I talked with Project Runway Season 3 winner Jeffrey Sebelia about why a man who’s dressed Gwen Stefani even needs to be on a reality TV show, who gets his free Saturn, and yes, how “Uli was robbed.”
Prior to Project Runway, you were already an established fashion designer in LA: Your clothing sells at [the prestigious LA store] Maxfield and you’ve designed for celebrities like Gwen Stefani. Why did you feel a need to go on this show? Agreeably, I’ve had more going on than the other three who were in the finale with me, but that’s like saying I’m one of the world’s tallest midgets. Because really I only had a little more going on. I slugged it out for three years, I’ve been self-financed. Every penny I’ve made has gone back into my business, and I support my family on a really tiny income. And from season to season, it’s still tenuous. I literally could go under next season, and it’s like that every season.
It does cost thousands to show at Bryant Park. Yeah, it’s ridiculous. I wasn’t anywhere financially close to being able to show there.
Did your friend Santino from season two encourage you to do the show? He admits it helped him, even though he was painted in the light he was painted.
What are you going to do with the prize money? Are you taking the mentorship with I.N.C.? Not sure where [the money is] going to go yet. [The mentorship,] I don’t know; I have to find out what that means. We’ll see. The car I’m going to donate to the MAP fund, the organization that helped get me sober five years ago.
Where does the phrase ‘Cosa Nostra’ come from? There was a Johnny Thunders album called the Cosa Nostra World Tour. It was one of my favorite records when I was younger. But the actual name was what the mafia called themselves when they came to America. But before that, in Sicily, the police were really corrupt in most of the towns, so people had to form their own police force to protect themselves against the cops. And it was this protective, benevolent group, called the Cosa Nostra. It means ‘that thing of ours.’
Who would be your dream person to dress? Kate Moss.
What designers do you admire? Alexander McQueen, Rick Owens, John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld. People who’ve forged their own path.
What about for how they’ve grown their businesses? Rick Owens for sure. He started with the same way I started, just having a few items pieces here and there and dragging them over to Maxfield and selling them.
How have things changed since the show ended? The most marked change? Recognition on the street. I feel like the mayor today. I’m just now figuring out what 5.6 millions viewers translates into.
Has anyone said anything negative to you? No, not at all. And I agree with most of the comments. I love the ones that say ‘Uli was robbed’…I understand the confusion with a lot of the people, that every woman would wear one of Uli’s dresses, and I agree, they’re beautiful dresses. But it’s the search for the next great American designer. And I’m not saying that’s necessarily what I am, but if greatness were measured in sales, then the people who design for Wal-Mart would be considered great. I’m not trying to make clothes for everybody.
Were you happy with who made it to the final four? Or do you think another contestant should have had a chance? I don’t know who I would replace of the other three, but Robert Best, Keith and Allison were people I would have loved to see show.
A shame that Keith brought the pattern books… Maybe he thought he needed a crutch. A lot of us talk about it. I mean, I was reading my pattern book on the plane, cramming, knowing they were going to take them from us.
What did you learn about reality TV from this experience? That it’s very predictable. It’s everything I thought it would be.
How so? I prepared very heavily to go on the show. I love satire, I love TV villains. I guess the one thing I didn’t expect is really how wrapped up people get personally in what they see on TV. I would caution people to take it all with a grain of salt. Even if it’s preceded by the word reality, it’s still TV.
You mentioned in the Bravo website interview that you wanted to be the underdog, that you planned on being that person. Why?
I think it’s entertaining. I knew I would show up and everyone would put on their best front and try to be nice. And also because if I make it to the end, I want it to be on my design merit. I want even some of the people who hate me to be like, ‘I really couldn’t stand that guy but I like his collection.’ I wanted to know I got to where I got not because I was a nice guy and the fan favorite.
Did the show follow with this ‘underdog’ idea? Yeah. It’s hard not to be a ham for a camera, no matter who you are. At one point, I think we were eating lunch, and we all acknowledged the stereotype that we were going to fall into. Michael said, ‘Oh I’m the black hip hop guy.’ And Laura said, ‘I’m the uptown bitch.’
Whose representation was furthest from the truth? I think that about a lot of the other designers, because none of us are one-dimensional beings. I know that Laura loves her kids, I know she’s a great mom. Uli is very smart; she sort of came off as a ditzy party girl.
Right, Miami Miami Miami. Yeah, party party party. And she was just playing that up.
What upset you the most about the outsourcing debacle at the end? I showed up exhausted cause I worked so hard to get there and just wanted to celebrate and prepare myself for what we all thought was going to be some last minute challenge. And when it happened, I can’t stand drama. I didn’t even want to be involved in the Keith thing, even though I was his roommate.
There was this whole notion that because you didn’t seem enraged, it must mean you’re guilty.
That was ridiculous. The only time I got really pissed on the show was with Angela’s mom, and that’s because I was scared and really threatened. I was like, ‘Oh no, because of this woman being passive aggressive and not telling me how unhappy she was, now I feel set up and might be eliminated.’ In the case of the accusations with Laura, I wasn’t threatened, I was just annoyed. It was so childish.
With Angela’s mom, did everything not come across with the editing? Yeah, there are two sides to every story. And there was more that happened in those three days than just that 10 minutes, but who cares, really. I don’t take any of it back.
What would make Project Runway a better show? Were you pleased with who they chose to be the guest judges? Entirely. And to have Fern Mallis as the finale judge, instead of…
Debra Messing? Debra Messing. Mallis runs the entire [fashion week], in New York, in India, in Los Angeles.
Is this really the search for the next great American designer? Does this make me the next great American designer? No. It means I have some more money and a car. And a lot of opportunity.