(Photo: Chelsea Lauren/Getty Images)
Korto Momolu went from an independent fashion designer to a household name following her appearance on the fifth season of Project Runway. Despite coming up just short in the season finale, Momolu used the national exposure to get her fashion career off the ground, partnering with Dillard’s on the launch of an exclusive signature handbag and accessories line.
Lens on Talent selected Momolu as one of its three judges to help evaluate the hundreds of fashion entries BET received. BET.com spoke to Momolu about why she passed on Project Runway All Stars and instead chose to return to her home country of Liberia as an accomplished fashion designer.
I came across an interview with you from 2008 where you said you were still mad after you were eliminated from Project Runway. Three years later, are you still mad?
No. It’s politics. In the moment when it happened, yeah, you’re upset. You go on the show to win, and when you don’t win, it’s like why? After the show I won fan favorite, so that let me know that the people loved my stuff. I’ve been busy ever since. Project Runway gave me an opening. It gave me a door that I could walk through. Win or lose, I still had to walk through that door and I’ve been running ever since, hustling and keeping my eye on the prize.
Is there a reason why you aren’t involved in Project Runway All Stars?
I said no. They asked me to do it and I don’t feel like they are going to ever give me the win — for whatever political reasons, they're not. I’m good with it. I’m not going to go on that show and keep trying to prove something because I have nothing to really prove to Project Runway. I’m grateful for the opportunity but I think I left that door open for another designer who needed the exposure and press time.
What did you take away from doing Project Runway?
It changed me as a designer. When you have to make something in four hours that you usually have four days to make, it makes you dig deep and makes you see things deep down that you didn’t even know you possessed. A lot of the things I did on the show, I’m like “Wow, how did I even do that?” It gives you a strong sense of foundation. If they don’t break you, you’re good. A lot of people left broken. They couldn’t get past the whole criticism and Heidi not liking them or Michael not liking them. Who cares? People are not going to like you. It’s what you believe in yourself. I think that showed me a lot about who I am and what I would put up with and not put up with. I think me and the whole reality competition thing, I’m good.
When did you know you wanted to become a designer?
Right when I was about 15. I was in high school and I was already making things for people. I would make things for myself and then other people wanted it. I had a really good mentor and an art teacher in high school and she really just molded me. I graduated at 16, so I was really young, and she just helped me figure out what path of artistry I wanted to get into it. It just happened to be fashion.
What was it like returning home to your home country of Liberia and showcasing your work?
It was amazing. I haven’t been home in 23 years. We’re in exile, so to go back home without being worried about being put in jail because of my family’s affiliation with the government … it was good. And to be able to go back as a designer and show my work and show my aunts, uncles and cousins that I haven’t seen in so long what I had grown up to be. It was a proud moment. It was my dad’s first fashion shown he had ever seen of mine. I think he got it, because he was always against sending me to design school and paying money to send me to do art. I think that was the moment where he really got it. It was good.
Has living in Little Rock set back your career any or is it a benefit to you?
I think it’s a benefit. I can breathe in Little Rock. It’s not New York. New York has a trillion designers, all on top of each other all day. Where I live in Little Rock, there’s an airport and planes. As long as there’s airport and planes, I’m good. My family is there. My daughter is the main focus of my life. Having her have some kind of stability means more to me than living in New York. I know a lot of designers after the show that moved to New York that are regretting it. It’s expensive and it’s not really family friendly to me.
What advice do you have for aspiring fashion designers?
You have to know who you are. If you don’t know who you are, it’s easy for three judges to tell you who you are and need to be. When you know who you are and what you stand for, nobody can come in and change that. You have to believe it. If you don’t believe what you’re selling, nobody is going to believe that either. If you’re just selling hype, and you finally get into stores, hype doesn’t sell clothes. It has to be real. Know who you are as a designer and as a person. Those two things together can never be broken by anybody.