BY JENNIFER NETHERBY
Seth Aaron Henderson took a bow as he walked out on the catwalk to the cheers of a packed hometown crowd armed with camera phones at Portland Fashion Week in October. The Vancouver, Wash.-based designer, at the time the reigning winner of fashion design reality show Project Runway, had just presented his futuristic concept collection, “Solar is the New Black,” sponsored by Hillsboro solar panel maker SolarWorld. Even before he presented the collection, the partnership drew national media attention for not only him, but for SolarWorld and Portland Fashion Week.
Since his run on the show earlier this year, Henderson’s every fashion move has been covered by media, from interviews immediately after with everyone from Good Morning America to People magazine to local coverage of his appearances at Portland fashion events. When he signed autographs and showed off a new collection in August at Anne Bocci, the Multnomah Village boutique where his clothes are sold, Vitamin Water signed on as a sponsor.
Known for well-made clothes with a rocker sensibility, the 39-year-old Henderson is one of four recent Project Runway contestants from Portland, and one of three who have been crowned winners. In October, the show’s judges named Portland designer Gretchen Jones the winner of Season 8. The multiple wins have boosted the city’s image in fashion along with that of each designer.
Project Runway has had great success recruiting here. Not only has the show begun to hold auditions in Seattle for its most recent seasons, but producers have kept watch on local designers, courting them and encouraging them to audition for the show.
“We’ve continued to go back for a reason because we have found great designers,” says Project Runway executive producer Sara Rea.
But while Portland has proven to be a good place to find up-and-coming designers, Project Runway success hasn’t brought stability to the city’s emerging fashion scene.
Portland is a magnet for young designers, but it struggles to keep its star talent. Hard numbers on how many fashion designers live here are hard to come by, since most local fashion designers sew on off hours from jobs as waiters or baristas that pay the rent. A popular career path is to start a line in Portland, get into local boutiques, find a moderate amount of success (or land a spot on Project Runway) and then leave town.
Of the four Portlanders on Project Runway, three have left. Season 5 winner Leanne Marshall and Season 8’s Jones moved to New York City immediately after their wins. Season 7 contestant Janeane Marie Ceccanti took a full-time job with a design house in Florida.
“I was burnt out on being broke and looking at the whole scope of things, I realized I had to start marketing outside of Portland if I was going to have any financial success,” says the 29-year-old Ceccanti. “It’s really hard for me to leave Portland, but if I want to be in women’s fashion, I have to leave.” Henderson, who has two kids in school here, is staying, even buying a new house in Vancouver. Before the show he made a living as a stylist, and his win has largely made it possible to stay and make a living as a designer.
His Project Runway winnings include $100,000 and a contract with New York-based Designer Management Agency to develop his label into a recognizable brand. He’s so far been able to parlay his success into a deal to design a line of handbags with a yet-to-be-announced NYC fashion house and is headed to Beijing Fashion Week, where he hopes to break into the Chinese market with his own clothing line.
“If you’re just a designer here, it’s very difficult,” Henderson says. “You could probably have a little store and make $50,000 a year but you’re not going to have a label unless you’re in this situation.”