Rhode Island Artscape: Local Designer Fashions Career After Project Runway

Dec 31, 2015

Providence resident Joseph Aaron Segal was a contestant on Season 11 of "Project Runway," the Lifetime show that pits clothing designers against one another in the search for a top designer. So what's real life like after reality TV? RIPR's Chuck Hinman stopped by Segal's Providence studio to find out.

The grand prize on "Project Runway" is $100,000, a fashion spread in Marie Claire Magazine, and the chance to jump start a career in the fashion industry. Host and model Heidi Klum calls it "the chance of a lifetime".

That may be an exaggeration, considering the fact that each episode ends when one designer is humiliated and sent home. Still, Project Runway offers a showcase for the designers and their creations, before a few million viewers. Segal decided to give it a try.

"For a couple of years I'd been getting emails from them, trying to recruit me," said Segal. "I think they have people that scout local fashion scenes. I fulfilled something that they were looking for at the time."

Segal's workshop.
Credit Chuck Hinman

When season 11 aired in 2013, Segal had been designing and selling clothes for about four years. He'd already moved his operation from the basement of his house to a reclaimed mill building in the industrial heart of the Valley neighborhood, just west of the Providence Place Mall.

Segal's cat sweater.
Credit prettysnake.com

He had already achieved some recognition for what you might call his "cat sweaters." They are instantly recognizable because they feature a pyramid of cats with distinctive eyes, silk-screened on a vintage sweater.  

Segal says he came up with the cat design while he was a gradaute student at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.

"I made this one print of the pile of cats. And then after school I started printing it on thrift store sweaters," Segal explained. "Then I happened to find the cat doll eyes at a local jewelry warehouse. And then I was, like, 'oh I should put the eyes on the sweater!'"

Once on "Project Runway," Segal immediately bonded with several fellow designers who appreciated his avant garde style, although they were sometimes puzzled by it. Nashville designer Amanda Valentine became a good friend.

"Joe has an imagination that I've never encountered before," she told viewers in one episode of the show. "His ideas are off the wall."  

After just a couple of episodes, it became clear that Segal enjoyed going his own way. In a conversation about designing a dress for a model, contestant Richard Hallmarq, from Sacramento, said, "The object is to get her gown on the Best Dressed List, not What Not to Wear."

Segal's response: "If it gets on What Not to Wear, that's like a proud moment for me."

In episode 4, the designers were challenged to make a garment that is both hard and soft. The contestants were directed to use flowers combined with materials bought at a hardware store.

"I used wire mesh and tons of flowers and used the flowers to make patterns on the mesh," Segal said of his design. "It was a sweater, but I also put this trompe l'oeil lapel on it, because I was thinking it would be cool if it was like this fluffy kind of coat-looking sweater. The judges hated it."

It wasn't hate exactly, but clearly judges Nina Garcia, Bette Midler and Zac Posen, as well as Heidi Klum, did not get it. Segal's creation had made the What Not to Wear list. And so, at the end of episode 4, came the verdict:

"Joe, you're out," Klum said.

Now, more than two years later, Segal is philosophical about his early exit from "Project Runway."

"I was kind of over it," he said. "I couldn't believe I was on TV. It was just time. It was fine."

Segal says he saw a boost in business, albeit temporary, from his appearance on "Project Runway." And more than that, an offer came from a major retailer to team up and produce some cat sweaters.

"Urban Outfitters wanted me to license the design with them. So one season, Urban and I worked together to produce 3-thousand cat sweaters," said Segal.

Perhaps more than anything, though, Segal says he values the friends he made on the show, like  Amanda Valentine.

"Amanda and I talk pretty regularly still, and same with a lot of the other contestants. I think making friends in the fashion world is almost more important than that type of exposure."

Segal says he's thinking about growing his business with a more involved business plan and maybe a business partner, but he has no plans to leave Providence.

"I like working here," Segal said. "I love living in Providence. Everything you can get in New York you can get here. It's the place to be, I think. I definitely try to convince friends to move their businesses here too."

Segal's business, Pretty Snake, continues to operate out of his workshop in the Valley neighborhood of Providence, reviving a tradition of textile manufacturers that flourished along the Woonasquatucket River more than a hundred years ago.