Saturday, April 28, 2007

Project Jeffrey

Cosa Nostra by Jeffrey Sebelia
As much as I hated his personality, I could never go to bed mad at his clothes...

"The L.A.-based fashion designer's look hit the costume sweet spot—both instantly recognizable and ridiculously easy to construct: one black sweatshirt, hood up; one pair of large mirrored sunglasses; one Sharpie (plus a steady calligraphy hand) for the filigree neck tattoo"

In person, Sebelia, 36, is disarmingly, almost cartoonishly cute—with big anime eyes and a sweep of Speed Racer hair (even the tattoo looks darling)—a far cry from the brooding antihero he played on the blockbuster hit, hosted by Heidi Klum, that has earned Emmy nominations and an obsessive following among industry insiders. In fact, pre-Project Runway, Sebelia was already a member of this rarefied group, designing bespoke rock wear for the likes of Gwen Stefani and Dave Navarro. "I had been slugging it out, keeping the line going for three years. I wanted to learn how to be a better designer, how to make a living," he says. "I also knew that Project Runway could be a big, star-spangled end to my career. But whatever, you know?"

To win it all—a Saturn Sky Road­ster, a mentorship with Macy's I.N.C. in-house label, and a $100,000 prize, a significant cash infusion for a designer of any stature—Sebelia crafted his sweatshirt-centric wardrobe and barbed persona with the same cunning that a defense lawyer uses to style an accused client. But make no mistake: He was going for the role of villain, not the innocent. "Before the show, I told my girlfriend, 'I want people to hate me, and then I want to make stuff that will sway their opinion of me,'" says Sebelia, who claims, incredibly, that he plotted out "everything from the color palettes to the silhouettes" in advance. "I decided to go dark and unconstructed with the first challenge, and then, as we went along, use a little more color or make it more precious." His boorish, often abrasive, behavior was also part of the scheme. "I knew I had to work the production and be entertaining," he says. "The easiest way to do this was just to let things fly out of my mouth."

When Sebelia was 10, a next-door neighbor taught him how to sew "little bags and jackets," he says. In high school, he decon­structed suits from the Salvation Army. "I was very Vivienne Westwood-inspired. I knew about her because I liked the Sex Pistols." Sebelia followed the Sex Pistols lifestyle a little too enthusiastically; over a debauched 15-year stretch, he became addicted to heroin, went to rehab, started a rock band, signed a major record deal, got dumped by the label, became suicidal, and again ended rehab. When he got back on his feet, he enrolled in fashion classes at a local vocational school. "I just wanted to learn how to sew the right way, so that I could sell to stores." Eighteen months later, he started Cosa Nostra.

"Jeffrey is a very dramatic, polarizing personality. There's no one who is neutral on him. And those who have a distaste for him don't want to like the clothes," says Project Runway's beloved mentor, Tim Gunn, chair of the department of fashion design at Parsons School of Design. "I got slammed with comments from people who said they wouldn't wear him. But, when pressed, it became clear that it was him they didn't like, not his clothes." Sebelia showed more individ­ual pieces—those sharp jackets, stovepipe pants, slinky tops—than the other designers, which makes his collection quite retail-friendly. "He's actually very wearable. Once I would isolate the pieces, those same people ended up saying, 'Oh, I would wear that,'" Gunn says.

Gunn's advice? Sebelia should stick to dressing the ladies. "Designing for women gives him distance, a perspective that is much needed," Gunn says. "He crosses the line into tackiness when he designs for himself and for other men. With women, he delivers a fashion product, not a costume."

"He makes women look sensual rather than sexy," says Susan Foslien, the founder of San Francisco's intellectual-fashion boutique the Grocery Store, which has stocked Cosa Nostra since its first season. "And sensual is much more interesting, don't you think?"

Other tastemakers agree. Music labels have recruited Sebelia to dress their fresh talent. Kirna ZabĂȘte in New York and Ron Herman in L.A. are stocking pieces from his Project Runway collection, which will be sold under his Cosa Nostra label. Sebelia is putting the $100,000 award into Cosa Nostra, expanding his range of denim as well as opening a boutique in West Hollywood. But he plans on donating the Saturn to MusiCares, the charity that paid his way through rehab, a move that belies that bad-boy rep. "I wanted to win based on merit as a designer, rather than for being the nice-guy fan favorite," he says. Just 18,862 (and counting) MySpace friends later, Sebelia may be surprised to learn that he can do both.—EMILY DOUGHERTY/Elle Magazine

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