Project Runway’s Korto Momolu Is *Sew* Into Fashion — And Family

Korto Momolu is not just a fabulous fashion designer. As the first runner-up (and Fan Favorite) in Season 5 of Project Runway, Korto is inspiring women everywhere to feel confident and sexy in their skin. Celebrity Parents caught up the Liberian-born designer to talk about Project Runway, her roots, and how she keeps it real.

Tell me a bit about your background.

I was born in Monrovia, Liberia. My family moved to the U.S. when I was 4 years-old. My parents came here to get their Masters, and then we went back to Liberia. In my country, though, there was a lot of civil unrest –teachers are always on strike – so they sent us to Canada to go to school.

When I was 14, there was a civil war in Liberia, and at the time, my dad worked for the government. What happens when there’s a coup d’état is that they kill the government workers, rape their wives, and keep the children as toy soldiers. My dad was able to escape, thankfully. We lost everything; our home, money, and we couldn’t get any of our possessions. It was my last year at boarding school, and my dad asked the school to give me a scholarship so I could graduate. They did, which was great.

Were you always into fashion?

I always had plans to be a designer. My parents said they weren’t going to pay for my fashion design education. Where I’m from, there aren’t any designers and my parents wanted me to have a secure paycheck. So I was going to do a double major; fashion design and law. But I couldn’t afford school; we weren’t citizens, so I couldn’t get student loans. I had to stop school and work to help support my family. That was my turning moment. I felt sorry for myself, thinking how this war was affecting me, my family and how it wasn’t fair. My mom told me to stop feeling sorry for myself. I just had to get over myself. Martina Todd, a lady from our church in Ottowa paid for my tuition to design school after my mom showed her my portfolio and sketchbook of designs. So I went to design school in Ottawa.

How was that experience?

I was at the bottom of the class. My stuff always got ripped up. One instructor, Maurice, hated me. “Oh this is terrible!” he would say, and then rip up my garments. I always had good designs, though, but I couldn’t sew.

That judging must have been good preparation for you when you went on Project Runway.

It was! I graduated in the top 3 of my class. After that, I made sure to get my craft together. I learned how to sew. So when we had our first challenge on PR, and Nina said my garment was made well, it meant so much to me. I thought, “Is Maurice watching this?!” It was my defining moment.

What were your designs like then?

They were kind of like they are now. African-inspired, funky, yet solid enough that anyone could wear them. There were regular cocktail dresses with a trim of print. They were attractive to all people, but I always wanted to make sure that I represented my culture. It’s similar to my line now. After all, I haven’t been back to Liberia in 20 years, but I wanted people to know that I am proud of who I am and where I come from. I’m a Liberian living in the United States.

What were you doing prior to Project Runway?

I did lots of fashion shows to get the experience and build a name for myself. My Mom started a school to teach immigrants different trades. She was disgusted with how the immigration system degraded people. So she taught women from Liberia, Somalia and Rwanda how to find a trade, get trained and get a job. I helped teach in her school, and it was a humbling experience. After that I moved to Atlanta, went to design school, and then I got married to my husband, Benny. We moved to Little Rock, but it was only supposed to be a pit stop. Ten years later…

That was a long pit stop.

It felt like slow death. There was no fashion scene at all in Little Rock. But there’s an emerging art scene now, and I’m glad that we stuck around long enough to see the birth of it. I had fashion shows in Little Rock, and then I had my daughter, Alyse Nahmbia. At the same time, Project Runway aired for the first time.

What did you first think of the show?

I was glued to it! I thought, “Hopefully it’ll be around long enough for me to try out one day.” Four years later, I decided I was just going to do it. I only wanted to try out one time, and if I didn’t make it, I was going to go to law school and be the attorney my daddy wanted me to be. But thank God it worked out!

What was it like being on Project Runway?

I and the other designers were pinching ourselves every day that we got on the show. I never got over the shock of it. Project Runway makes you dig really deep to get to that creativity level. You don’t know you’re that creative until you make something out of car parts or veggies. I tried to watch the show before I went on, but it just made me nervous! I thought, “I’m just going to do me, and if it’s great, great, and if not, I’ll just move on.”

I have to say, you were really authentic on the show.

I was me. I didn’t want to be a character. Or the token black girl, twisting her neck and snapping her fingers. That’s not who I am; I was raised well, and I knew that my parents, husband and my daughter were going to be watching. I wanted them to see someone they knew, and be proud of that image.

How did you avoid burning out?

You can’t avoid it. By the end, I was burnt out. You miss your family, and you feel separated from the real world. I mean, I’m a grown woman; I’m used to being in control. But in a way I had no control over my life: Someone feeds me in the morning, drives me where I need to go, and goes to get my lunch. It became, “What are we eating today? Can you put the food in my mouth?”

[laughs] What about the criticism?

It’s hard, definitely. You sacrifice so much, and you can go very far in the competition, and then you’re sent home because your hem wasn’t even. What I tried to remember is that these three judges didn’t rule the world. It didn’t make me any less of a fashion designer because three people didn’t like it. Who defines who is a fashion designer, anyway?

I think you have to be really strong to be on a reality show. It’s set up almost to break you, and then put you back together and say, “This is who we created.” That happened with Santino; they told him this and that was wrong, and he followed what they said. Then when he had his runway collection, they said, “What happened to you? We don’t see you.”

That’s true. Your runway collection was beautiful, though, and it was you.

I loved my collection! I was one of the few who did color. I wanted to do something different but something that represented me and that I was proud of. I thought it was beautiful; it wasn’t over the top or something that wasn’t wearable. Not everyone can wear a full-feathered dress. I wanted to make a collection that could have left the runway and gone on someone’s back.

I love how you walked with your daughter at the end of your runway show.

I wanted her to feel like the show was all about her. I did this for myself, but also for my family. She was the one who suffered the most, and was traumatized by the experience. I was gone for five weeks doing the show, and I didn’t even get to say goodbye to her. (I left for the show at 4:00 in the morning and she was sleeping.) I had to get her back after the show; it was difficult. She would say to me at home, “Mom, take your shoes off”, because if I kept my shoes on, she thought that I was leaving again.

Awww, that’s terrible working mommy guilt.

At 4 years-old, she didn’t understand why I was leaving for 5 weeks. I told her I was coming home soon, and she would say, “What’s soon?” Now, when I have to be away, we count down the days together, so she understands. I also take her with me when I travel as much as possible, so she can see what I’m doing.

While we were shooting, you mentioned how you ironed five weeks of clothes for her when you went on Project Runway.

My daughter is a real girly girl, and even though my husband is great with her, doing her hair is not his forte! [laughs] So I ironed all the clothes for her to wear while I was gone; she had all her church, school and play clothes ironed and ready. I labeled everything for him. It made me feel better as a mother that even though I had to leave, my husband had everything he needed to take care of her.

And what happened?

Well, when they picked me up from the airport, I thought, “What happened to my daughter?” Her hair was all out of place, and then when we got home, there were still a lot of clothes hanging in her closet! I asked him what happened and he said, “She wore clothes.” He did his best; it’s just a guy thing. [laughs]

Now, you came in as first runner-up on your season of Project Runway. Let’s talk about that.

As the competition went on, I knew Leanne was the one to beat. For the Rock ’N’ Runway challenge, Leanne designed for me. I could have gone the other way, but I told her what to make that was going to fit me. If I was meant to win, I’d win. You’re not really winning if you’re scheming.

Have you come to terms with the judges’ decision?

I have. At first, when they said Leanne’s name, I thought, “Are you kidding me?”  She was as devastated for me as I was for myself. If I felt it was someone who didn’t deserve to win, then it would have been harder for me to take. Once I got past it, I was okay. Leanne is very talented; we just have a different design aesthetic. We’re still friends today.

I was upset for a while after the show. I was addicted to reading the blogs. I was grieving, in a way. But then I looked at what I asked God for. I prayed to be on the show, and I got on. I prayed to show the world my designs, and I did. I got what I prayed for. Unfortunately, I didn’t pray for the $100,000. See, you gotta be specific!

I think inspiring women everywhere is worth more than money. With your messages of self-worth and feeling sexy in your own skin, you definitely do that.

I truly believe you can be sexy at a size 2 or a size 16. Look, I’ve had a baby, and I’m still sexy for who I am. I’m proud of me, and that’s sexy. I believe in me, and what I’m saying, not just because it’s a cool thing to say. That’s why my line is for all women. Women might find clothes that fit them, but may not be fashionable. My line has fashion-friendly clothing that is chic for women who may not be a model size. People write me all the time to tell me how much they love my designs, and immigrants write me and tell me how I’ve inspired them. I think you’ve got to take what you’ve been given, what your reality is, and seize it.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.