Reality show features rising West Coast couturiers

It may be shot in Manhattan, but “Project Runway” — Bravo’s competitive reality show that pits 15 aspiring fashion designers against one another — is giving America a healthy dose of L.A. style. How so? Through its characters.

Remember Jeffrey Sebelia, the tattooed teetotaler who won season three? Santino Rice, the all-singing, all-dancing eccentric? What about Nick Verreos, the bolero-jacket loving dandy; Rami Kashou, the suave red carpet whiz (and season four runner-up); and Kit Pistol, the Silver Lake indie goddess? And let’s not forget Sweet P, Kara Saun, Raymundo Baltazar, Andrae Gonzalo and the rest. All hail from L.A.

With season five to air in July, nearly a quarter of “Project Runway” alums to date are Angelenos, outnumbering contingencies from anywhere else in the country.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise; in a city that values showmanship over talent, “Project Runway” represents a smart career move for entertainers with sound sewing skills. When “Project Runway” moves from Bravo to Lifetime for its sixth season this fall, expect even more Tinsel Town — Lifetime plans on shooting part of the show in Los Angeles.

“I’ll admit, before ‘Project Runway’ I didn’t know much about L.A. as a fashion center,” says Tim Gunn, the show’s resident onscreen Yoda. “Other than the leading costume designers like Adrian, and Edith Head, nothing about L.A. was in my vocabulary. But now I feel that you can’t responsibly talk about American fashion without thinking about L.A.”

A former chair of fashion design at Parsons and current CCO at Liz Claiborne, Gunn attends all the “Project Runway” open calls in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Miami. “There’s a slickness in many ways to the Los Angeles crowd, and a sense of savvy about the entertainment industry,” he says. “In New York there’s a little more naivety about what being on the show is about.”

“Project Runway” casting judge Jen Egen, who is national VP of arts organization GenArt, believes the show reflects L.A.’s fashion eclecticism. “If you look at Nick’s line and Santino’s line and Rami’s and Jeffrey’s lines — they are all very different. I mean, Jeffrey works in leather and boning, and Nick will do bolero jackets and gold lame.”

Both Jeffrey Sebelia and Rami Kashou have found that publicity generated from the show has propelled their businesses to new heights. Others, like Nick Verreos, are carving second careers as media fashion commentators. After being ejected from the show, Santino Rice gained representation and became a spokesperson for Saturn cars, and has performed his now-infamous Tim Gunn impersonations on college campuses around the country. Other “PR” graduates are carrying on from where they left off. And all have stayed in L.A.

Sebelia was a Hollywood production designer and art director before venturing into fashion. Filming in New York City was what put him off ever living there, even though Seventh Avenue is widely known as the fashion epicenter of America. “Ever tried lowering a couch down 44 floors in the snow?” he asks. “Why would I spend my life battling that?”

Even before “Project Runway,” he had a successful fashion line — thanks in part to the contacts he’d made in the film biz. “I knew a lot of fashion stylists from working in film,” he says. “So when I started designing clothes, I called them up and they helped get my clothes into the right hands.”

Sebelia says he enjoys “a lot more latitude” with his Cosa Nostra fashion line since winning “Project Runway.” “When I started five years ago, I was doing handmade pieces and selling them individually to stores and celebrities,” he says. (Dave Navarro, Gwen Stefani and Billy Bob Thornton were fans.) “But my label had become pigeon-holed as inaccessibly priced. The show has allowed me to develop a broader range, for a wider audience.” As well as Cosa Nostra, Sebelia is now working on a new (and as-yet-unnamed) higher-end line, comprising custom evening gowns and dresses. “Just don’t call it ‘couture,’ though, OK?” he says. “That is the most misused word in the world.”

Likewise, Kashou already had generated a following before appearing on “Runway” — he had shown collections at L.A. Fashion Week, and his designs were being worn by the likes of Dita Von Teese and Jessica Alba. “I knew I didn’t need to move to New York to widen my reach — I just needed extra exposure,” he says. Enter “Project Runway.” Since appearing on the show, demand for his draped, custom-made evening and wedding gowns has exploded, and Kashou has added to his list of celebrity clientele — even “Project Runway” host Heidi Klum has ordered four dresses from Kashou.

He was invited to create a dress for HSN (the 350 pieces sold out in four minutes), and gowns he created for the “Project Runway” finale will be featured in the third annual “Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design” exhibit, being held in downtown L.A. this summer. (He had to purchase his own dresses back from the Weinstein Co. — which owns the “Project Runway” franchise — as the designers do not own the garments they make on the show.) Nonetheless, “If I had not had that exposure, I might not have gotten these kinds of opportunities,” Kashou says.

Verreos, a season two alum and founder of the fashion line Nikolaki, agrees. “My whole life and business have changed,” he says. “Things are now very different in terms of calling stores or making appointments with publicists and stylists. Five years ago it would be ‘Nick who?’ Now they’re calling me.”

Since appearing on the show, Verreos, who also teaches fashion design at Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, has signed a deal with MSN.com to be a fashion commentator on its “Style Studio” site. And this year, Marlee Matlin wore one of his gowns to the Oscars, something of which Verreos is justly proud. It’s known that while actresses may let L.A.-based designers dress them for smaller events, they still turn to the European couture houses when it comes to the most important red carpet of all — the one outside the Kodak Theater.

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