Washington College Visitor ‘Makes it Work’: The Elm reveals an exclusive interview with Project Runway star Andrae Gonzolo

Student models Rachel Field, Sam Bitz and Jillian Obermeier take a final bow with Project Runway designer Andrae Gonzolo. Photo courtesy of Chris Stokes.

By Maegan Clearwood
News Editor

Although their vibrant rain boots and tie-dye t-shirts may speak otherwise, Washington College students are not known for their haute-couture fashion. So why did “Project Runway” star Andrae Gonzolo decide to make the cross-country trek from Los Angeles, Calif. to Chestertown? For Poetry and Project Runway, of course.

It all started when Harvard University professor and poetry critic Stephen Burt published an essay comparing poetry and the popular reality TV show.

“As I was watching season seven, I realized that what goes on under the lights in “Project Runway” is not so different from a creative writing workshop,” Burt said. “There are all forms of critique and snap judgments. It shows you creative people being creative.”

Burt’s article inspired Rose O’Neill Literary House director Mark Nowak to plan an event around the two art forms. His idea evolved into an evening of fierce poses, beautiful verse, and poignant commentary from Burt and Gonzolo on how to take criticism.

“We’re not used to getting a whole new fashion line in Chestertown,” Nowak said.

Many WC students remember Gonzolo from his appearance as a participant in the second season of Bravo’s “Project Runway,” where he proved his skills as a designer and artist. Like many WC students, however, he did not have his aspirations planned out from the start.

Gonzolo first tried channeling his creative talents into theater. Ultimately, he chose fashion design as his muse, which he studied at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.

“It’s hard to separate what people don’t like about your work versus you as an individual when you’re an actor,” he said. “[I studied design] to find a way to be creative and separate the work from my identity. Ironically, I ended up on a TV show.”

Making his way onto “Project Runway” was far from easy. Gonzolo had to send in samples of his work and go through a series of interviews to become a contestant. The show gave him the opportunity to showcase his talents, but he also had to endure the harsh world of realityTV.

“[The show] is a rare opportunity to see people being creative, to see the process in action,” he said. “You think your work will become valuable, but your personality becomes valuable. The creator becomes the creation.”

Although TV stardom was not easy, the experience opened Gonzolo up to a number of unforeseen opportunities.

“I went into the experience thinking that my career would grow taller, but it just acquired a lot of branches,” he said. “I would have never imagined I’d be doing an event like this, but I’m so excited that something like this came along. It’s something you never get a chance to do.”

Gonzolo was intrigued by Nowak’s idea of melding two artforms together in such an innovative way, and agreed to bring his talents to WC. Although Chestertown and L.A. are worlds apart, he treasured his stay.”

“[The college] delightful. I love the architecture and the town is really charming,” he said. “It’s also really nice to be in a place that’s so driven by intellect. I come from L.A., which is known for its looks more than its brains.”

Blending fashion with poetry may seem contradictory, but Gonzolo recognizes that there are a surprising number of similarities between the two art forms.

“Everyone has opinions about poetry,” Gonzolo said. “They’re familiar with the art form, and everyone knows about it, just like everyone wears clothing. There are some really fascinating parallels. They’re both very difficult, both very reliant on metaphors, which is very valued for me as a creative person.”

During the question and answer session following the readings and fashion show, Gonzolo and Burt discussed critique’s role in the artistic world.

“In the structure of reality TV, designers are tossed off the show for their weakest work,” Burt said. “You see the dress that failed. It’s not necessary for works of art. We don’t want poets to be known for their worst work.”

In anticipation of the Poetry and Project Runway event, Gonzolo prepared a new, mini-collection for student models. He used the concept of “continuity and repeating cycles” as the line’s theme.

In designing, “I try to find a larger context based on temporal influences, what’s going on in our time, then I try to think ahead,” he said. “This [collection] would technically be clothes for the spring of2011 according to the fashion calendar. I then translate this time period into some sort of construction metaphor, based on fabrics, colors and techniques.”

Gonzolo has come a long way in his career, from finding himself as a designer to participating in reality TV to introducing WC to high-end fashion. He is not, however, stopping now.“My aspirations are modest,” he said. “I’d like to be able to support myself by being creative. That’s a difficult thing to do.”

For all those WC students who are struggling to turn their passions into post-college life, Gonzolo offered these words of wisdom:

“I think whenever we have doubts about our lives, I think the thing you can do is honestly answer the question ‘what do you want,’” he said. “You’ll find yourself asking that question a lot in your life. Is this what I want? Is this what I want to communicate? That will determine whether or not you’re happy: If you can find the thing you want in anything you can do.”

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