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.
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.
The fall 2011 collection of SOUTH by Andy South debuted in March and will be available for sale at Neiman Marcus Ala Moana’s contemporary women’s department this August. Thirty-three pieces appeared in the collection (South hopes about a third of them will be manufactured and available for sale), which boasts mostly neutral tones of black, grey and white—with a lone jolt of bright yellow used in the show-stopping final gown.
“I had just finished Project Runway,” says South of the process of designing the collection last fall. “I felt like I was constantly running, constantly going. So if you look at the clothing, a lot of it has a bit of motocross influence, which was subconscious. A concept of going in motion.”
More specifically, the signature chevron—or south-facing “V”—appears as the line’s logo and is also on nearly every piece in the collection. “It’s a directional arrow, our take on the compass,” he says of the logo, designed by his best friend and right-hand helper, Jill Misawa. “It’s a conscious business move to incorporate the branding into the design, where we don’t lose the design quality but we maintain the sense of a brand—because that’s what sells. Anybody can make clothing, but it’s whether or not you can sell a brand that will determine whether you survive in the industry."
The line includes mostly natural fibers designed in the edgy, modern silhouettes that Andy exhibited during his tenure on Project Runway. The tank tops and the long maxi dress are made of a comfortable bamboo Lycra, while the remaining pieces are made with 100-percent silk, cotton or leather.
“I’ve got a few synthetic fibers in there, but as far as what’s touching your body, it’s all natural,” says South, who always makes a point to try on his designs himself—and has the slim, dancer’s body to pull it off. “It helps me. Some things that designers put women in are beautiful to look at but they’re not comfortable, or getting in and out of them is a hassle.”
Attentive Project Runway viewers may notice key pieces in the collection that also appeared on the television show. The black wool jacket unveiled during his televised audition and lantern-sleeve silk top submitted during the “Marie Claire Woman” challenge both appear in the SOUTH collection. The drape drawstring pants that made a commotion during Episode 8 for being inappropriate for Jackie Kennedy (and causing the otherwise erudite contestant mentor Tim Gunn to utter one of his most memorable remarks: “Jackie Kennedy would not have camel toe.”), have since been tweaked and stand out as a “signature Andy” component within the new collection.
Finally, the slouchy cardigan and off-the-shoulder slouchy tee are similar to the winning designs South contributed to Heidi Klum’s active-wear line for the “New Balance” challenge. South’s personal style didn’t go unnoticed, either; the collection’s dropped-crotch harem sweatpants have been included, not because they were once designed for a challenge, but because he himself wore them on the show and received a clamorous response from fans to bring them to market.
“The collection was meant to be more neutral, basic,” South explains. “I wanted pieces that would sell in order to lay a foundation for future seasons. My aim was to do a soft launch, a smaller collection, just to get the brand started. The main goals were to provide pieces for customers that, one, they already loved from seeing them on the show and, two, were available at a mid-price point so that more people could afford them, as opposed to going completely high fashion.”
If the standing-room-only crowds at the Ala Moana Centerstage premiere of his collection in March were any indication of shoppers’ interest, South should be able to count on a great deal of support from his wide local audience. Some of his greatest fans include Gov. Neil Abercrombie and first lady Nancie Caraway, who established a working relationship with South when he designed Caraway’s December 2010 inauguration outfit.
“This fantastic show from Andy shows what talent and perseverance can do, and what Hawaii can do in terms of fashion, not just for Hawaii but for the whole world,” says Abercrombie, wearing an orange Sig Zane koi-print aloha shirt, after taking in South’s center-stage fashion show from the front row. “The most important thing about tonight was seeing fashion break through to a broader audience. It shows that Hawaii can be a center for innovation.”
In addition to praising South’s designs and work ethic, Abercrombie applauded his corporate principles. “Andy’s my hero,” he says. “He and his mother, Nora [Sisounthone], have a real concern for human rights. They are great supporters of nonexploited labor and fashion without exploitation. He has a conscience as well as talent. He’s a great man, a great hero. People like him for the right reasons.”
In December 2010, South traveled to Zhongshan in southern China to work on his line’s production, including sourcing his fabrics and getting samples made. As important to the trip, though, was making sure the facilities in which his garments are produced met his standards.
“I want my pieces to be manufactured the right way,” he explains. “The challenge always is that people in different regions have different ideals of life. People can make arguments that, ‘That’s the way they live, that’s fine.’ I don’t believe that. I believe human beings are human beings. And I always want to make sure I know where my pieces are being produced. I want to be ethical about what I’m doing. If I have to lose profits in order to give my customers something at a good price while guaranteeing that it’s being made fairly, then I will do that. I would rather take the hit on my part, in the pocketbook, rather than on my heart.”
South’s mother, who raised South and his siblings on her own and now lives on the family farm in Kahuku, also remains dedicated to protecting human rights. She works as a case manager for Pacific Gateway Center, a nonprofit immigrant and refugee support organization in Honolulu. “Mom checks up on me every day,” says South, whose studio space is one floor above his mother’s office. “I can always expect a phone call from her every morning and she pops in around noon to see if I’ve eaten.”
Much of South’s commitment seems to stem from witnessing his mother’s perseverance. “Everyone comes here with a dream,” says South. “My mom came here with a dream. I think I got the desire to give back and come from a place of help from her, since she was once an immigrant.”
Growing up in Hawaii helped form more than South’s business ethics. “I think Hawaii has influenced me as a person, and my character,” he explains. “You can’t get that same aloha spirit unless you’ve grown up here or come here and experienced it yourself. It’s a spiritual thing that kind of surrounds you when you’re from Hawaii; you can tell when a person is from Hawaii. You can tell in their heart. That’s the most important thing I’ve gained from Hawaii.”
For now, South maintains a pointed focus on getting his new business off the ground—with much of that energy going toward completing his spring 2012 line—and remains undistracted by any trappings of his recent celebrity.
Looking back on his time on Project Runway and the experiences he’s had since then also yields some candid insight. “I think I’m not as scared of the fashion industry now,” he admits. “I realize now that all the designers I look up to are still people and they all started doing it this way, which is working. People ask me what I’m doing and I always say, ‘Working, working.’ Everything I do is for this. And I think that is what will catapult a lot of successes and a lot of things to come.”