Project Runway's Andy South Produces New Line
The New South: From Waianae High School to Project Runway to Neiman Marcus, 24-year-old fashion designer Andy South has come a long way—and he’s just getting started.
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In his airy, third-floor studio in Chinatown, fashion designer Andy South keeps his work stations clearly defined: Design and sewing in the largest, brightest room; computer work and calendar scheduling in the central office area; models and friends chat on the L-shaped sofa in the community area; and sleeping—if at all possible—in the smallest, back room.
There, strewn around his makeshift twin bed, rest barbells to remind him to get some exercise and empty suitcases to remind him he’s got a plane to catch the next day. Against the wall, a shelving unit houses spools of thread, bolts of fabric and innumerable design books, just in case he needs to be reminded why he’s sleeping on that makeshift bed in the first place.
The reason, of course, is that he’s making a name for himself in the fashion industry. Like so many emerging entrepreneurs building a business, he’s earning it the old-fashioned way: through toil, focus and very little sleep.
To be fair, he’s had an important advantage in this quest: recognition, and plenty of it. Lithe, soft spoken and unfailingly polite, 24-year-old South entered America’s living rooms each week last summer and fall as a competitor on Season 8 of the hit Lifetime series, Project Runway. He turned in a pretty respectable showing, too—making it to the finals, presenting his collection at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center and taking third place in the competition.
Unlike many of the current offerings in the pantheon of reality television programming, Project Runway provides contestants an arena in which they must actually use talent and skill to advance. It makes for compelling viewing, too; even those who don’t know a bobbin from a spool can appreciate the fierce competition among fashion designers tasked with creating themed garments in unthinkably small amounts of time and with unlikely materials.
The platform was a great vehicle for South, who earned high praise from the judges for his accomplished braiding and handiwork, and whose calm demeanor served him well within the pressure-cooker atmosphere. He deftly sidestepped the drama that shadowed so many of his competitors, refusing to engage in petty rivalries or make snarky comments to the famous judges. Instead, he infused his clothing with drama and accepted criticism with poise.
“The experience taught me to be open to opinions and take criticism better than I used to,” says South of having his work regularly critiqued by supermodel host Heidi Klum, Marie Claire fashion director Nina Garcia, American sportswear designer Michael Kors and various celebrity judges. “My design is very personal to me, so it’s hard for me not to take criticism personally. When it is your art—it’s what you pour your heart and soul into—it’s difficult to hear that. But it’s taught me really to know who I am and what I stand for. I reminded myself that these were just opinions and they do matter, but they’re not going to be what determines my career.”
Interestingly enough, a career in fashion wasn’t something the young designer realized he wanted to pursue until he was nearly finished with high school. “I was driven to fashion as an industry during my junior year of high school after a friend brought me information about FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, in California) from a career fair. That was my school of choice, but it turned out to be too expensive so I looked into other options and found Honolulu Community College (HCC), which turned out to be great. Had it not been for that initial brochure, I would not have known that a career in fashion was possible.”
Before that, his interaction with fashion was strictly visceral. “I didn’t know what fashion was,” he says. “I didn’t grow up around it. All I knew was that I liked watching red carpets, prom season and gowns. To me, when a woman got dressed up it was just so magical and so beautiful, I couldn’t take it.”
He started designing gowns and only later took his first sewing classes at HCC, where he earned an associate’s degree in 2007 from the fashion technology program and served as the Fashion Society president.
South’s quiet nature belies a fierce drive and fortitude—something he may have inherited from his immigrant parents, who fled political persecution in their home country of Laos when the Communist Party came to power in 1975. “[Coming to Hawaii] was a means to escape that,” he explains. “My grandfather was involved in the government in Laos. They were directed to leave or the family would have probably been killed off.”
Born in Kailua on Sept. 9, 1986, he moved with his family to Waianae when he was in the third grade. The youngest of five children, South—whose real name is Southiphong (SOO-tee-pong)—earned his famous nickname, “South,” at Waianae High School, where he graduated in 2004. It’s fitting he’d use the sobriquet as the title of his first retail fashion collection.