The Fashion Show: T Lo Interviews Keith
Let’s start with your background in fashion. You mentioned your grandmother as the reason why you went into the fashion industry. Your grandmother and your great-grandmother had a store, right?
Yes, they had a couture dress shop that was located in Chicago and it was really what very much inspired my fascination with fashion. It was that old school mentality that simply doesn’t exist anymore. They would buy the couture dresses from Dior, Oscar de la Renta, you know, all the great designers…Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene back in the day. Actually, there were no dresses out on the floor for the women to pick through, they would come in, the models would bring out the dresses that my grandmother and my great-grandmother felt were appropriate for the clients and that’s how they sold their wares. It was really an experience.
It sounds like heaven for a little gay boy.
You studied fashion in London. What was that like?
Yes, I went to the London College of Fashion and it was an amazing experience. You go there and you find yourself studying with designers from all walks of life, all parts of the world and it broadens your horizon to beyond how the American market trains designers to see fashion.
You also worked at Perry Ellis and Ralph Lauren. How was the experience?
Perry Ellis is where I really sharpened my teeth as far as work experience goes, really getting an idea how the fashion industry itself works. At Ralph Lauren, you know, Ralph is if nothing else a perfectionist and the best at what he does. It really trained me to keep my attention towards detail and focus, to take your time and make sure you get everything right.
Moving on to The Fashion Show, why did you decide to be part of the competition?
I was actually approached by GenArt who I had already built a relationship with and they were helping Bravo cast the show and they asked if I wanted to come and be a part of it. I went for the audition and, believe or not, after the first audition I turned it down, but they came back and said that they thought it would be good experience for me, eventually after conversations, I agreed to come on the show and that’s how that all came to be.
How did it feel to watch yourself on TV?
You know what’s weird? Because every time I watch an episode of the show I’m in my home, it doesn’t feel like I’m watching myself on TV, it feels like I’m watching a home video or something [laughs].
We thought your comment that you didn’t want your coat to turn into a refrigerator was pretty hilarious and dead-on.
I’m not one of those people who likes multifunctional clothing. I need it to do its purpose and if it’s a coat I want it to keep me either warm, dry, covered and I need it to hold my things in the pockets. Pockets were invented for a reason, that’s what they’re for, and beyond that I don’t need it to do anything else.
Did you enjoy the mini-challenges?
I thought the mini-challenges were fun. They were always fun little challenges. They were not very representative of what really goes on in fashion, but from the perspective of a game, it was a good time. I enjoyed it.
You speak very fondly of Laura Brown on your blog. How was your experience interacting with her?
Laura was great, she was so sweet and nice, she had a very friendly demeanor; she always looked so chic. She had a really good sense of humor and it was very evident that she was there to have a good time.
You thought your dress inspired by the Valentino shoes was strong enough to be one of the finalists. You mentioned that Reco complimented your dress and we never saw that happening.
You see it, but you only see it for literally a flash. It’s when I’m sitting at the sewing machine and he walks over and he picks up the panel that I’m working on and he says something about me giving him fashion, I forget what it was, we only saw a tiny moment of it, but he did pay a pretty nice compliment. It was an extremely strong dress. Watching the show, it’s only when you have a chance to sit back and watch the show that you realize just how strong the dress was. Granted, they don’t show it for very long on the screen, but given the amount of labor that went into that dress, it definitely deserved some props, for sure, especially in such a short period of time.
Now about last night’s dress, did you feel that the model let you down when the judges asked her about the dress?
I don’t think she let me down, I think that the judges backed her into a corner. She actually was very fond of her dress. They asked her, “Do you feel that this is a dress that you would get at a store?” or something along those lines, I can’t quite remember exactly what they said. She was confused because in her mind as the average client if you would see it in a store that’s a good thing, but they were saying it to her like it was a bad thing so she wasn’t clear on how to answer the question. I think that’s where the confusion lies, but no, I don’t feel she let me down.
You said your client was perfect. So, what went wrong?
There were issues with the dress. As a designer, I think it’s very important to take your time, to pay attention to details. With my collections, each collection takes me months to create and to get it right. You have ten fittings before you get something correct. In the confines of the game, it’s a short period of time and if something goes wrong, there’s really no way to turn around and make it right, you just have to keep going, and like I said on the show, you have to kind of go into rescue mode. It was mainly about the fit issues and I couldn’t go back and change them. The damage was done, it was too late.
We felt that you always had a great vision, interesting ideas, but it always fell flat in the execution. Was that a time restraint issue?
Yes, I’m just not very good under those types of time restraints. I’m a very meticulous person. I’m a very slow, methodical person. I hate to say that it was the timing, everybody says that it was the timing, but I guess that’s the truth. In every designer’s collection, when I worked at Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis…you get what we call “dogs,” which are the dresses that are not working, where the pieces are not working and you scrap them, you throw them away or you alter them, make the adjustments, but it takes weeks to do it and unfortunately that dress just happened to be one of the dresses that I would have had to have gone back and made changes to the pattern, to the sewing, to the fit, and all those things.
There’s been a lot of talk about the designers making statements such as not knowing how to sew or not being good at sewing. How do you feel about that, especially taking into consideration that this is a competition where you have to sew?
I think there was a disconnect because if you look at the designers that are on the show, Bravo and The Fashion Show went out casting for professional designers, that’s who they were looking for, minus Daniella. They were looking for professional designers. In the fashion industry, if you get a quote unquote, designer, they don’t sew. Designers don’t sew. You don’t see Ralph Lauren sitting behind a machine nor any of his designers. We design, we work with the technicians, with the pattern makers, but we actually don’t sew and for most of us, the last time we had sewed was ten years ago, so I think that part of it was that a lot of us were under the impression that because we were professional designers, that wasn’t going to be such a focus on sewing. This wasn’t Project Runway, this was a different show. I think a lot of us were surprised when we arrived to find out that there was a lot of sewing to do.
Speaking of professional designers, we went to your site and we saw your online store and we were surprised to see that you have interesting, intricate, beautifully-made designs. Do you think that being in a competition as a professional designer sending unfinished garments down the runway you’re actually misrepresenting yourself, your vision and aesthetic as a designer?
That is such a great question and the honest answer is “yes.” I do feel it’s a misrepresentation, but at the same time I do give the viewer a lot of credit. I believe that the Bravo watchers in general are pretty intelligent and I think that they realize that what they’re watching is a game. It’s not reflective of the industry. I believe that they know that the fashion industry is a true professional industry that makes up for billions and billions of dollars in the economy each year. I believe that they have to know that there is no designing that takes place, no professional part of the industry that takes place where it’s done in a day. It takes months because there is a lot of dollars and cents on the line, so when someone watches a show like this you have to believe that they know that this is not representational what someone does professionally, this is how they perform in a game.
You were very vocal about the judges and their judging on your blog. Do you still hold the same opinion?
After last night, my opinions have softened a bit, but I do feel there is definitely more room in this show for some compassion. I think that the show would benefit from it. I’m sure you’ve read the comments that people have posted on your blog that I think that people are looking for at least one of these judges to have somewhat of a compassionate side. People are there because they want to root for the people, they don’t want to watch them be bashed every minute along the way. Of course you need constructive criticism, you need someone to be that kind of harsh hand, but I think that also on the flip side of that you also need someone to be a guiding force because there is no one in that situation who has been there, done that, you know, being part of a reality TV show. It’s a new experience for everyone that takes part in it and there should be someone there to guide the process, a Tim Gunn character.
You have two lines of clothing, the Keith Lissner line and Keith by Keith Lissner. Tell us a little about them and how different they are.
The Keith Lissner line is a demi-couture line and the reason why it’s called demi-couture is because I adhere to a lot of the qualities of couture craftsmanship and at the same time not all of them. It’s basically about evening wear, making a woman look glamorous, beautiful, chic, and confident. The Keith by Keith Lissner line actually was created because of two things. Number one, as I was designing my evening wear I was realizing how much I absolutely love to watch women in my cocktail dresses in particular. I wanted to create a line that focused strictly on cocktail dresses, but then also bringing it down to a more gently priced line so that more women could afford to buy it and to be a part of that experience.
We’ve seen several celebrities and socialites in your dresses. More recently, Alex McCord wore one of your dresses to the Gracie Awards. That’s quite an accomplishment. How does it feel to see your creations on so many women?
I love it. When you get a woman like that, when you get their attention, it’s a very flattering thing, you know that you’re doing something right.
Thank you very much, Keith, and good luck to you.
Thank you, guys.
Some of Keith Lissner‘s designs: