Walking away from Charleston Fashion Week’s 2008 Emerging Designer fashion shows, we may have been a little lightheaded from the champagne, but my styling partner Shannon and I clearly agreed on one thing as we walked away: twenty-two-year-old Carol Hannah Whitfield was our new favorite Charleston designer. We were dazzled by her ethereal maxi dresses, intricate embellishment and chic metallic pieces from her eponymous line Carol Hannah, which she described at the time as having a “quiet sophistication with ladylike sensuality and just a touch of sass.”
Shortly after my re-cap of the event was published in the Star-News, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a gracious message of “thanks”
from the designer herself. I recently reconnected with her twice over the past two months regarding the Style Swap in Charleston and her first retail representation in Wilmington at Lumina Station’s Ziabird boutique.
In our correspondence, I learned that Carol, College of Charleston graduate and Sullivan’s Island local, was now living in Brooklyn and that she was still designing. However, she failed to mention that she just happened to be chosen to star on every-designer’s-dream show Project Runway!
With the August 20th premiere looming and with Lifetime TV’s official blessing, I had the chance to find out what this once-in-a-lifetime experience is like for a designer darling from our favorite Southern sister city:
When and why did you decide to apply for the show? What role did Charleston Fashion Week (CFW) play in motivating you to apply for Project Runway?
“I had been designing for a long time working my way through college. My business had been built almost entirely on word of mouth so at the time I showed at CFW, I really put everything out there. Laura Bennett (Season 3 finalist) was on the panel and Jillian Lewis, of Season 4 was a featured guest the night of my show so it’s kind of ironic how intertwined Project Runway was from the very beginning. I spent some time talking with Jillian after my show at CFW and she was just so encouraging and supportive.”
Describe your style. How is your personal style
reflected in your designs?
“My style is very whimsical, feminine. I like the flowiness of really fine fabric. Fabric is my favorite thing in the world. My first job was actually working in a fabric store! I use silk, charmeuse and anything with really cool texture, sparkly. I lean towards metallic fabrics and fabrics with an organic vibe. I like to manipulate the fabric instead of adding trims and embellishments. It maintains a level of simplicity.”
How has Charleston influenced your
“Being from the South in general is the biggest influence. It’s really personal, what you’re surrounded by, your environment. Charleston’s architectural landscape has also played a part.”
What kind of look would you design for the modern
“When I think of Charleston, I think of dresses, which is 95% of what I design. Bright colors, special details and interesting silhouettes are always fun. I’m obsessed with maxi dresses right now. Dresses are so easy to dress up and down, so versatile. I see the Southern woman as a woman with charm and grace. She’s very busy yet poised, elegant and pulled together. Charleston’s style is classic yet interesting. Its perspective is a good one and holds its own.”
Where were you when you got the news that you were selected?
How did you react?
“I knew the day we would get the call letting us know if we made the cut or not. I went to the beach that day and took my phone in a little plastic bag and kept staring at it! When the call finally came, I was at my friend Nathan Durfee’s studio. I freaked out!!”
Did you already know the other Charleston designer Gordana Gehlhausen? Did you stick together once you got to NY or did you do your own thing?
“We met when I was a freshman in college. She had been really encouraging and invited me to sell some of my things at her store. She moved to San Diego a few years ago. We both started off in Charleston, and now we’re both gone.”
What was it was like to meet Tim and Heidi for the first time?
“Oh, man, pretty surreal. I kept looking around and wondering if it was all real. Tim Gunn is just as you see him on TV. Tim is Tim. He’s pretty awesome. A really great person to have as a mentor.”
How did you decide what to wear on the show? Did you wear a lot of your own designs?
Carol Hannah design on etsy
“Packing for the show was pretty crazy. I had just turned 23 when I found out I was going to be on the show. Like any 23-year-old, I did not have a big budget to buy designer pieces and you never have enough time to make as many designs for yourself as you’d like so I went shopping a bit. Girls in Wilmington and Charleston know how to creatively represent their style on a limited budget. The trick is translating it to what you want to portray yourself as.”
How much sleep did you lose while you were on the show? Did you develop any tricks for staying focused and keeping the anxiety at bay?
“It’s really funny for me because I’m a vampire, night-owl type person. I don’t sleep much anyway. Creative juices start at 10pm and end at 4am. Working on that sort of timeframe wasn’t all that out of the ordinary for me, but the schedule can be pretty wearing. You’ve got to use your stolen moments to your advantage like when I was in a cab, I’d take a cat nap. The thought of seeing myself on TV – now, that’s nerve-racking!”
What is the greatest surprise you encountered from this experience?
“The friends that I’ve made from being in such an amazingly bizarre situation together where you’re cut off from the rest of the world – no phone, no email, etc. It’s like we were going into battle together on the same team being put on display in front of a very impressive group of judges. I consider many of them as my best friends. It’s pretty fantastic to have that sort of camaraderie with so many other designers.”
Mike Yarish/Lifetime Networks
How have you evolved as a designer from this experience?
“Enormously. It’s invaluable to receive feedback from people of that caliber. You name it, you earn it. The whole experience challenges you personally, professionally and emotionally. You really find out what your strengths and weaknesses are. What you put into the experience is what you get out of it. For me, being in the moment was so important. I decided heading into it that I would do my best, meet some really cool people and see where it takes me. I was there to show what I could do and have some fun.”
Find Carol Hannah’s line of jersey dresses that she describes as “easy, approachable, affordable yet special” at Ziabird arriving August 10th – just in time for the Project Runway premiere party (that we’re sure to be at!)
TELL ME ABOUT IT:
If you could create a fashion challenge for Project Runway,
what would it be?