Yet again, the Project Runway crown has been won by a Portland designer. Gretchen Jones is the third contestant from Portland to do so, in possibly the most controversial win in the show's history. (We love Mondo too, and things couldn't have worked out better in his favor.) Like original Portland winner Leanne Marshall, Jones is leaving to stake a claim in New York. The Mercury asked a few questions before she left.
MERCURY: You'll be in New York by the time this paper hits the streets. What's behind that decision?
GRETCHEN JONES: Even before Project Runway I felt like I needed mentorship and guidance for my design career, because I am on the verge of bankruptcy and wasn't really succeeding because of my isolation from the national market. I felt like it was time to maybe let go of my desires to be in a community I love, that gives me a good quality of life, and really dive into the machine of fashion and give myself the room to network and grow my support system. So [that] I could live wherever I wanted. I feel like I wasn't getting what I needed as a designer, because I was struggling so much.
What are your plans once you get there?
What I'd really like to do is find a mentorship with a designer I admire. There's so much more I need to know—I think what makes Portland's community really great is that it is hands-on and craft based, but because of that I don't know very much about production and manufacturing.
Are those some of the same reasons behind why you wanted to be on the show in the first place?
Yeah, I think what I came to realize after perusing national sales for the past year [is] that we do in fact live in a celebrity-driven world, and without a face to the name it's really a struggle to sell. You're just another small little designer that people have to take risks on.
You suffered a reputation as "the bitch" this season. What was that like for you?
I certainly feel like there is a misunderstanding. First and foremost, it's a competition—as is the fashion industry. I think there's a difference between how anyone feels about people on a personal level, and how they feel about them in a competitive and aesthetic manner. Just because I was direct and forthright in answering the questions asked of me—and I do have a very strong opinion about fashion and design—that's a different opinion than how I feel about the people I experienced this with. And on a personal level I really, thoroughly enjoyed pretty much everybody, and learned a lot from the different people that I crossed paths with. I think what's unfortunate is that my opinion of my competitors' work got construed as personal. I know that's one of the reasons that I tried to be somewhat removed from the press and the show viewings... I create what I create, and I can only reach the people that want to be reached, and I don't need to hear all the negative feedback of how people really feel about me. The thing about being a woman that's direct and has an opinion, and the tenacity to fight for what she wants, is that it turns into the one adjective that we all know as "bitch." It's hard to be strong and diligent and have conviction without that word coming into play.
Do you read what the articles and blogs have to say about you?
No, I don't look at all. I haven't looked at a single blog. I don't really care, you know. I know that when I talk about my work, I'm not goofy, silly Gretchen, and... I think you know that's the situation. It's not really about personal opinions, because we all have them.
Despite your determination to focus on the work, you ended up having some interesting relationship evolutions, not least of which were with Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn.
With Heidi in particular, I feel like Heidi has a very strong opinion about fashion just like I do, and I think Heidi's opinion is different than critique. If we didn't see eye to eye on taste, then... that was different to me, and I was willing to fight for that because, you know, I don't like everything just like she doesn't like everything, and that's not a matter of good design or not. I'm a good designer, if you like the design or not.
What about Nina Garcia and Michael Kors?
I think that there's a role for each of the three regular judges. I mean, Nina's coming from an editorial perspective, and what she's looking for [in] magazines. And for high-fashion runways, I think Michael Kors understands design—clearly—and can break down the work in a manner that's different than Nina. And then Heidi comes from the perspective of wearing clothing and liking what she likes, and so her opinion is unique too. But between the three of them I feel like it's a customer base, a designer perspective, and an editorial base. I think that trifecta is really where the success is in their judging.
What about Tim Gunn? That was really awkward when he chewed you out after the group challenge fiasco.
Well, you know Tim is a vital part of the show, and I think his perspective and mentorship for each one of us on a personal level is really about the work first and foremost, and then I think he personally connects to us as that process happens... And, you know, I disagreed in that comment, but that's his opinion, and he wasn't, and isn't, in the workroom for the 20 hours a day that we are. And I think perhaps Tim needed time to get to know me in order to embrace me, and I think that happens on a regular basis for everyone. I was myself from beginning to end, I didn't do anything differently in that challenge than I did in any other, regardless of whether it was a group challenge. So people either like you or they hate you, and I think in the end Tim really ended up enjoying his time with me, and I think that showed.
The show seemed crueler than ever, with exasperating twists thrown in at the zero hour all the time. Do you feel like it's starting to tip too much away from design and toward reality TV torture porn?
I feel like because it's an hour and a half long now there's certainly more room for the personal interactions with people, and I think that's where a lot of the show is compelling. But I also think there's been eight seasons and, like... you gotta step it up and keep it interesting, and make us all still want to sit and watch. I think what surprised me was that I was somehow able to do it! Because it's already completely foreign and challenging to be designing with cameras in your face, let alone with timelines like we were given, and to throw in little kinks like they perpetually were, it just reminded me that it was a competition and that this is for a prize, and they're going to make us work for it.
So you think the twists helped you?
I think they did. Those twists were there to help guide the judging. I think they added another element of "Can you rise to the occasion?" And it sometimes helped people, and sometimes it didn't.
What advice would you give to a Portland designer thinking about trying to get on the show?
There are a couple different elements that I think any designer going on the show needs to keep in mind. One is "do you really feel like you have a strong enough voice, literally, to articulate your vision," and "do you understand your design aesthetic enough to fight for it?" And is it strong enough that you can stick true to it in a matter of twists and turns and crazy challenges that have nothing to do with our work? I think that we're so rebellious here in Portland that you really have to be willing to do stuff you don't want to do, and then you really have to have the voice to fight for it if you have to. You also really have to think about if you're willing to be vulnerable, and willing to not have control over how you're represented. It's just a matter of taking the risk, and being willing to be in a Petri dish that is the hardest experience you will ever have. You have to be very thoughtful about the decision to apply, I think, and take responsibility for it.
About 40 percent of the winners in the history of Project Runway have come from the Portland area. Do you think that's going to have a positive effect on how the industry at large perceives Portland's design scene?
I hope it does. I think it's all a matter of the context within it. I think there was certainly a reason why I moved to Portland, and it was because I wanted to be a part of a community that approached fashion differently while I was exploring what my goals even were. And the talent up here is strong and rich, and should be supported much more than it is. Knowing the community as well as I do, we're all struggling here, and we need more customers. I hope that can come, and I really think it's a matter of finding resources to get our names out there. It's just a matter of the outside wanting to look in and the inside wanting to look out for that to really happen.