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Liberia: Exclusive Interview with Korto Momolu

Liberian fashion designer Korto Momolu


Internationally known for her vibrant, fashion-forward clothes and accessories, Momolu uses traditional and luxury fabrics, skins, and mixed prints to celebrate her rich heritage. On top of Project Runway, she’s dressed the president of Liberia, British singer Estelle, and Miss Universe Leila Lopes; launched an accessories line for Dillard’s department stores; and was named a top designer to watch in New York this season.
Momolu’s creations plus more from local artists including Joan Bristow, Elizabeth Montgomery Shelton, Leslie Abrams, Dr. Rhea Lawson, and Robbie Lee are on sale at the holiday market through December 29 at The Collective, 4101 San Jacinto, Suite 116. Hours are noon to 5 p.m., Thursday–Saturday. She opens up to Houstonia about her journey.

How did Project Runway impact the trajectory of your career?

It totally changed my life. When you first start, you’re nationally known, everybody’s watching, but when you get to the end, you’re internationally known. Even after the show airs, it re-airs in other countries, so I’m getting emails from Japan, from Australia; they’re seeing it for the first time. So when you think it’s over, someone in Greece is like, oh, I just saw your season. People that call me and say, “should I do it?” I’m like, just do it. Don’t focus on winning; focus on putting your brand out there. Instantly, people know who you are and what you do. If you happen to win, great.

What would people be surprised to learn about the show?

When you’re in the work room and Tim [Gunn] is like, “hurry up, we’ve got to go to the runway” and everybody’s freaking out? As soon as they close the door, you go to lunch. Literally, I was like, excuse me? All that was to go to lunch? All that’s for drama, and it’s the longest lunch of your life. It’s agonizing; it’s torture. Then when you go on the runway, you just see the clips, but we’re on there for hours. The first day we were all jazzed up, we have our stilettos on and we want to impress the judges—by the time we got off that stage, we’re like, [groaning] take these shoes off. Dying. You’re there for hours, and you can defend your work for as long as is needed, and then they edit it. That first day was the eye-opener for everything; all the stuff went out the window. Then you’re like, okay, I made it, I’m in this, I know what I’m doing, let’s go.

What are the stars really like?

Tim was cool. Tim is like that dad that comes in and you want him to love your work, and sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t. He’s not shy about it either way. Heidi was kind of like, admire me from afar but don’t come closer, I don’t want to smell you. I hate meeting celebrities I love, because it changes everything about them. My favorite judge was LL Cool J, I was like, oh my God. I had just seen him in Little Rock and he was on the episode that I actually won, so that was super duper cool.

What was your favorite garment you made on the show?

There was a Saturn challenge and they ripped up all these poor cars and we had to grab things and make something, and I made a coat out of all these seatbelts, it was basket-woven. It took everything out of me, but that is probably the most known garment that I made on the show. After the show’s over, they auction off those pieces from those collection—we don’t get to keep anything. This lady got it, she won the auction. I was trying to get it, but I’m like, oh my God, it’s at $1,000, I can’t even do it.  She wore it to the show I met her at in San Antonio, we became friends, and now she has it in her will—God forbid anything happens to her—that she’d let me have it. I don’t want to ever have it now!

What was the hardest challenge?

The one where I thought I was going to be out was the drag queen challenge. Never done that in my life. Everybody was excited, and I’m like, I’m about to go home. It’s a completely different world, and if you don’t know what you’re doing. I had to kind of forget about all that and just figure out how to be Korto.

Did pushing your limits make you a better designer?

Definitely. Just in life, I’ve always had to make something out of nothing. So when you go on a show where you have these budgets, it was like, great! I can do all this stuff. You look back at your struggles and you think they’re bad things but they’re actually good things because they help you cope through life when you have to. That definitely helped. And then being on the show where you have to work under pressure, being criticized, being in competition with your friends, and being away from your family—it’s so much, but you can get through it. It shows you what you’re made of. Half the things I did on there I never thought I could do.

Who is the Korto Momolu customer?

They’re definitely women who like different things. My things aren’t everyday, regular, ho-hum—they’re a little eccentric and they’re colorful and they’re bold, and my girl has to have some confidence. If she doesn’t have it, what she’s wearing gives her confidence. But she knows what she wants. Either you love it or you don’t. You might like me, you might not. I’m not for everybody, but if you like a little something different, check me out and I can make it happen for you.

What do you want people to think of when they hear your name as a designer?

Just that I’m still standing. A reality show can make or break your life. We’ve seen it happen. I’m still very grounded; I’m still standing, I’m still going. I’m still doing what I set out to do. The show helped me in so many ways, but I’m still getting up every day and reinventing myself and staying in the game. It’s been over 10 years, and I’m still getting invited to do things, and people are still excited to see me and they still remember me, and that says a lot. It says that what I did on that show was meaningful. It wasn’t just me on some show sewing.

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