Friends, family members and just about anybody we meet who's a fan of the show ask us the same question all the time. "What's [insert designer name here] really like in person?" Time and time again, we give the same answer. "They're exactly like what you see on TV." For all the designer pouting and stamping of feet accompanied by the common refrain of "It was the editing!" the fact is, the designers we see onscreen are pretty much the same people you meet in real life. With one notable exception: Emmett McCarthy.
Memorable mainly for his somewhat controversial auf'ing at the hands of Not-Nina Elle editor Anne Slowey and his gracious exit in a hot pink ice skater's costume, Emmett didn't exactly burn up the screen with his presence - and he'll be the first one to tell you that. "Before I went on the show," he says, "My mother sat me down to watch The Apprentice. She said, 'The more dirt you throw, the less ground you have to stand on, so be cautious. They will play that show forever.' She's a woman with a lot of dignity. She wanted to caution me because she watched my career develop from a high school student to a 42-year-old professional. She was familiar with all the intimate details of my career and she didn’t want me to do anything that could hurt that.”
Spend any length of time with Emmett and you realize that his family is a huge part of his life and had a profound influence on it. The first thing you notice when you walk into his elegant, understated apartment is the wall of photographs, almost all of them depicting family members. The sixth of eight children in what he describes as a "religious Irish Catholic family," he grew up in New Haven, Connecticut in what he also describes as a "Bloomsbury environment," referring to the early twentieth century English collective of aesthetes, writers and artists. “My mother had started painting at 40 years old, my two older sisters were violinists, and I was given a violin when I was about 4 years old. My first exposure to life was academic, music and art.”
Admitted to the Talented and Gifted Program at the Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven, he went on frequent class trips into New York City for art and cultural education. “I knew that I didn’t fit in with the rural, small town; that I wanted to do something big in the arts in NYC. I didn’t know what yet. I thought perhaps I’d be a classical musician but my road got sort of redirected.” Said redirection came when he met his first honest to god fashion designer through a friend, the painter Anna Bresnick, and suddenly found his purpose. “I could sew and I was really good with color and construction, so I thought I’d blend this art and commerce. I was very impressed with the fact that you could earn a living and still be creative. That was very appealing to me.”
“My brother was killed in a car accident when I was thirteen and time stopped.” He says this not matter of factly, but in the voice of someone who has dealt with it. There’s no maudlin sentiment in the words. “When you’re thirteen years old and your brother dies, you sort of look at life as very finite. You don’t have forever. Soon thereafter, my two sisters were in a car accident, like 3 weeks later. My entire high school and college life, my sister Pegeen was very ill with diabetes and had many complications. I always had this conscious feeling of you gotta make the most of what you have at hand.”
“And I knew that I wanted to be around gay people,” he continues. “I was growing up in a conservative family; I didn’t quite understand what being gay was about. You don’t know how you fit in when you’re thirteen years old. I knew I was capable, I knew I was smart and I knew if you really apply yourself to anything you could be successful.”
Success is what drives him, more than anything else. It doesn’t spring from any sort of overcompensation and it’s not from a desire for material wealth. Emmett strives to be the most successful designer he can be because his neck is on the line. “I don’t think people understand what it’s like to come out of a reality show and the reality of hardcore business. What it’s like 7 days a week to pay your rent, pay your salaries…” His voice trails off with a feeling of exhaustion. He’s hustling like crazy in an insanely tough business and an insanely tough town and he’s always got multiple plates spinning on multiple poles at the same time.
“MARY!” We’re once again in Emmett’s cool, chic little boutique, EMC2 on Elizabeth Street in the burgeoning Nolita section of Manhattan. Emmett comes out from the back at the sound of our voices, as always, stylishly dressed and elegant in his bearing. For such a tall man, he moves with a lithe grace…we want to say “of a dancer,” but that’s not really it. More like a big, gay, slightly aristocratic giraffe. And he always calls us either “Mary” or “Marge.”
“Come on back, I want to show you the studio!” Behind his store is a courtyard, one familiar to us from previous events held to promote his popular line of Tim Gunn bobbleheads. Today, it’s a disaster. He’s having a design studio built in the back and the yard is littered with construction detritus. We step gingerly around the debris as he talks excitedly about the usual million things he’s got going on at once. Before we know it, we’re apologizing to the work men for getting in their way while we each have about a half dozen of his new shoes and bags in our hands. “Look at this one. Did you see the dresses they’ll be wearing for QVC?” Everything is impeccable. He works in a classic style with modern twists and everything he produces is always of the highest quality.
“I am a consumer myself and I like quality merchandise,” he explains. “When you go buy expensive merchandise, you expect beautiful details; the hardware, the stitching, the technique. I feel like I’m bringing the techniques of the old masters into new product.”
He learned those techniques the old-fashioned way: hard work, schooling, and taking every opportunity that came his way. Unlike many of Project Runway’s contestants, Emmett showed up on the first day of filming with a literal lifetime of experience. The day after he graduated high school, he went straight to New York City and the Fashion Institute of Technology. “I was advised to go to FIT because it was more of a technical school and you’d want to have technical skills before you tried to enter the industry.” After two years at FIT, he transferred to the Parson’s School of Design. “There were like 27 different countries represented in my class. They enlisted 150 students and only 49 graduated. The attrition rate was really high but it was really tortuous. You never slept. It was sort of like Project Runway in a way.” At Parson’s he continued a friendship with Tim Gunn that started years before when Tim came to his high school to speak. Most fans of the show don’t know this, but Tim and Emmett have been friends for a quarter century.
After graduation, he bounced around between London and Paris for a while, working a variety of jobs in the industry. “It was one of those things that you’d only do when you’re 25 because everything seemed so grand and like such a great idea. And you can take risks. I really wanted to explore the world, to interview with all the couturiers in Paris.”
He came back to New York when his sister had another health crisis and he needed to be closer to his family. Despite the stressful circumstances, he speaks of the time with great fondness. “I moved to New York at the onset of the AIDS epidemic. It was a really gritty time but there was so much vitality, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, all the vogue parties. I was a party boy. You’d get really dressed up and go out. All of that was sort of mocking the establishment. Everyone was striving to be something. It was really quite thrilling to be a part of that. I always had that sort of reserve because I knew that life was precious. I had family members that were sort of living on the edge and so I was kind of timid to take any risks, but I certainly was in the thick of the whole cultural revolution. I was also watching 40 of my friends die between the ages of like 20 and 30. There was a lot of uncertainty and the creativity was killed, really.”
With his education and training, Emmett thought the more corporate side of fashion was where he needed to be. “The fashion industry was also making major transitions, as it does. You go through a job; things don’t sell, you go to the next job; the company closes, you go to the next job. There was a lot of attrition in the industry” He found himself at one of the most established giants in the industry, Kellwood Company, but as he says, it was “was a little bit too regimented” for him. Finally, he wound up as the design director for a small menswear company. “That allowed me to be the designer for several Bryant Park shows and it taught me how to run a company.”
After years of working in the industry, Project Runway practically fell into his lap. “I was called by a friend who said ‘You should try out for this TV show.’ I never saw myself as being a risk taker but I guess I am. I went on this audition and I got on but I was not really prepared.” He took his mother’s wise advice and, in his words, “I tucked away the acerbic Emmett and became the silent Emmett.” Does he regret his calculated low-key persona? Not a bit. “I wouldn’t have done it any differently.” His take on the show is that of a person with decades of training and experience behind him. He saw it as an opportunity to further his career and nothing more than that. No drama, no attention-whoring. Just a simple, low-key approach to getting the work done, which is of a piece with his entire career philosophy. “I’ve been under so much stress in my life that that did not seem that stressful at all. It’s just covering two arms and two legs. It’s not like I worked in an ER and someone’s life depended on me.”
Still, it’s not as if he doesn’t have some strong opinions about the experience. “Santino was like 'Oh, he doesn’t know how to make patterns.' That’s total bullshit. I was very well trained and it all came back. It wasn’t like I didn’t know what I was doing.” He looks at it now with no small amount of amusement, even when he’s taking the judges to task. “They were never consistent in their judgment. That’s what keeps the show lively because it’s so unpredictable. I mean, what the fuck? You’re gonna keep Santino on? You’re gonna send Daniel Franco home? Look at this atrocious lingerie we made! You think this is a fashion point of view? It’s a circus costume!”
Still, despite his criticisms, he truly loved the experience because it felt like coming home to him. “I think I was the first Parson’s graduate who came back as a PR contestant. And there I was 20 years later and it all came back like a physical memory - and I got to reconnect with Tim as a professional. I met him as a teenager and now I was grown up and professional. I got to meet him on adult terms. That was really important to me.”
After his aufing, he spent not one second feeling sorry for himself or entertaining grand ideas of stardom and fame. He did what he has always done, got right back to work. “I took the chance, I got the exposure and I thought ‘I’m gonna open a boutique.’” He approached his plans the same way he approaches everything, with care and planning and the gathering of as much information as he can find. “I took out business loans. I sought out business advisors. I met with Tim Gunn and a friend of mine who’s a branding consultant and another friend who’s a financial services consultant and we mapped out the constellation of brands for my business. Right in the beginning, I invested in all the legal trademarking involved in these brands. It’s like anything in life. If you want to be successful then you need to reach out to other successful people in their fields.”
“I wanted to use the store as a window to the world,” he continues. “So people could see this as a fashion laboratory. I could do one-of-a-kind pieces and see how it was received by my customers while I learned what my aesthetic was going to be. I don’t think anybody wakes up one day and says ‘this is my philosophy of fashion.’ I think it’s something you develop and that’s reinforced by your customer base. You listen and you meet their needs. I wanted to create quality merchandise that was provocative that would be anniversaried in your wardrobe year after year.” One ten-minute stroll through his store will tell you that he’s achieved what he set out to do. The racks are filled with one gorgeous, timeless dress after another. “When you walk in the store, it has a clear point of view from the front window to the back room,” he explains. “You understand that there’s a designer behind the look and feel of the store. Everything is nicely framed in this setting. And I do it all; I do sportswear and handbags and shoes. In the end it only helps bring the whole brand identity together.”
Of course, with Emmett, there’s no resting on his laurels. A boutique wasn’t enough. He wants a national customer base and for as long as we’ve known him, that’s been the goal he’s been working on. Not only is he appearing on QVC this week to sell his bags, but he’s also working on a deal with JC Penney for another line of bags. “Not everybody gets the opportunity to shop in New York,” he says. “This is a great opportunity to reach out to the people that are really starving for something that’s new and exciting and affordable.”
We all sat in our living room last week, a massive pile of handbags on the coffee table in front of us. We forced him to go through his QVC pitch just so we could be opinionated and tell him what he’s doing wrong. Turns out, he’s not doing anything wrong. His excitement and pride for his new collection of bags is infectious and he could literally talk about them for hours. “If you look at those bags inside and out, you will see those bags are extraordinarily well made. It has my name on it so I’m not going to sacrifice that attention to detail. My customers trust me and I’m going to offer them quality.” He pauses for a moment. “They’re fucking AMAZING quality!” We advised him not to say that when he’s on the air.
We talked a little bit about the inspiration for his bags too. “I’m always looking for inspiration, whether it’s online or in a vintage store. I can pick up a vintage dress and look at the pattern and see that in a handbag.” We’ve been lucky enough to take him on a tour of Philly’s better vintage stores and it’s fun to watch the wheels spinning in his head as he picks up items and sees the possibility in them. Last week, after a day out in the shops alone, he came back with a half-dozen bags of vintage items and laid them out in front of us. “Look at that closure,” he points out. “Or this!” as he unveils a gorgeous purple velvet maxi-skirt from the seventies. “I’m almost tempted to put this in my window tomorrow to see if it sells!” Still, it’s not only the luxurious vintage pieces that inspire him. Sometimes, it’s the most humble. Believe it or not, the pattern on one of his handbags comes from a 30-year-old bowling shirt. The shirt itself was kind of ugly, but only Emmett could see the possibilities in the print. What looked hideously tacky on a shirt looks downright elegant on a handbag.
Back in Emmett’s store, we’re sitting on a couch with a glass of wine as he putters about and wraps things up before closing. When he’s just being Emmett, he’s funny and goofy and sharp as a tack, but when a customer comes in, it’s like a switch is turned on and he’s immediately back to what we would call “hustling,” but he frequently calls “pole-dancing.” After he ushers a customer back to the dressing room to try on a gorgeous Audrey Hepburn-inspired dress, he reflects for a moment on what he’s doing. “I grew up in a house with a mother and four sisters and each of them had very different personalities and very different tastes and priorities as to what they spend their money on. You look at fashion and you look at people’s taste levels and you want to offer something to everyone.” He stops to adjust some dresses on a rack. “I think I have a healthy idea of what a business is like,” he says. “I’m sowing the seeds of a successful business. Like anything else in life it’s a process.” And with that, the curtains of the dressing room open and the customer comes out looking ten times better than she did when she walked in. “Isn’t that gorgeous?” he says with pride. “You know it comes with either a yellow belt or a black one. Here. Try the yellow one. You know what else you need? Shoes. Let me show you what I have.”
Emmett will be appearing on QVC tonight at 10 PM EST and again on September 12th at 4 PM EST to debut his line of handbags, retailing from $89 to $150. These bags are gorgeously made, ladies. Count your pennies.
[Photos and screencaps: Projectrungay.blogspot.com]
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