T LO Interviews Bert Keeter
We know our Bitter Kittens well and we’ve known for some time now that if there was going to be one person from Season 9 of Project Runway to get the T Lo Interview, it was going to have to be T Lo Commentariat Favorite, Mr. Bert Keeter, or as we liked to call him, The Queen Mother. This interview occurred a couple of days before the finale aired, so we couldn’t ask him his thoughts on the winner, but he had no problem slinging that Bert bluntness when we asked him about his competitors, or the judges, or the guest judges, or the state of the fashion industry today. There’s nothing we love more than a fellow opinionated queen.
So Bert, how’s life after Project Runway?
So far, it’s been great. I’ve been very encouraged and pleased with the response from the viewers and people I meet on the street, on Facebook…they not only like my style and all that, they also like me as a person and how I carried myself out on the show. It’s made me feel great. I haven’t had anybody throw anything at me or try to run me down (laughs).
Do you get recognized a lot?
I do. It’s funny; actually on the plane out here I had five rows of people staring at me. At JFK, one guy who was going through security pointed me out. I was going the other way and he pointed me out to his friends. What’s really interesting and what I enjoy a lot it’s that I get recognized by people of all categories: young, avant-garde, more conservative, moms and dads, it’s really great.
What made you decide to try out for Project Runway?
Well, I’ve been out of it for a while and wanting to get back into it and just this last year a friend of mine got me hooked up with a woman and she helped me get my work set up. And I had a couple of good friends of mine in LA, one guy in particular, kept insisting and asking me, “Why don’t you try out for Project Runway?”and I finally decided to do it. I had this fear that was holding me back, but then I tried out for it and figured if I got on it that would be great, if not, at least I had tried. I’m very glad I did, it’s been a great experience.
You had a lot of experience in the fashion industry prior to Project Runway. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve done?
I graduated from Parsons. My partner John and I were living in New York at the time and as soon as I graduated, he wanted to move back to LA. He was from the west coast, so we moved to LA and my first job was with Holly Harp. I don’t know if you remember her, she was a very big designer in the ’70s. She did beautiful clothing, so I went to work for her. I was with her about a year and half and I actually…this is how long ago it was…got a telegram from Bill Blass, who I had just met briefly through my partner John, asking me to work for him.
I moved back to New York to work for him for a couple of years, then moved back to LA to be with my partner, but I had to go back to New York just because of businesses and because of my work as a designer and that’s when I started working for Scaasi; I worked in his couture and ready-to-wear lines. After that, I worked for Halston. A friend of mine knew the illustrator there and they said they were looking for a designer. This was to design the JC Penney line and it was a great opportunity. Scaasi was a very difficult person to work for, so I applied for the job but they had just hired somebody. A year later I ran into the director of the New York Fabric Show and I was told that they were trying to get rid of this person and they offered me the job again.
Three years into it, I asked the director if we could start doing sort of a couture collection. We had about a million dollars’ worth of fabrics still in the fabric room; we had these amazingly talented people; so we did it, sort of an expression of Halston. The collection started getting good reviews and Bergdorf actually wanted to relaunch Halston made-to-order couture and I thought that was my chance to do what I wanted to do, but unfortunately the timing was pretty bad. Halston, who couldn’t stop anything legally, I think he put the fear of God into Bergdorf; he didn’t want to go through with it and he was bashed in the press and he was ill at the time too, so I left Halston after that because I thought I wasn’t going anywhere. And that’s when a lot of my friends started dying of AIDS, my partner was diagnosed and he died, a friend of mine was murdered… that’s when I got out of the business for a while.
That must’ve been a very tough time for you.
Yeah, it was very bad. It was a decade of a lot of stuff going on. I moved to D.C. and lived with my family. I stayed with them until my mom passed away, then I moved to LA, then New York, then back to LA and now I love it here.
Now I’m designing again, I know I’m good at it. I just have to figure out a way to get it going.
It is a brutal industry. Do you see much difference between how things are done now and back when you were working in the ’70s?
I do, definitely, and I have to learn to come to grips with that too. Specially working with magazines and editorials, so much today is about creating a buzz around the designer’s name so that they can sell their licenses; it isn’t really about the clothing. It’s all about ‘Oh my God, isn’t that crazy and wild?’ Meanwhile, I can’t afford it, but I can buy their sunglasses and their underwear.
I think a lot of the runway collections that you see in New York, Paris or any other place, especially Europe, are directed towards that market and not about the clothes anymore. Hopefully whatever I put on my runway is what I want my client to wear and be able to wear and not look like a bad joke in it. That’s sort of my take on it. I think fashion has become a spectator’s sport, not so much the clothes, but about all that other jazz. And the magazines promote that too because they want new, new, new. So when Nina [Garcia] says “It’s editorial;” well, it needs to be wearable too.
Moving on to the show, in the first episode everyone sort of fell in love with you and from the second episode on, everybody started hating you, and then towards the end everyone is hugging again and professing their love to you, especially Josh. What the hell happened there, Bert? Bad editing?
[Laughs] The first episode was great, I won the challenge, but after that I was two seconds away from going up to the producers and say, “I want out of here, I don’t want to do this.” I think the whole feeling of being in that environment, there are 16 of these challenges…I just wanted to get out of there. But I let that feeling of fear, or whatever that was, pass and I did what I needed to do.
I guess regarding the other designers and the viewers, I was naïve thinking that I would automatically be considered a contemporary of these people. I mean, Viktor was 30 at the time, Josh is 25, so I was twice their age practically. Later on I began to feel that they were probably thinking that it was like having their father’s friend around. My sense of humor and wit is different than theirs. They just couldn’t get me, and not being critical of them, I think a lot of them aren’t that sophisticated, they don’t have a lot of knowledge outside of Lady Gaga and Beyonce. It’s their world. Like Josh not knowing what the ’70s was like. Well, I didn’t live through the ’20s and ’30s, but I know how they dressed and how they lived and what happened in that timeframe so that I can relate to fashion.
I felt like I was in the twilight zone, in this field trip from hell that never ends and I was the chaperone. I really tried to relate to them in the beginning, then, I stopped and kept doing my thing, but fortunately towards the end of the season I think there were fewer people and the ones remaining started getting me. They saw me trying to help them with stuff on the show, you don’t see that on camera so much, so they warmed up to my sense of humor. I do have a very dry and sharp sense of humor, a lot of people like it, some people don’t.
And I think the reason why Josh came after me a couple of times it’s because I intimidated him; he saw that I knew what I was doing. He tried to pick on people…I think he thought he could bowl me over and I’ve been around long enough to know how to deal with people like Josh and I just stood up to him. He kept trying to do that and finally he gave up and thought that it would be better to be my friend than my enemy on the show.
It’s a very unusual environment, isn’t it?
It is. I never really watched the show that much or watched a whole episode of it because I used to get sort of squirmy when I was watching the designers on the runway being critiqued by the judges. I thought it was so personal to be standing there with the cameras and the world watching you and your design pulled apart; that made me feel really uncomfortable, so I would just change the channel.
What did you think of the judges?
I was very disappointed with most of the guest judges, I really was. I didn’t think most of them brought a lot to the show. Adam Lambert was by far the best. He was very dynamic and very engaged with the designers. A couple of the guest judges were just sitting in the chair, like Kim Kardashian, for example.
What about Heidi, Nina and Michael?
I found them very different. Heidi is very friendly. You see her a little bit more than you see the other two. She seemed to like me right off the bat, at least that’s what the other designers were telling me. I liked her sense of humor, she’s fun and entertaining, and I think sort of endearing. I love Michael’s sense of humor. I appreciate his aesthetic and what he’s done, and I think from Nina’s point of view – she’s a magazine editor – she’s always looking for something new. I think she liked a lot of what I did, for example she liked what I designed for her for the Nina challenge, but it wasn’t something editorial enough for the magazine. I thought they were all very good, very professional.
Do you think being the oldest contestant affected you in any way?
Well, with the judges for example…Michael really connected with me, you don’t see a lot of that; they edited it out. He really got my first piece for the ’70s challenge. I was talking about Julio, who is a designer from the ’70s and his face lit up. He said that we were probably the only two people in New York who knew who he was. He knew that I knew what I was talking about.
Did you feel that it was time to go when you were eliminated?
I think my look was better than Laura’s. When I was on the runway, I sort of threw myself under the bus because I was really embarrassed to be standing there with something not as good as I could’ve done for Francisco Costa. The look I didn’t bring out, he would’ve really connected and liked it a lot.
How did you react when they brought you back?
I was very pleased to be back and to be chosen by Anya to work with her. I do like her aesthetic and what she’s potentially capable of. I don’t think it would’ve been much fun for me to work with any of the other designers at that point.
How much did you contribute to her mini-collection? Let’s be honest, it has your name written all over it.
I heard that a lot. Honestly, I have to say, the designs were all hers. We started with the black dress, which I did make that from beginning to end, I can say that. It was her concept explained to me; what she wanted. I think the way I was able to make it work with her was my construction skills. She was talking about side seams and darts and this and that and I told her that I felt that those elements would take away from it because it was a very organic design. That whole dress is one piece of fabric. There’s only one seam in the center back, there’s not even a shoulder seam in that thing. A very organic design; that’s the way her design was when she described it to me because she never drew it.
I did help with the pants and a little bit on that top and she did the gown all by herself. We talked about which models should be wearing them…but it was basically her input as far as design. I really enjoyed working with her. It was right up my alley in terms of what she was trying to achieve.
We did see your final collection at the tents and we have to say that we weren’t as impressed as we were later on when we looked at it more carefully. It is a great collection. You have a great eye for fabrics and texture and attention to details. What did you have in mind when you created your collection?
I think when I got home back to LA after being on the show, I started rushing; bought all this fabric and stuff and I was working on this dress for three days and I thought, “This is bullshit. I don’t like this, I’m not going in this direction.” So I ditched everything because I was thinking in my head what they had been telling me, “You have to do this, you have to do that,” and I said to myself, “Why? I’m not in the running anyway. Why can’t I just do what I want?”
I think the first thing I did was that jersey, that one-shoulder dress and I started building around that. Then, I found that metallic-striped Georgette…and I kept thinking, “I need to put color in here, I only have 10 looks, so I’m going to keep it neutrals; I added that print in there.” I tried to make it fluid; to make it work from beginning to end. I have seen a couple of shows on Project Runway where they don’t look like a collection, they just look like a bunch of clothes and I didn’t want to do that. That was my main objective, I wanted it to be very cohesive and make a statement.
How much time did they give you to put the collection together?
We had from the day we left New York to the day they picked up the clothes, which was five weeks. I had about four weeks because I went back to D.C. to pick up my dog and see my family, so by the time I got to LA I only had four weeks. We were also given four extra days because of the hurricane warnings.
Did you get the same amount of money that the finalists did?
Yes, they gave us the same amount of money to design the decoy collections.
Your collection looks very ready-to-wear. You can pretty much wear every piece off the runway.
I have this thing and I don’t know why, but if someone buys something from me, I want them to be able to wear it for a long time, whether it’s a little black dress or a simple silhouette; I call them work horses. You can wear them to work, on a trip…you can wear it three, four times and you still feel you haven’t worn it too many times. That’s how I try to design; I want it to be interesting but also wearable.
I was at Bergdorf this weekend and saw this dress – I’m not going to name the designer – but it was $15,000. How are you supposed to wear that several times when it’s so recognizable? I want my clothes to be sort of timeless and I know that sounds a little hokey but I want people to be able to wear it the following season just by adding a different accessory or something to it and make it look current and enjoy it.
Do you feel you got what you wanted from your experience on Project Runway?
I think I would’ve liked to have been in the final four, I really do. I think that would’ve been a bigger prize for me, I don’t mean winning, but just being out there. I think the main thing I got was to be able to work in the workroom with the other designers. It’s a very different experience when you work alone and then you go home to your apartment by yourself, making those clothes by yourself. It was nice to be able to show my skills. It gave me a lot of confidence; a lot of gratitude. I didn’t know I’ve got what it takes. The response from my collection is really overwhelming from a lot of different people and from different walks of life.
Nine seasons of Project Runway have proven that you don’t have to be the winner to benefit from your time on the show.
That’s true. One of the most frustrating things to me was that they kept us sequestered and I didn’t get to see the judges or anybody after the show. I really wanted their opinion on my designs in general, especially Michael’s because I admire his aesthetic. So I tried to get in touch with Michael after the show ended, but of course he was busy preparing for his own show, so he had no time to talk to anybody. Just last week, his assistant emailed me and asked if I could talk to him. He called me and he was very nice; we talked for 25 minutes, he was very complimentary about my collection and what I did. He told me that I shouldn’t think that just because I didn’t win that I wouldn’t have a successful career.
What are your plans now? Do you have plans to start your line or work for another designer?
I would work for a design house. I wouldn’t want to be someone else’s assistant. What I would like is to stay in LA; this city suits me really well, and I like designing here. I’d like to create my own label in a year or so. That would be my hope; get a backer or an existing manufacturer that would want to go that route with me.
Do you think that a show like Project Runway helps showcase designers out there or do you think it’s mostly just for entertainment?
I think both. I’m going to be optimistic and say that I think it’ll help people like Viktor, he’s a good designer, also Anthony Ryan for what he wants to do. It’s helping me already. Julie Bowen contacted me via Facebook to design a couple of pieces for her. Love her personality, she’s the right type of woman for me to have as someone wearing my clothes.
We think you’re very talented and we really wish you the best, Bert.
Well, thank you. I have to let you guys know that I love your site. I’m new to this whole world of blogging and internet commentary. I really like your style and the level you all work at, I think it’s very informative and I love your sense of humor. You guys have a good eye and the way you place it. I have really enjoyed reading your site.
Well, thank you so much! Good luck to you, Bert!
[Photo Credit: myLifetime.com]