smaller than you expect in person. He also is surprisingly eager to please, for a studiously crafted prick, and laughs a lot—often at himself. Right now he’s crinkling his nose at the irony of Jeffrey Sebelia, he of the tattooed neck and razor-striped eyebrow, driving a car so much more conventional and fancier than he is. “The truth is,” he says, “I’m totally broke.”
Before appearing on Project Runway, Sebelia was operating his own small but modestly successful label called Cosa Nostra, out of a big sunny office in a quickly gentrifying section of downtown L.A. A handful of stores in the U.S., Japan, and Europe were buying his rocker-style creations, and he’d even dressed a few celebrities, including Dave Navarro and Gwen Stefani.
Though he was in debt from start-up loans, he was living affordably in a cottage he’d purchased for $137,000 in the modest neighborhood of Mt. Washington while working as a production designer. His girlfriend Melanie—a Juilliard-trained dancer who worked as a stand-up comedienne—was able to stay home to take care of their son, Harrison, even though the couple was struggling romantically.
It was Santino Rice, the badass of Season 2 and a friend of Sebelia’s from L.A., who suggested he try out for the show. Even though he’d never really watched Project Runway, Sebelia went for it, hoping it would energize his business. He was growing weary of the petty frustrations of being a smallish designer, vulnerable to the ugly business practices retail is infamous for. “They’ll take a jacket and smash a button,” he says of one of the shops he sells to, “and these are really strong buttons, and then they’ll send a return authorization for one piece and return twelve. And they’ll never pay for it.”
Sebelia wasn’t surprised he made the callbacks nor that he was picked as one of fifteen contenders on the show. His plan was to be the Santino of Season 3. Being a jerk had paid off for his friend, who’d made it to the finals, and Sebelia knew that a hated reality-show star was more valuable than a popular one. “I was fully prepared to be in front of the cameras and say outlandish things and make people snicker,” Sebelia says.
It wasn’t until Laura accused him of cheating, shortly before his expected Bryant Park runway debut, that he feared his scheme might backfire. Had he screwed this thing up for real? Even when he won, the five and a half weeks spent in “prisonlike” isolation taping the show, followed by three months of cramming for the final competition, had taken its toll. There was no elated victory lap—only an aimless stumble around the set in a daze of disbelief. Even afterward, he says, it took him a while to realize how much he was genuinely hurt by Laura’s accusation.
He went home to L.A. to recuperate and wait for the phone to ring. Crowds mobbed him in the street, but business calls only trickled in. Melanie wanted to go to Hawaii to celebrate, but Sebelia realized that once he paid off his Cosa Nostra loan, there wouldn’t be much left of the $100,000 prize.
He has more or less fallen out of touch with the judges and producers (though he did make a suit for Heidi Klum’s husband, Seal). A mentorship with Macy’s that was meant to be a part of the Project Runway prize was slow to begin.
Fred Segal asked him to do the Christmas windows, but the store bought only eight pieces. (“They did reorder three,” he says, throwing up his hands in mock celebration. “So, eleven pieces! Woo hoo!”) A shiny-suited investor—“a mob-type guy”—talked big and delivered small, but Sebelia’s still holding out for more. “At this point, if he had the money, I’d take it,” he says, laughing.
His first post-Runway deal? Not exactly Marc Jacobs for LVMH. “I’m almost afraid to admit what I’m doing,” he says, “but it’s costumes for a movie. It’s a live-action movie for the Bratz.” Those slutty dolls? “Yeah, those slutty dolls.”
C elebrity sells lots of things: CDs and tabloid magazines. It has yet to be proved that it will sell Sebelia’s $1,300 beaded sweatshirt, however haunting its pattern of profiles in shiny black jet.
The winner of American Idol has already done what is required for mass success: sung for millions of fans who enjoyed it. Clothing, however, is far more specific, personal, and expensive than a song. “Music is just a lot easier to peddle. With clothes, people, as much as they appreciate them, really cheap out when it comes to buying them, you know?” Sebelia says. “I think that if I was really going to turn that show into the type of success I should, I would go sell something at Wal-Mart, because then 6 million viewers a week makes sense.”
There is no Kelly Clarkson of Project Runway—yet. Jay McCarroll, the first season’s winner, was another outsize personality, showed one post–Project Runway collection in the tents sponsored by the Humane Society (he’s strongly anti-fur), and sold some pieces to Urban Outfitters, but he is really best known for turning down the $100,000 and for the incendiary comments he makes about Tim Gunn (the Parsons chair of fashion design who mentors contestants). Chloe Dao won next—a far quieter personality, she returned to Houston, where she runs a boutique that carries her own label as well as a few others. She used her prize money to expand her business to more space and a second shop, but she hasn’t changed much.
Neither has Sebelia. He lives pretty much the same life as he did before Project Runway, save for a breakup with Melanie and the crowds of people waving and yelling his name when he drives up to the vegan restaurant in Silver Lake where he likes to eat lunch. He’s moved into a loft near the Cosa Nostra offices, where he spends his days drawing, draping, hatching plans. He has a handful of employees: two pattern-makers, a receptionist–fit model–girl Friday, and four to eight sewers, depending on the week. His Cosa Nostra line has finally just about caught up to where it was when he left to do the show. But when Sebelia runs into an old friend on the street outside the office, the friend doesn’t say hello. He gives Sebelia the finger and says, “Where the hell have you been? Just getting richer?” And when Sebelia realizes he doesn’t have $3 in cash for the parking attendant, his face goes dark. He’s got the three bucks somewhere; he can just barely bring himself to bargain anymore. “I’m just so tired of haggling,” he says, rifling through his dirty white-leather wallet. “I mean, this is not a big deal, I’m just so tired of it.”
S ebelia’s aesthetic at Cosa Nostra—and, by natural extension, on the show—is L.A. rocker punk. He loves a shrunken blazer in heavy felt with a detachable hood. He likes zippers, and he likes things to be tight and somewhat rough. He has the skinny hips and pigeon toes of an Orange County bass player, and his clothes suit this look to a T: They are not soft or sentimental, but they are right for wearing to rock shows and nightclubs. They are best accessorized with kohl eyeliner and, he jokes (kind of), by the massive black-leather studded strap-ons that are in a box by his desk, which he designed for a now-defunct band called Orgy. “Jesse James, the motorcycle builder, sells all of his products at Wal-Mart, and I heard this rumor that he actually said that he would only deal with them as long as they allowed him to put the words fuck you somewhere on everything he made,” Sebelia says, waving a dildo. (The rumor is untrue.) “So maybe they’d sell the dildos!”
With their shredded hemlines and emphasis on layers (woolen shorts with built-in leggings, leather shorts with a pouf hem), Sebelia’s clothes are young. They are, perhaps, more expensive than their intended audience can afford. T-shirts start at nearly $100, dresses at $500. “I tried to tell him that if he is going to sell expensive clothes, they need to look a little more luxe,” says Garcia.
But Kors says that Sebelia’s best chance is to persuade a company like Diesel or American Apparel to take an interest, as they share a market and an aesthetic. Sebelia believes he is more like John Galliano than a novelty act used to sell clothes for a chain, but he is coming around. He has an idea he plans to pitch to a national mid-level retailer and recently inked a licensing deal to make 24 knitwear pieces for a little-known label called Rock Anthem. It turns out that the companies interested in his current brand of fame are far less interested in expensive, high-end fashion than he is. “It’s things like the Bratz movie that are really interested in having someone who won Project Runway attached to their show,” he says. “Most of the companies I’d like to be involved with really couldn’t give a shit that I was on TV.”
During Fashion Week, Sebelia sold his collection out of a small midtown showroom called the House. He got a second call from Kirna Zabête, where he sold a few pieces last fall, and a first appointment with Bergdorf Goodman. Roopal Patel, Bergdorf’s fashion editor, says the line is still under consideration, but hasn’t committed. “It’s very L.A. rocker meets a little bit of grunge meets a little couture chic, and that’s very appealing,” she says. “It’s just all a question of pricing and all that.”
He had a better time at Kirna Zabête, which bought a few more pieces and plans to celebrate with a Jeffrey-hosted party in April. “Oh, my God, I love Jeffrey!” says Beth Buccini, a co-owner. “She had to get his autograph,” says Sarah Easley, her partner, “for her yoga teacher.”