Korto Momolu’s personal background is as vibrant as one of the colorful outfits which nearly won her “Project Runway.”
The designer (whose name is pronounced “Cut-toe Mo-mo-lu”) was born in Liberia but immigrated with her family to Canada in 1990 to escape the African nation’s brutal civil war. She studied fashion in Ontario before moving to Arkansas, where she still lives with her husband and daughter.
In 2008, Momolu was selected as a contestant on the fifth season of hit reality series “Project Runway.” She sewed and styled her way to the final competition in New York City’s Bryant Park for the international expo known as Fashion Week but fell just short into second place.
The considerable audience for “Project Runway” disagreed with that ranking and awarded Momolu the title of “Fan Favorite” (and a $10,000 check to go along with that title). She continues to design and show her clothing lines around the country, and will appear at Kansas University to judge student clothing lines for KU’s own “Project Runway” competition.
Momolu joined us on the phone from Little Rock to discuss making clothes for actual women, the reality of reality television and going grungy at Wal-Mart.
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Korto Couture: An interview with Korto Momolu of "Project Runway"
Designer Korto Momolu of "Project Runway" fame on making clothes for actual women, the reality of reality television, and going grungy at Wal-Mart.
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lawrence.com: What attracted you to fashion? Why pursue fashion as a career?
Momolu: Initially I was just a regular artist, you know? Growing up, I’ve always been into art and being creative. It seemed like if there was something creative that I put my hands to, I always kind of excelled at it. In high school, for whatever strange reason, I just started sketching dresses and clothes. My art teacher who took me under her wing pushed me toward fashion after seeing those. I was 16 when I graduated high school, and I really wasn’t sure where I was going to go, but once she pushed me in that direction, I loved it and jumped in head first.
What is that direction? What’s the “Korto look” you’re hoping to stamp on your lines?
I definitely design for real women. My clothes are attractive on women of all shapes. Women don’t always come in a Size 2, 5-foot, 10-inch frame. Most of America is full-sized. My designs are for everyday women, moms who have careers and want to wear high fashion — it kind of kills two birds with one stone.
You’re an Arkansas resident by way of Liberia and Canada. How does that peculiar passport influence your designs?
Living in all of those different places definitely gave me a lot of inspiration. My clothes are very multicultural. Living in Arkansas, even there’s not too much diversity here so far as cultural backgrounds, there’s a different feel of life — it’s very laid back here. People are very open and friendly and willing to support you. That helped transform me as a designer.
Is there such a thing as “Arkansas Couture?”
I would say I definitely own more pairs of jeans since I started living here. People here don’t really follow the rule book of what’s happening in New York fashion. Although our mall has all the hottest stores as well. It works out.
How dramatic was the impact of “Project Runway” on your life?
It was the breaking point, I think. I’d been designing things since I was 16 and doing shows, but the show took my career to the next level. Staying in “Project Runway” until the end, being in the top three and going to Bryant Park, that was a dream come true for me. No way could I have afforded to show in that huge tent on my own. To be able to do that on a national and international level — the show keeps playing all over the world and I get new e-mails every day from another country — it’s amazing. How else would you be able to do that as a young, struggling designer without massive financial backing? You become famous, and now the doors that were shut with Crazy Glue before are pried open. You get an extra boost of respect from the industry. You don’t have to spend 10 years building up your name ... it’s done over a five-month period. So it’s a great experience. I mean, it comes with its highs and lows, but it was a blessing.
How bizarre is it to be famous and a role model now?
It’s crazy, and it can be really scary. It really makes you think about the stuff you do and say. So many people are depending on you and look to you for inspiration. Little girls are looking to you and connecting with your story to keep them going and give them inspiration. It’s different. It forces you to put yourself up to a higher standard. I’m not just doing this for me, I’m doing this for my daughter and my friends and family. I’m not just Korto anymore. I can’t just run into Wal-Mart looking crazy anymore. Now I’m like, “Oh my God, do I have earrings on?” Just in case someone wants to snap a picture and put it on Facebook immediately (laughs). That’s the downside: You can’t look grungy anymore.
You can make that a fashion trend. You have the prestige now.
Yeah, right — dropping my daughter off at school, everyone’s going to go, “What is she wearing?”
What was the biggest surprise going from a viewer of “Project Runway” to a contestant on “Project Runway”?
Just how intense it really is. When you watch the show, most people think you have a week to do that one challenge and then you have a week off before the next challenge. No. One day we sew, the next day someone goes home. When you see us on the roof that first day, the next day we get to work, and the third day someone went home. It was a quick, intense five weeks of that on repeat. Being in a room or apartment with no TV or radio, only getting phone calls from your family at 1 a.m. after you’re done wrapping — I never got to talk to my daughter — it’s like you’re living in a box. A sacrifice all for the possibility of winning $100,000 to further your career. All of the crying and the stress you see in the show is from that buildup. The producers know exactly what they’re doing. It works. You can’t put 16 people in a box and not have anyone snap. Some snapped quickly.
Do they actually stop the challenge clock to get interviews from you on the show?
No, and that’s why there’s a lot of freaking out going on. We would start around 9 a.m., get our challenge, go to Mood and get fabrics, then come back to the studio where we’d have eight hours to sew. Out of that eight hours, there might be an hour or two where you have to go do an interview. Most people are cranky when it gets to interview time. That’s why you see a lot of attitude. Nothing stops. That’s the process, and you just have to deal.
Did you ever feel like you were unfairly portrayed on “Project Runway?” Maybe a comment taken out of context or editing that portrayed you in a less than flattering light?
Not on Season 5, but I felt like that on the “All Stars” episode. We were all asked the same questions about if we should have won our seasons. We all answered the same way ... “Yes, I feel like I should have won,” etc., etc. It seemed like in the “All Stars” that’s all they showed me saying, like I was a bitter person who felt I should have won everything in the world and “woe is me.” It wasn’t like that. What was I supposed to say? I felt like I should have lost? I deserved to come in second? Who’s going to say that? Doggone it, if you make it that far, you feel like you should have won! So I think a lot of people looked at it like me being ungrateful or arrogant. That’s not me. The fact of the matter is that I went on the show to win. I’m human. So that’s the only bad side of it. There was a lot more integrity with the first production company.
Have you been watching the new season?
I’ll be honest with you, I’ve tried watching a few episodes, but I couldn’t really get into it. Maybe it’s because it’s a new production company or because it’s on Lifetime now, but the challenges don’t seem that challenging anymore. They’re just kind of doing regular things, whereas in past seasons they would put a little twist in there. It wasn’t just you making an outfit, it was you making an outfit out of socks or corn chips or something. It seems like this is a really easy season. I’m just not glued to it. And maybe it’s from being on the show before. Most people, after being on these shows, can’t watch it again. You know what really goes on and you don’t want to go there anymore. It’s like a nightmare sometimes.
Kind of like post-traumatic stress disorder?
It is! I was at Target one day and saw that the DVDs of Season 5 came out. “Hey, I’m on that box set!” I bought it and took it home because I wanted to see my final collection again, but when I started watching it my heart started thumping. I called Jerell (another contestant from Season 5), because we became really good friends, and he said it was the same thing for him. You can’t watch it again because your emotions go right back up to where they were on that day in that moment. You feel the tears coming back. Those DVDs are just sitting on my mantle now.
When the tables are turned, and you’re judging other peoples’ clothes at KU’s version of “Project Runway,” do you plan on channeling Michael Kors and going mad with power?
No. I’ve judged a couple of times and I think I’m more like the Paula Abdul of “Project Runway.” I’m just really nice. I think there’s a way to criticize people where they can take something from it and use it to get better. You can ridicule people because you have this power and you can — and it’s funny and gets ratings — but some people seriously can’t take that. There are people who were so bruised from being on “Project Runway” they couldn’t move on. They were so tormented by the experience. Personally, I was strong enough to move on. I try to be positive. I’ll tell people what was good and what was bad, but in a way where they won’t go home crying. I don’t want to be the cause of anybody’s dream being shattered. It’ll be fun.