T Lo Interviews ‘Cheroin’ Stella Zotis
So Lorenzo’s phone rings last week and he’s greeted with a voice and accent that could only be Cheroin’s. “This is Stella. Is this Tom or Lorenzo?” She is a DOLL and just called to tell us that we asked “really good questions” in the interview we sent her. When we got the answers back, we were thrilled. She’s sharp and funny and has a great sense of humor about herself. Is that not the reality show contestant trifecta or what? We’ve said it before: this gal needs her own show.
Okay, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way: Cheroin. Do you hate us for it? We wouldn’t blame you, but in our defense, you’re one in a long line of people granted nicknames by us and the ones who get nicknames are usually the ones that everyone remembers. Said with love, darling. Always said with love.
At first I was upset because of the negative connotation the word Cheroin may transpire. But I suppose it comes with the rock-n-roll territory. Cher however has been one of my favorite people of all time and I have been compared to her since I was a teenager. She is a survivor and beautiful and badass in my book. I would love to meet her someday. As with the nickname Cheroin for me? It fits is all I can say. I’m rock and resemble Cher. You freaks at Project Rungay come up with nicknames because your sharp minds and tongues can’t help themselves, you are slaves to your humor and wit and I LOVE YOU BOYS for it. Thanks for putting me in your nickname hall of fame. XOXO
You’re truly a unique character on the show. There seems to be this great divide where some viewers love you and some hate you. On the other hand, you have celebrities like Anderson Cooper declaring you their favorite designer this season. How do you feel about that? Were you expecting that?
I LOVE ANDERSON COOPER. I love Gloria Vanderbilt and wore her jeans when I was a teenager. And I would wear them again. The fact that Anderson Cooper knows who I am and what I do is amazing to me because of the respect I have for his work and accomplishments in his career. I love that he takes time to go on Sesame Street. I want to go on Sesame Street also. With Anderson Cooper.
How did it feel to be picked last for the Lipstick Jungle challenge and end up producing one of the most talked about garment of this season so far?
I truly believe what will be shall be. I did kind of feel like the odd one in the class. Jerell is also odd in my opinion, which is why we probably wound up with each other. Aren’t we the only two designers that everyone wonders what we are wearing? It worked itself out. I was supportive of his vision through out the challenge. Working with Jerell was fun and easygoing. We were both respectful and I believe that is a big part of a team challenge. I adore Jerell.
What made you try out for Project Runway?
Honestly, I have only watched the show a few times. I didn’t have cable for the first couple of seasons and then when I did, I didn’t make it a habit to watch. However, I did catch episodes here and there from the 3rd and 4th seasons. I wasn’t aware of most of the challenges and what they entailed. I never really knew that one does not send a garbage bag down the runway. Tim told me in the work room which is why I though at that point I was definitely going home. I want to thank the judges and producers for giving me another chance. The reason I auditioned for project runway was because I had to make a change in my career situation. I closed my store 2 years ago and worked out of my apartment. It was uncomfortable for me to have people I didn’t know come to my home. it was difficult all around to create new business for myself trying to work out of a small NYC apartment and I needed to make a big change. Not just meeting new stylists or new clients that need custom rock regalia, but something bigger and life changing and this would be the way.
You obviously have a very different aesthetic from all the other designers as well as very different methods. You’re the only designer in the history of the show to use a hammer to make a garment. Was there ever a moment when you felt out of place?
I felt out of place all the time. First because I was so out of my element, but mainly because of the methods of construction I use to construct my garments. Layers of machine sewing, hand sewing, hole punching, grommet banging, distressed, and dyed. Different machines and different fabrics and different methods with a different aesthetic was overall slightly overwhelming. The reason I used a mallet (hammer) is because I’m a leather crafter and punching holes in leather to hammer in the grommets, or other hardware is part of the craft. I punched holes in the fabric to lace it up. That is one way I tried bringing part of my craft to PR. Looks translate different from leather to fabric. I believe I inspired some of the other designers to use some of my methods and techniques also. They all seemed to want to lace up and use pyramid studs to embellish their garments. And a couple of them became hell bent for leatha. So as out of place I felt was the same place a couple of others wanted to be.
You were a makeup artist working at VH1 studios and with legendary rock photographer Mick Rock. Tell us a little bit about this experience.
I started to work with Mick Rock in the early 90′s as his makeup and hair person. It was important to him that his clients whom where also friends from the seventies felt comfortable and that I wasn’t star struck and a pain in the ass. He liked my work and that I wasn’t afraid to go overboard with the make-up. Our work went hand in hand with the flair for drama we shared in our work. It was about style and attitude. Pure look. Hair, makeup and wardrobe was always important to Mick. He would call me in the morning of the photoshoot and would ask me to bring pieces of my wardrobe for the stylist to use (and if they didn’t want to use it, he would in a very charming and disarming way do it himself). He talks about me as his favorite in his book named Picture This: Debbie Harry and Blondie on page 212 and 235. You can see some of my makeup work for Debbie in this book. David Bowie is another great fashion story but that’s saved for another interview. I met the Vh1 VJ’s on a Mick Rock Photoshoot. They were Rebecca Rankin, Cane, and Linda Lopez. Rebecca and Cane really liked me and they pulled me into VH1. There I worked with almost every artist in the industry including writers and journalists. I then became hair and makeup for Sebastian Bach for the show Forever Wild. Working as a makeup artist in rock was a great experience for me because I was allowed to be me. I wore and looked as I pleased and I was in my element. A makeup agent in fashion used to try to get me to transition to fashion but complained that I looked too rockstar and that may be intimidating to the lead makeup artists. I should wear no name brand clothes and blend in. She was right but that wasn’t me, which is why I stayed in the Rock world.
The punk rock aesthetic went mainstream in fashion a long time ago. What do you think you have to offer that sets you apart from those designers that have already assimilated the look?
Many designers have and will continue to use the look because it’s a cool look. Many designers are inspired by the rock and punk aesthetic, but have no idea where it comes from and what it means, and will never understand the lifestyle or what it’s like to be viewed as a person from that subculture. Except for Vivienne Westwood as far as I know. Let me also mention that most people in fashion or anywhere outside the subculture do not know the difference between biker, Rock or, punk. Punk is a political movement…anarchy. Punk is angst. It’s a blue collar, working class, and have no money situation…that’s the whole boots and braces, stitch and mend and recreate your limited wardrobe attitude. It;s being rebellious just to be… Punk is not fashion, it’s lifestyle as is biker and rocker. Lets not overlook that hippies have nothing to do with any of this. I consider myself a rocker not a punk rocker. Regular people posing as punk rock should stop because a real punk will punch you in the face. Being that I grew up in the late 70′s and early 80′ in that subculture in NY I believe I understand it better than many designers in fashion. More importantly, living with my man a true punk rocker, I can honestly say that it’s not easy being punk. My version of punk rock fashion is closer to the true aesthetic of punk clothes…than the assimilated looks …as you have seen my own clothes on the show…..As designers take from punk I would take from fashion and mix it with the punk. Meaning I would drape a little like Daniel knows how, and I would add very small hint of poof, puff or ruff here and there. I’m talking barely. I myself don’t really like poofs, puffs and ruffs.
How did you transition from a punk-rock makeup artist to a sought-after leather and denim guru?
After 9/11 there wasn’t a lot of work in makeup here in NY and the VH1 studios stayed open for one more year. That’s when I took my then sewing hobby seriously. Debbie Harry was actually my first client when she asked me to make her an outfit for the Grammies in 2003. Sebastian Bach also wanted clothes for tour and for the VH1 show Supergroup, and then a friend who was Paula Abdul’s hairdresser was wearing a corset I made and Paula called me and ordered 5 pieces. Then with the help of my devoted mother I opened a little studio/store. I would work there and people would come by and hang out try on clothes and order stuff after they realized they wanted what they were trying on. It was a lot of fun and sometimes I would be there working and people hanging till 3 or 4 am. That would be considered my night out as far as I was concerned. My mom has been and still is in the garment industry since 1975 has helped me immensely in teaching me certain techniques. Basically I am word of mouth. Friends of clients and walk-ins. I can’t take walk-ins at home though.
You’ve said that your weakness as a contestant is challenging herself to step outside your normal boundaries. From where we’re sitting, you’re actually pretty good at that. We wouldn’t expect couture gowns out of you but we’ve been saying for a while that you have a talent for marrying your aesthetic to different challenges. Have you surprised yourself? Do you still think that’s one of your weaknesses?
Actually now that I think of this marrying my aesthetic to a challenge is what I do when a client comes to me for something. I’m a lifestyle designer meaning that I make whatever they want whether it’s pants, vest, jackets, bags, covers for a car seat or wall art or window treatments. Collaboration with a client is always part of the design, but people go to a particular custom designer for their signature in what they do. My aesthetic is slick, slim and well constructed because that’s what you basically do with leather garments. It entails flat pattern making not draping, which is what a dress requires. I myself haven’t ever been in the habit of making dresses. I barely wear them myself, but this show is about featuring fashion designers making dresses. Although I feel I rightfully have a place on this show because I love to design and and sew, my method and POV is different from all the rest and making dresses and draping is a huge challenge to me. To me the challenge wasn’t about, marrying my aesthetic to the different challenges, I feel it was reprogramming my mind to drape and sew dresses. And they wanted volume and poofs puffs and whatever else dressmakers do with the creation of a dress. Lord help me. I hated all that stuff. I’ll say it again I am drawn to slick slim and sharp silhouettes. I flat pattern, not drape. To my unexpected surprise Being on PR though has completely evolved me as a designer. As the show went on I started to think differently. First of I draped each and every challenge. Pants vests and all. I enjoyed making dresses. And got the fit right with the first shot. And although a lot of you want to see me make different garments with drapes and puffs or volume, I need to stay true to my aesthetic and what I’m comfortable doing in this challenging and trying situation. I was beginning to think in seasonal cohesive collections and making dresses out of fabrics other than leatha. Although Leather remains my #1 choice of fabric. Mood is great but I was clearly challenged in mood. Not knowing how to find what I wanted and being compromised by settling for what was there. Not knowing what certain fabrics are called. I don’t shop in stores like that for my fabrics, I go to a leather house, and to sew from leatha to silks and such is a different technique. So changing fabrics and techniques and mindset of how to design and for whom was a major challenge not to mention being outside my comfort zone at all times. Also I wanted to please the judges by trying to make pretty and wearable garments as Nina would say. I guess what I normally make is not considered pretty, it’s considered cool. As a result of my involvement as a designer I now try to use all the judging I received and learned from it and my experience with the different fabrics I was forced to use, to reach a broader range of clients doing what I do. This experience was educating in many ways, and I’m a better designer for it.
Do you think there’s a market for your aesthetic in the world of fashion? Who do you see as your customer?
Absolutely, the rock influence definitely serves as an inspiration in the fashion industry in many markets. Everyone can be my customer. Other than clothes I want to present, I want to do furniture and pet clothes.