Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Experiencing Project Accessory

October 27th Project Accessory debuts on Lifetime.  The previews of this Project Runway spin off are shot with muted colors and shades of grey.  The previews cut quickly between the contestants, the hosts, and various tools such as a solder iron with sparks flying, and tin snips.  The dark colors, the elements of fire and metal, and the intimidating facial expressions create a fierce impression of the upcoming show. 

As the previews are quite cryptic let me provide some additional information by regaling you with my audition for Project Accessory during the early phases of production.  It may not have been a successful attempt as I will not be on this debut season; however, the experience was interesting and worthwhile.

It was June and it was just getting warm.  I “like” Project Runway on the Facebook and saw a post in my news feed about auditions for a new show, “Project Accessory.”  There was very little information about the audition process, premise, etc apart from a list of questions for the application process and eventually a list of dates and locations for the audition.  The application asked basic questions about design experience, business models, passion, and work history.  There was also a section that focused on more personal items such as if the applicant ever had a romantic relationship with a coworker, and “when was the last time you cried?”  Clearly, while accessories are the subject, as with all reality shows, drama is the business. 

Auditions were held in LA, Chicago on a Thursday, NYC, and Miami.  One of the only prerequisites for participation in the show was to be able to leave your life and work for six weeks.  Both of these items posed barriers to entry for a girl with a day job and a creative ambition from Ohio.  However, when I realized I had three weeks of vacation left, and a slim shot at making it past the audition let alone week three, the distance to an audition site seemed like a travel adventure to take.  I happened upon a flight to NYC for less than I have ever seen a flight to NYC, and it happened to be for the weekend of the audition!  Now it felt like fate.  Perhaps FoundryM and my basement jewelry making efforts would be brought to the masses.  I decided to make the audition a weekend trip to New York.

FoundryM experimental design
There was little time to prepare for my last minute effort.  Having lost all the previous photos of my work in an unfortunate hard drive failure I brought out the light box and camera and reshot all the FoundryM pieces and the new “unofficial FoundryM” experiments one evening after work.  The next evening was spent working late, the following evening packing and editing the photos.  That left me purchasing supplies to throw together a portfolio on the plane for the audition the same day.  Not the ideal set up for success but as the saying goes on the original Project Runway, “Make it work!”

Unsure what to expect for the open casting I went straight to Yotel, the first fully automated Hotel in NYC, for the audition.  I was given a wristband and a number and told to stand in a short six-person line.  Relieved it was not a scene like the open casting for American Idol, I alternated standing and sitting on my suitcase and admired the characters in front of me. 

One particular woman stood out.  She was about 60, had on a flat topped, broad rimmed hat, short cropped hair, and was wearing a white and black stripped blouse paired with cropped cigarette pants, platform sandals, sunglasses, and bright red lips.  A tourist from another country approached and asked to take the woman’s picture.  “What is this for?” the woman answered coldly, her mouth still a pursed pout.  “I like you style,” the girl managed in halting English, holding up her camera.  The woman agreed with a slight nod and the picture was taken, pout in place.  The woman went back to her phone call describing where she was, holding a well-worn portfolio and the audition application still blank. 

The six at the front of the line were called into the audition leaving me the first one in line.  The only one left in line.  I struck up a conversation with the two guys running the outside line.  “How is the day going?  How was the turn out?  How did you get involved with this? , Etc.”  My wristband number “61” indicated I was the 61st person of the day to audition.  Not the 61st in the “x ‘batch of 100 but simply the 61st.  The turn out in the earlier city auditions had been similar and everything was going smoothly.  One of the guys was a fill in, presenting a Christopher Walken impression to demonstrate he was a comedian when not filling in on similar projects.  The other was a more experienced reality show production man.  He made a phone call and introduced himself as “Jim [not his actual name] from The Apprentice.”  I should have inquired for more reality audition tips but was nervous and not thinking strategically.

I was not the only one in line for long.  A friendly woman looking to be about my age soon fell in behind me.  She picked my brain for details about how it was going as I checked out her electric purple eyeliner and eclectic casual look.  She was friendly, seemed to know what to expect, and her willingness to chat made her approachable.  She was calming my nerves.  She had been in the industry for ten years and her most recent work was designing for the Nicole Richie House of Harlow fall 2011 handbag collection.  The feeling of being slightly out of my league was not relieved with the next few people to join the line.  There was a very put together looking blond in brown and taupe tones, heavily accessorized with bronze inscribed with Hebrew like symbols.  Her Kabbalah inspired collection, she shared, is distributed through Donna Karen’s Urban Zen clothing line.  Reading her jewelry right to left, even if you were unable to understand the reading, brought the song of the universe.  You can’t go wrong with the song of the universe on your side.  Next in line was an older woman brightly dressed, talking in a friendly way, but authoritatively in her New York accent about her shoe line production, and her casual friendship with Jill Zarin of the Real Housewives of New York.  As the line grew I grew silent taking in all the conversation, feeling a bit out of place.

The conversation in line was an education in itself.  There were clear brand perspectives, discussion of the importance of knowing your character and presenting a dramatic storyline or being booted from reality television, and much casual networking.  Two of the women that were personally invited to the audition were having none of standing in the late day sun and our line was repositioned to a nearby spot of shade.  More comfortable, and having completed introductions, we were cordial and attempted to understand more about this new show.  Consistent among the group was a lack of understanding on how the show would work. 

How many accessory designers at the professional level make their merchandise or patterns?  I can make an accessory out of almost anything, self-taught and with many near injury mishaps, I would not consider myself an expert but I felt confident I could figure jewelry samples out.  Shoes would be much more challenging.  The shoe designer in our bunch was beyond self-construction, the handbag designer with the purple eyeliner also produced designs electronically; someone else prepared the products.  Would we all have to make shoes one week, jewelry the next; or would each person be designing with a particular medium from the start?  It was not clear from the application or the little information that was available.

Our short outdoor line was moved upstairs to stand in line again.  The Yotel interior was beyond modern.  Here there were beverages available, hip hotel guests congregating on a nearby balcony with cocktails, and the woman with the flat top wide brim hat was sitting on a mod sofa.  Her style looked out of place in the purple lighting of the upstairs lounge.  She floated from one production member to another, brushed off but still not ready to leave.  We tried to determine if she was still supposed to be there but no one seemed to be paying attention or asking her to leave.  We became more focused as we were clearly closing in on the audition.

We were prepped to present our portfolios to the casting director and told that if she felt we were a possibility we would move on to present our samples to another group of people in another room.  It was exciting to see the portfolios of the other people auditioning.  Calming my nerves, my new friend the handbag designer offered to assist with getting ready for the judge panel.  She offered to give me some merchandising tips and direction on what to show and how to present my samples after we both talked to the casting director.  I appreciated her optimism that we would both be moving on. 

FoundryM necklace loved by casting directors 
The casting director was also from Ohio.  She was friendly, energetic, and personable.  I didn’t know her but she had a familiar look about her.  She liked hearing about how I had purchased my grandparents house and used the remaining contents of the closets to start FoundryM.  She loved my portfolio and told me to tell the woman that would direct the next line that I was “fun.”  I wasn’t quite sure how to work, “I am fun” into a conversation with a stranger without feeling a little uncomfortable but hey, whatever.  Talking to the casting director was extremely encouraging and I was directed to another line for the panel. 

It was clear from this third line that things were getting serious.  The woman I was instructed to tell I was “fun” was not, herself, all that fun.  She was enthusiastic but it was nearing 5pm and her enthusiasm seemed a forced.  She directed me to organize my samples, keep my portfolio out, and wait in line to be “mic’d.”  I watched, as the shoe designer, and the Kabbalah maven, in turn, were mic’d, introduced to the floor tape marker standing spots, and escorted into a room with three judges.  (If you have not already picked up, being “specially invited” got you moved up in line.)  I was excited to have the anticipated consultation from my new friend, the handbag designer, for the final test in the audition.

Ten minutes went by, then 15.  Where was my new friend?  It was my turn to be mic’d.  A good-looking young mic guy joked about it being a good thing I wasn’t wearing a dress.  He wasn’t kidding as he reached up the back of my shirt to pull down a mic wire.  I was relieved as my friend the handbag designer finally joined the line.  She had hit it off with the casting director and it delayed her progression.  I was excited that she made it but my uncertainty continued as it was now my time to go into the room and I did not have a chance to hear her suggestions for presentation. 

I walked into the room with a panel of three judges, one camera, five camera and microphone operators, and three other technical assistants sitting there looking fifteen years old and way too cool.  I handed my samples and portfolio to the table of judges and stood on the taped “X” on the floor.  I surveyed the situation and attempted to figure out who these women were on the three-person panel.  One was obviously a sit-in for the model host as there is no way anyone with a television personality would be caught dead on camera with messy hair knotted on top of her head and no makeup.  The other two looked like they could be familiar but I couldn’t quite put my finger on their identities. 

FoundryM earrings.  Not as cool looking in a ball.
They might as well have said, “Go” or shot a gun in the air.  From the second I hit the taped “X” time seemed to be on fast-forward.  I gave a thirty-second intro and description of my concept.  They barely looked up.  They asked one question, “How much time would you say you dedicate to making your jewelry?”  I responded honestly and modestly that I on average get to spend several hours a week.  This was a significant mistake.  I then watched as they balled up and then pulled my samples into funny shapes, apparently baffled by how an earring may hang down from the hook or how a necklace may hang down from the clasp. I was expecting a conversation similar to what occurred with the casting director.  I paused for some kind of question or response to propel the conversation.  This was my second significant mistake.  My pause was taken as a conclusion, like a defendant resting their case. Each of the women launched, in turn, into a brief monologue.  The first one (that was still twisting the items into different shapes as she was speaking) suggested that the construction could be better and that the designs were too literal.  Fair enough, they are very literal and these were the initial samples, my first attempts at soldering.  The second one told me I needed to take a few years and find my voice.  Clearly a canned response, not only because it didn’t make any sense but because I heard a girl leaving earlier report the same comment.  The third woman on the panel indicated they were looking for someone with more passion and suggested I quit my day job and come back when I needed it more.  What!?!  Quitting the day job may increase my hunger (literally) and give me more time to dedicate to FoundryM but not good general life advice.  I left the room dizzy from the three-minute experience running through all the things I should have done differently.

The mic was removed as I attempted to get my bearings.  My new friend suggested I wait for her and we go get a drink after she had her time in front of the panel.  While she waited her turn I shared my experience.  She took note of the things I felt I should have done differently.  We introduced ourselves to the two new people in line.  One guy walked in with a distinct look about him.  Jeans, loafers, thick rimmed glasses, collared shirt, a fitted blazer with a pinafore, and well manicured face and nails, he looked very put together.  He was attractive and had an appearance that was interesting and made you want to learn more.  He presented a printed portfolio from a previous collection he sold, and a box of more experimental samples.  I immediately fell in love with his earring samples made out of razor blades.  Up close they were glued together but from a distance they were brilliant, sparkling, and a little dangerous.  He talked about his previous experience as a designer on the reality show “Nothing to wear,” his experiences in design school, and his newly born son.  Shoot, if I were casting a show, he would be hired on the spot (for the record, as would my new handbag designer friend).  I then had an opportunity to see my new friend, the handbag designer, work the merchandising magic I was counting on.  She looked at his samples, pointed out the strongest pieces, suggested things to highlight, and most importantly, stressed he should not hand them his samples but to hold them, describe their makeup and feature them to the judges, only handing them over if they specifically requested.  In hindsight, the approach I should have taken was clear.

How would the results of my audition been different if I had an experience like this in the past?  I don’t know but I know what I would have done differently.  First, I would have had a printed portfolio instead of taping my photos in the portfolio on the plane.  I would have changed after getting off of the plane. I would have come in the final interview guns blazing, fire in my eyes, killing them with boastful enthusiasm.  I would have had a clear two-minute monologue to present my concept.  I would have been more self promoting and dramatic in my description of my commitment, “Did I say several hours a week?  I meant I slave over a solder iron every available moment after my slaving day job until I pass out. (Not a lie coming from a narcoleptic.)”  Most importantly, I would have held onto my samples featuring just a few of the strongest pieces’ inspiration, construction, and intended buyer.  These are things to remember for next time.

My friend the handbag designer, and the shoe designer were also not invited past the interview for the show, although for different reasons.  They too received the canned, “Find your voice” comment but their dismissal was due to not being “hands on” enough for the judges liking.  Could they construct a shoe or a purse?  Yes, maybe, but apparently they were not enthusiastic enough in expressing their construction confidence to make the cut.  Ironically, one of the shoe designer’s biggest clients was judge number one and the judge pointed out during the interview that she had ordered but not received one of the samples the designer brought.  I feel like we all could have saved much time if the show had specified, “Applicants must be able to construct 100% of what they design, must be dramatic, and must be a little desperate and hungry, formal design experience preferred.”

No one really told us to stay, no one really told us to leave.  My new friend then wanted to wait for the guy with the razor blade earrings to complete his audition.  I had nowhere to be for several hours and was curious about how his audition went as well.  Like the woman in the stripped shirt and flat top hat, we hung out and took it all in for a while, the not so fun woman running line number three shooting concerned looks in our direction as we sat.  The wait was worth it because razor blade earring guy made the interview cut and was given an assignment to construct something for one more round of evaluation.  The Kabbalah maven also received this assignment.  I attempt to scan for these two people on the preview and can never quite tell in the two second shots if they made it onto the show.  Eventually my new friend and I made our way back out of the mod alter-reality world in Yotel to the streets of NYC and shared a much-awaited cocktail. 

the Met
I had the rest of the weekend to enjoy all things New York.  I may not have made it to reality TV this season but I did make it to the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibit at the Met, to a fantastic dinner in Little Italy, and to Central Park in the early summer.  Not having to wait in line all weekend freed me up to catch up with one of my extremely focused young friends, on an internship in the city for the summer.  I may not be meeting Molly Sims but I met a new friend that provided valuable insight into the world of merchandising and shared wisdom from her ten years as an accessory designer over much anticipated drinks.  I consider the weekend a success. 

Me lovin life and "rockin" in Central Park
 For me the debut of Project Accessory this Thursday is a must-watch item.  I know that the competition will be fierce and I am interested to see if the show is truly as dramatic as the previews suggest.  I want to learn if the interesting designer with the razor blade earrings made it, and if the designer with the bronze etched Kabbalah inspired items actually does her own metal work.  I want to learn more about who the otherwise unknown judges are and what they do.  Most of all I am interested to see if it is going to make it to another season as my experience auditioning the first time would be invaluable in trying again.

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