Rising star Sean Kelly has gone from milking cows on a Taranaki farm to being the toast of the New York fashion world! Sean was the surprise winner of the 13th season of the popular US designer reality contest Project Runway, hosted by supermodel and new face of Bendon Heidi Klum.
Speaking exclusively to the Weekly, the 24-year-old says that he’s been a fan of the series since the very first season. As a child growing up on a dairy farm just outside the Taranaki town of Hawera, he’d be glued to the television watching the show while his family would be in the other room cheering on the All Blacks.
The first Kiwi to ever compete on Project Runway, Sean beat 16 other contestants, taking home a $125,000 prize package including a car and a fashion spread in a prestigious magazine.
“I spent a lot of my childhood outdoors in the country and that’s where my imagination ran wild,” Sean tells the Weekly from his new home in New York. “Being on Project Runway was an amazing experience. Every year hundreds of thousands of designers are all fighting to get somewhere and be recognised. To have your name in lights on the world stage and getting to meet the right people is priceless.”
The former deputy head boy of Hawera High School left the small town at 17, bound for Denmark where he spent time as an exchange student. He returned to New Zealand, after interning at Alexander McQueen in London, to complete his Bachelor of Design at Massey University, majoring in fashion.
Completing his studies, Sean moved to the world’s fashion capital – New York City – in February, on a one-year visa. He’s surprised that it’s taken him only a short time to succeed in his chosen field.
“I was looking for a full-time job at the time, and I heard that they were looking for new contestants for the show,” Sean explains. “The application process was long. There were about four rounds of selections before you were chosen.”
Sean impressed the selectors, which included Heidi and renowned designer Zac Posen, during the casting with his men’s outfits. It was a unanimous decision to choose him for the competition, where contestants are given a limited time to compete in design challenges before a runway show where their clothes are judged.
Sean says he’s come a long way since first learning to sew at Hawera Intermediate School, making pencil cases “with neon stitching”. His mum, Margaret doesn’t sew, but bought him his first sewing machine at 15. He would make clothes for his mother whenever she went to the races, using newspaper to make his patterns.
“I’ve always had an interest in art and design, and my parents encouraged my interest. Living on a farm, it’s always a long journey to get anywhere and I think that’s where my passion for travelling to different countries started."
His mother and dad, John, came to the filming of the final episode during last month’s New York Fashion Week where Sean was pitted against three other competitors from the show. The judges praised the New Zealander for his “sophisticated” 10-piece look, which had a “wow factor”.
When the Weekly called John the day Sean won, he was in the middle of milking the cows but said the whole family was “very, very, happy”.
“My parents are proud of me,” Sean confirms. “It’s one of the hardest things to do, to come to New York and have immediate success.”
Throughout the show, Sean was the contestant to beat. His most significant win was designing a red-carpet look for Heidi, with the show’s host wearing his gown at this year’s Emmy Awards. Sean’s fringe dress appeared in fashion pages and blogs around the world. It was exposure that money could not buy. The polarising gown was even discussed by the late Joan Rivers, who criticised it on Fashion Police.
“I didn’t see the Joan comment, but heard that she didn’t say very nice things about it,” Sean admits. “I don’t pay too much attention, to press or social media. For every negative comment there are going to be 10 positive comments. It’s part of the industry, and you have to have a thick skin.”
The current season of the show is being screened in New Zealand and Sean is pleased that Kiwis have the chance to watch him in action.
“I am glad that others in the country have the chance to see it, especially being the first New Zealander on the show.”
Sean says he has no plans to return home to New Zealand right now, and wants to make the most of his win. “I obviously want to continue as a designer, extend my visa and stay in New York a bit longer.”
He hopes that his success will inspire other creative people in New Zealand.
“It’s always good to encourage people to follow their dreams. When you want something, you go after it. In this industry, nothing is handed to you. It’s about making the most of your opportunities and not giving up.”
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