T Lo Interviews Eleven Minutes Jay McCarroll
Season one Project Runway winner Jay McCarroll’s documentary Eleven Minutes will be having its world premiere tomorrow night in his current hometown (and ours), Philadelphia at (where else?) The Philadelphia Film Festival (April 5th and 7th). From there, it moves on to Toronto (April 24th and 25th), Boston (April 24th and 28th) and Miami (April 26th) and other soon-to-be-announced dates on the festival circuit.
Spanning a year’s time, the film documents the process that led to Jay’s post-Project Runway Bryant Park show Transport, and is, in the words of the film’s press kit, “an in-depth, painfully raw and humorous exploration of the creative process and the constant conflict of balancing commerce with art, fame with talent, and reality-TV with actual reality.”
Co-director/producer Rob Tate told us “The film is about the “process.” (We almost titled it “The Process,” but thought it sounded a little dry): The process of making clothes, putting on a runway show, making jewelry, shoes, styling hair… and also the process of documenting it all. I think that’s one of the reasons it speaks to a larger audience of creative types: they tend to recognize the struggle and the need for (and often lack of) recognition. Talent is always important, but it’s often not enough.”
“One of our goals was to tell Jay’s story in decidedly NON-reality TV ways,” he continued. “We wanted the style, the look, the feel to be more along the lines of a narrative feature — albeit a hand-held one. So… there are almost no “talking heads.” Rarely does someone explain what is going on in narration or interview. The majority of what you see are actual scenes between the characters, and the audience is left to draw its own conclusions. We put nothing gratuitous in, and we give you enough information to put the story together. But we do not hold your hand through it. Because Jay surrounds himself with really funny and articulate people, the whole thing plays like a serio-comic narrative.”
Honestly, this sounds right up our alley. We’re (of course) going to the premiere and we can’t wait to see it. Since we live about a hundred footsteps from each other, we decided to have Jay over to talk about the film, his life, his career and anything else that popped up. We chatted a bit about Project Runway gossip, his upcoming QVC appearance, his line of fabrics and the launch of his new web site where you’ll be able to buy his stuff, but all of that’s for another post. Let’s talk about the film.
“We (directors/producers Tate and Michael Selditch) did Project Jay together and we hit it off and they said ‘If you ever do a show, we’d love to film it,” says Jay. “And the rest is really history. I called them up and said ‘I’m gonna do this show at fashion week,’ and they decided to follow me around. It was about a year-long process from start to finish. That’s the process of making a collection, you start with ideas and then you go all the way through the collection to selling and the aftermath. So, it’s from April to April of 2006. In the world of fashion, it seems like a hundred years ago.”
Jay, who’s got that rare gift of being completely comfortable in front of a camera, seemed to enjoy the long shoot. “I mean, they didn’t follow me around every day; just when I would do something. So I would meet with the hair guy or go fabric shopping or go to a factory or whatever, and they would follow me around. It was really fun; the beginning stages of getting stuff together, working with my assistants, to hair and makeup, the guy who made shoes, jewelry, fit models, all the fittings, all that stuff. Getting stuff made overseas, getting stuff made in New York and then all the way through the show, all the PR and bullshit and goes through that and then all the way to sales, where it went *thppt*. I mean,” he says with a laugh, “do you see the clothes on sale anywhere?”
Does that mean he doesn’t think the clothes were marketable? “No, it was marketable. It’s just, there’s only so much you can do with you and four people you can’t pay. Sales is its own demon and I’m not that business-minded. It was a learning experience. That was all.”
From the minute Jay entered the public eye, it’s been nothing but a series of learning experiences for him. We would never be so presumptuous as to say that we know Jay well, as that would be a disservice to the family and friends who have seen him through times good and bad. On the other hand, we know him better than you do and we have to say, there isn’t anyone associated with Project Runway who is more misunderstood than he is. He is funny, charismatic, warm, and self-deprecating. The intentionally shocking, occasionally vulgar persona you see on camera or in print is only a small part of the whole and one of the things we feel doesn’t come across strongly enough in all of Jay’s various misadventures with the press is how utterly charming he is.
And make no mistake, he may have pissed off New York Magazine last year when he fooled them into thinking he was homeless on the streets of New York, but the press clearly LOVES him. When we were at Bryant Park, media figures of all types were practically stomping on each other to get to him. You would have thought he had just shown a new collection the way they were clamoring for his attention. Speaking of which, why HASN’T he shown a new collection since 2006?
“I don’t know. It was a lot of pressure. I had so much pressure on me because it was the first collection from me, the first collection from any Project Runway person at Bryant Park. It was just a lot of pressure. I don’t think I would NEVER do it again, I just don’t care enough to want it. I don’t live and breathe fashion the way these other people do, so it’s – I think it just has to be the very core of your being to do it on that level – at Bryant Park. You have to have a huge infrastructure and a great business mind in order to push a label – ask anybody.”
The lack of what he calls “an infrastructure” coupled with what he felt were unrealistically high expectations on the part of the public played a big part in his seeming retreat from the center of the fashion industry. “For American Idol, they just go in a fucking recording studio and they sing. I needed business managers and cutting tables and just that whole infrastructure that you need to start a line. The American public doesn’t want to hear that something like that takes time. A hundred thousand dollars would not get you a thing – anywhere. And it pains me to watch these shows where people get a million dollars for fucking opening up a briefcase.”
Of course, Jay didn’t have a hundred thousand dollars to start off. When he won Project Runway, to the shock of many, he turned down the prize money. When we asked him if he wanted to go on record as to why, he smiled, leaned in and said in a deep voice “No comment.” For Jay of all people to clam up, it’s a pretty good indicator that he really can’t talk about it. Nonetheless, we prodded him about his feelings on the situation. “I’m happy to have been the experiment and I’m happy to have the focus on someone else so I can fade into obscurity. Well, not fade into obscurity. Hopefully I can go off and do my own thing.” We pointed out that there are a lot of misconceptions about that decision and the aftermath of it. “People say ‘Oh, he’s so bitter,’ and I’m not bitter. It was like a blip of my life. If I was bitter, I wouldn’t go to the finale parties, I wouldn’t go to the (runway) show, I wouldn’t support the, you know, the machine. I think it’s a great idea and I think it’s entertaining.”
This inevitably leads us to our next question: Does he still consider himself part of the fashion industry? “I’m definitely keeping open to moving in different parts of it. I feel like I was really pushed, like, into the shoes of being the next Michael Kors and I had to live that experience, I had to go through the process of doing this film, doing a collection to realize that I just – I just love fabric and texture and color. Now, that could come in housewares; I could design fabric; it could be children’s wear; I could design sportswear, whatever. I didn’t necessarily want – I was never a high-end fashion designer. If I just make my little t-shirts and bags, I could be totally happy with that. And there’s a huge market for that. It’s very alienating to make ten thousand dollar gowns and that’s never been me and from day one I just always loved the GAP sales rack.”
But, we point out, he did attempt to make a red carpet gown for Heidi to wear to the Emmys which she famously rejected at the last second, as documented in Project Jay. “I didn’t want to do that. I’m not a designer like that. From day one I wasn’t comfortable doing that, but it was for the sake of Project Jay and it was for the sake of trying to strike while the iron’s hot. Which is fine. Whatever. I made my peace with all that. And actually it seems like 4 lifetimes ago.”
“I’ve got to get myself to a place where I feel the artistry of it again. And I lived for 15 years with those thoughts, when I was in school, when I was traveling abroad, working abroad. When I was just making clothes for the love of it and for the art of it, and what the show did for me – and it was great exposure and a great lesson for me to learn – but it showed me the icky side of the industry and the weirdos, the weird people that you have to deal with and the energy suckers who are like ‘We love fashion! We follow Balenciaga’s every move!’ and it’s like, I’m not that kind of person. Those people are hard for me to swallow, those self-proclaimed ‘fashionistas.’” He spits that last word out with no small amount of disdain, but softens a bit. “I don’t know, I love road trips, I love flea markets, I love sleep, I love television and I can’t imagine working 20 hours a day on, like, a silhouette, or a shoe or a ‘really important jean.’ But I love clothes and I love fabric, texture and color, and anything I can put that into without the pressure of having to be innovative every six months – I just think that’s a debilitating process for a fashion designer. Every six months you have to come up with new ideas and the copying and regurgitating and reiterating and ‘Florals are in!’ ‘No! Florals are out!’ And trying to tell everyone they need to have a little black dress in their closet. It’s just … wear what you want to wear, have good dinner parties, you know? Like there’s a much bigger picture than that little world that I was being pushed into.”
If that sounds a bit hippy-dippy, you’re not far off. At his heart, Jay’s a simple aesthete in patchouli. One who just happens to be insanely creative and thrust into a spotlight for which he was completely unprepared. And while he may have displayed some of his frustrations with his situation publicly, he has no anger or bitterness over the situation. He’s simply someone who wants to create and make people happy with his creations. He’s not someone who can talk about strategies or business plans or even about trends. So why would someone like that try out for a show like Project Runway?
“I don’t know,” he says with a laugh. “I had a vintage shop, I knew I was like, perfect for television, I knew I was a decent designer and I was looking for something to do that summer.” Despite his seeming laid back attitude going into it, we pointed out to him that at some point it became obvious that his attitude shifted and he wanted to go all the way with it. He laughs again in response. “That was a result of being brainwashed and having no other stimuli but that for 30 days straight. And you can ask anybody, from like day one they’d say ‘Do you want to win? You want to win. You’re a winner. Do you want to win this competition?’ But,” he says brightly, “it was fun, the show itself was awesome.”
But what would he say if a budding designer asked him if they should do the show? “Oh, yeah! It’s exposure that you would never, ever, in one hundred zillion years ever get to get unless you were a specific person in the right place at the right time. Like, Marc Jacobs, 1993, at the height of grunge. But where were the other 40,000 designers that came from FIT, Parsons, Philadelphia University during that whole ten-year period of time? Marc Jacobs was the only one that came out of it. And it’s the same with us on the show.”
We had somewhere to be and the clock was winding down on our little chatfest. Knowing that we were running late, Jay offered to drive us there. As we walked to his car, he talked more about why he chose Philadelphia over the self-proclaimed fashion capital of the world, New York City.
“I got an offer to teach at Philadelphia University and I was all over it. I’m a country person and every morning I woke up and all I saw was pine trees. And just yearned for – I can have a car now,” he says. “I have a cat, I have a great apartment. And I feel like I was living in a box in New York and the pace was crazy and there was too much pressure. And I was like ‘One day, I’ll alleviate the pressure.’ And I have now. I’m, like, so chill in Philadelphia. I have a much more peaceful life now. So I was asked to teach this class at Philadelphia University and it was just the perfect chance for me to get out of there and to have something to do that was stimulating and giving back.”
He stops to talk with a little old lady about the public park renovation going on in our neighborhood and then grows a little pensive as we approach his car (with a vanity plate that reads “Ask me about my grandchildren”). “I don’t know, I was just dealing with so many people there that I just didn’t like their personalities. So I just ran away from everybody. And now everything’s on my own terms and surprisingly,” he says with another laugh, “everything’s picking up.”