Fast forward to 2013. Aaron is now a national style correspondent, TV casting pro, and above all, a noted and skilled designer. I caught up with Seth by phone to discuss where Portland’s fashion scene is heading, and how he pulled himself up by his own very on-trend bootstraps and managed to stitch together the rarest prize in the age of reality TV competitions: lasting success and fulfillment.
Aaron speaks like he works, carefully tailoring and editing each sentence. He occasionally doubles back to rip the seam out of a thought and reconstruct it, or tack a neatly structured hem to an unfinished response. Like his collections, his opinions are bold but thoughtful, colorful yet approachable. Always working on his next move, next season, next collection, next self-driven career move, Seth Aaron has proven to be an authentic talent, far more interesting than a passing fad.
Where did you grow up and how did you come to be here in Portland?
I grew up in San Diego. My wife is from here and her family is here. My mother and my brothers had also moved here.
Do you remember at what point fashion and fashion design became more than just an interest for you? Were you designing clothes even at a young age?
Yeah—well, I was altering clothes. I had drawn out some items for my mother to make when I was younger, when I was maybe 8, 10. I was altering stuff as a teen all the time. It was just what I did. I’ve always changed or made my own things, made something I bought my own. I’m very particular about my clothes, how they fit, what they look like. The music world in San Diego at the time, the whole punk rock and skate culture, that’s what was there in the 80s when I was growing up.
At the high school I went to, they offered fashion courses. I did take those. I was always interested in the whole element of apparel, fashion and trends. I’ve wanted to be in entertainment since I was five. My father and my grandfather always said, “You need to go into acting.” My grandfather especially would say, “This is what you should do.” I liked it but I was always more interested in how things were built, how a concept could be actualized in the real world. It all starts with a fantasy world in your head, and then you bring it to life.
How did that actually transition for you to the point where you embarked on making this your vocation?
I’ve been a fashion stylist in the industry for 13 years now, but 2005 is when I first learned how to use the sewing machine. I taught myself, just picked it up and started to sew through trial and error and perfected it. But there’s something new every day—you never know it all. Every time you make a garment it could always be better the next time, that’s the way I look at it.
What was happening for you as a designer directly before Project Runway (Season 7, 2010)?
I freelanced as a stylist for Fred Meyer, Nordstrom—when Meier & Frank was still there, I freelanced for them. I’ve done stuff with Nike, Adidas, Ralph Lauren, down the list. Whether it was a catalog or a website or a billboard, that’s what I was doing.
My wife got tired of me complaining, “This is what I want to do,” but never following through with actually just doing it. She then purchased the sewing machine for me as a present in 2005. Within a year of that, I was selling to stores. I really worked—this sounds totally ridiculous but it’s true—about 18 hours a day. I would work all day, come home and then work till one or two in the morning, wake up and do it all over again. I did that about six days a week for a year and a half straight. It was a lot of hard work, but it’s some- thing I love to do. So that’s how I perfected the way I tailor clothes in such a short amount of time.
Being a stylist around those racks and racks of clothes, were you also motivated by the thought of “I could do better”?
Yes. Early on, when I first started, I worked for the May Department Stores Company. Their creative director (she had been the creative director at Macy’s New York for years, working with a lot of stylists) said to me, “You understand clothes. You know how they work. You know how to make a size ten a size four and still make it look like it was sewn to be a size four.” Being around clothes, you always get your samples bigger than your model size, of course. You can pin and pull them, but they’re going to look goofy. You’ve got to do it so it looks just right.
Then, you’re chosen for Project Runway. On one hand, reality TV offers a tremendous new audience, platform and credibility for emerging talent. On the other, many contestants—winners especially—decide to distance themselves from the show’s brand, preferring to be recognized as their own distinct artist and brand. Where do you stand?
There are a lot of people that don’t want to be associated with it, and that’s fine. I particularly like to be associated with it. It’s one of the few reality shows that’s not scripted. It’s real—what you see is real. And if people tell you differently, well—there’s something wrong with them. (laughs) I’ve been on it, and I’ve been behind the scenes. And it is not Jersey Shore scripted bullshit—it’s not.
Runway, Bunim-Murray Productions, Weinstein, Lifetime—I still work with them. They’ve never done anything negative for me not to want to be involved with them. They’ve always given me positive opportunities and support. They’re not going to hand you stuff; you’ve got to work for it. You’ve got to work way harder after! To come back to your earlier question, “What was I doing before this?”—I was doing exactly the same thing, just not at this level. The opportunities, if you work for them, are there. You can get this sense of, okay, I’ve done this, I’ve accomplished this, and now things are going to be easier. Well, that’s not true.
That’s interesting. What do you mean by that?
For example… I’m going to sit home and everybody and their grandma is going to want to call me, and give me a job, and everything is just going to be handed to me—versus having to bust your ass for it. I knew better than that. Tim [Gunn] told me, Michael [Kors] told me, “You’re going to have to work.”
I like media and I like doing TV spots. It was a year or more after, last year actually, that E! Entertainment flew me down to cover the “Red Carpet Revolution- aries” show. I did a couple shows for E! and one for Style Network, too. The next [Project Runway] season was already going by then. It does have a media hype right afterwards, and if you let yourself fall out of it, you will. Some people don’t want to be on TV any more than they have to be. Some people like it—I like it. If I had to pick one or the other, I would design, because that’s what I love to do. But on the other hand, if I can also keep a career going on the other end, I would happily do that.
Some people may mistakenly envision all clothing designers as single, bohemian, SoHo loft dwellers. You have a wife and children and live in Vancouver, Washington. How does your family and geography affect your overall philosophy, approach and work?
There are a lot of those types, but the majority of well-established designers at higher-end labels are normal people who eat dinner and have families and pets… It doesn’t have to be as crazy as some envision it can be at times. It isn’t necessarily always that way.
You won the children’s clothing challenge on Project Runway. Do you have any desire to ever design a children’s collection?
Yeah, I do actually. I do want to go that route eventually. I would definitely do a fun but forward children’s line. It’s a difficult business because of manufacturing. I was signed with a manufacturer last year. They collapsed, so I had to start over from scratch. I had a line, I traveled, and I did the show under their manufacturing name. They just couldn’t pull it off. They screwed up. That really put me in a bad spot because all my time and energy was put into this success. We had two major retailers greenlit to carry my label under them. Right now, I’m just reconstructing where I’m at and what I’m doing. It’s just an ongoing thing, and not always the easiest to do.
Portland’s fashion scene got a lot of attention last year. With TIME mentioning FASHIONxt, there was a greater visibility around it. Being one who has shown at New York Fashion Week and here in Portland, what insights could you suggest to Portland’s key fashion event organizers?
It comes down to sponsors, and ultimately time and budget, you know? I envision Portland Fashion Week in a big spring tent on the Waterfront or in the Pearl District. For my own stuff, I always love doing warehouses and things like that. One event I do in BC, Canada is done in more of a grungy warehouse, and it’s a lot of fun.
But I’m thinking for Portland’s Fashion Week, if it were located in the heart of Portland, it would get a lot more than just the yearly diehards that look forward to this. But those are all physical changes, and not cheap to do. I think for what they had to right direction. This was just the first step, and I know they’re working on making some changes to elevate it, and hopefully that works out. I think it will because they do have a lot of key players involved as far as sponsors, and so on. It’s a fun event. It’s a reason to get together and show some work with friends in your hometown.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on some custom suits for clients who ordered from my Portland Fashion Week collection. Then I’ll be at Fashion Week El Paseo in Palm Springs on March 20th. I have a theme already for my Spring/Summer show in Palm Springs.
Can you share that theme with us, or is it yet to be unveiled?
It’s yet to be unveiled, because I could change my mind in a week. It’s going to fit my aesthetic, but I think it could be a little bit different than what people have seen from me.
Some are under the impression that “designer” indicates little more than a higher price for the name, the label. How do you respond to that?
Shape, silhouette and fit are things I’ve always stressed. When you put on an Alexander McQueen blazer, you know why it costs what it does and you know why it’s a designer blazer. One-size-fits-all, square, boxy stuff is all mass market. The difference between designer and that is really in the details.
What people don’t often know is that there are big factories in foreign countries. North Africa, India— there’s a ton. For example, they’ll produce this pink polo in a couple different grades of fabric, but it’s the same polo. That’s the one Ralph Lauren uses, that’s the one Tommy Hilfiger uses—they all use the same polo. That’s labeling, marketing, branding. But when you go to their collection, it’s in the better department stores or on the runway. It’s definitely not produced in that factory. So you are paying for a name in the sense of, okay, I’m buying this really nice polo and it’s $85, but I can get this one over here for $44 and it’s almost as nice—why am I paying that much more for this?
However, if you’re buying a $7500 Chanel wool coat, that’s going to be there 150 years from now if you take care of it, you know? That’s what Tim Gunn stresses: build a wardrobe with investment pieces, and then you fill in the gaps with the less expensive, seasonal trend stuff. H&M, Target, Forever 21—you can do that. But then there are those core pieces where you don’t skimp. They will be in your closet, won’t go out of style and will be there for a long time.
Seth Aaron wins “Project Runway All-Stars”