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Making a statement

Jay McCarroll, the winner of the first season of 'Project Runway,' has since move to the area and will be the subject of a new documentary.

By Caitlin Meals
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 17, 2008

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Staff Photo By John Taggart

There's no doubt Jay McCarroll loves fashion. As the winner of Bravo's "Project Runway" in its inaugural 2005 season, the 33-year-old set the pace for the hit reality show, but is quick to add his fervor for everyday wear far exceeds his liking of haute couture.

For more than a decade, he's bounced from New York to Europe to his hometown of Lehman in upstate Pennsylvania, finally settling last summer in South Philly at Third Street and Washington Avenue.

Both this tell-it-like-it-is designer and the neighborhood he so lovingly now calls home have a unique flair -- and McCarroll wouldn't have it any other way.

"Philly definitely has its own vibe," he said, adding a friend once said the city's look was "scrappy."

"I think that's a good way [to describe it]," he said, adding in his neighborhood it's hard to pinpoint one specific fashion trend. "I don't really care, you wear what you want to wear. I'm no style guru. If you want to wear sweatpants, wear sweatpants. I don't care. I'm wearing sweatpants right now."

McCarroll attests to having an anything-goes style and obviously he's doing something right. In addition to being the subject of a new documentary, he was selling his designs in U.S. and European boutiques long before "Runway" and interest has only grown over the last several years. Since the show -- where designers compete to create the best garb based on a weekly theme -- he's fashioned his own line, done a show in New York, sold his designs at cutting-edge retailer Urban Outfitters -- which has a Walnut Street outlet -- and is now teaching fashion figure drawing and a portfolio class at his alma mater, Philadelphia University.

The only thing that hasn't changed is his straightforward attitude.

"I'm not one for glamour or red carpet stuff or sexy crap," he said. "I definitely want people to have my product and I definitely want it to be affordable -- there's better things to spend money on than something disposable. I make stuff for every day, every woman kind of thing; I grew up that way. I grew up loving the sale rack at Gap and going to Sears."

When it comes to wearing only high-end, high-price creations, he said, "I don't shop that way, my family doesn't shop that way and my friends don't shop that way."

Lehman's a small town with a population of just 3,200 in the '00 census, but McCarroll's childhood was far from uneventful. He picked up creativity from his mother, Nancy, a seamstress who cross-stitched, crocheted and worked on the high school marching band's uniforms of which the designer's sisters were members, and William, his bricklayer/builder father. McCarroll took to sewing when he was very young, making his own clothes by the time he was in high school.

"I always got made fun of," he said, joking, "I'm a weirdo. You're just born a weirdo. I made a shirt with pineapples all over it in ninth grade. You think it's fun and you leave your house and people are like, 'Oh my God. What is that?'"

Casting the comments aside, McCarroll attended the Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science -- now Philadelphia University -- during which time he studied abroad at the London College of Fashion, selling his designs at the open-air Camden Market. The year after graduation, he went back to London and on to Amsterdam, selling his men's and women's collections -- both casual wear, like most everything he designs -- in boutiques for the next two years.

His style has morphed over the years, and today he favors stores like Marshalls, T.J. Maxx and Old Navy, where he buys the basics he accents with boutique and fabric store finds, similar to what he said many locals do: a "do-it-yourself style."

Returning to the States in '00, McCarroll took some time off and moved back to Lehman to run his own vintage store. His involvement with arts and entertainment showcase organization Genart.org led to "Runway."

"[The site] sent out a mass e-mail because they were involved with casting," he said. "It said they were looking for fashion designers for a reality show. Two weeks later, I got my stuff together, went to New York and auditioned with hundreds of other people. A month or so after that ... they called up and said, 'Be ready in two days,' so I packed up my stuff and went to New York on a bus where they didn't stop filming for a month from the moment I got off the bus until the end."

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