Bradon McDonald talks about Project Runway
Bradon McDonald, the Mark Morris veteran, talks about his second career as a designer and contestant on Project Runway
Thu Aug 15 2013
Photograph: Barbara Nitke
For Bradon McDonald, attaining the impossible is becoming habit: A former member of the Mark Morris Dance Group—who took over some of Morris's own roles—McDonald now has eyes for fashion design. He's off to a good start as one of the most promising contestants on this season of Lifetime's Project Runway. In a phone interview, McDonald talks about sewing on the side at Juilliard, his first attempt at creating a wedding dress—for MMDG's Amber Star Merkens—and, of course, Tim Gunn.
It was a Sunday afternoon in 2010 when Bradon McDonald performed his last show with the Mark Morris Dance Group. About 12 hours later, he was at orientation at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles. “I set it up like that because I wanted no downtime,” he says in a phone interview. Why does all of this matter? Because McDonald is a contestant—a really promising contestant—on Lifetime’s Project Runway this season. As of press time, he has won two of the first four challenges, proposed to his partner while standing on the runway and shown himself to be as much of a class act on television as he always was onstage. Here’s to McDonald going all the way.
Time Out New York: Why did you decide to move to L.A.?
Bradon McDonald: My partner, Josh—my fiancé, Josh, now—grew up in Los Angeles, so I knew the city very well, and we always thought that after years in New York we would end up here. So he works for Los Angeles Opera—he’s senior director of artistic planning and basically that means casting. He’s head of the artistic branch under Plácido Domingo and James Conlon, and he was working out here three or four years before I moved full-time. I was splitting my time between touring six months of the year, rehearsing in New York and also living in L.A. I was on a plane more than I even remember because I blocked it all out. [Laughs] I knew I wanted to live in L.A. and chose FIDM; it’s an amazing school, and I felt like I could learn a lot and have space and time in Los Angeles that I could never have in New York.
Time Out New York: How did you get into designing?
Bradon McDonald: I don’t know if you remember years ago when I made bags. Josh bought me a sewing machine after I had been collecting fabrics from all over the world when I was on tour as a dancer. I love fine arts—I would go to galleries and museums around the world, and I would also go to fabric stores. I felt like exquisite textiles were affordable art in a way, and so I would buy a yard or two of gorgeous fabric having no idea what I was ever going to do with them. I just liked looking at them. I even started collecting fabric at Juilliard. That’s when he got me the sewing machine. My dorm room was full of fabric. I started by hand-quilting book covers, because they were small, and I could wrap my head around doing a little patchwork something for a small journal. I had stacks of blank journals with fabric covering them—I never used them and I never really gave them away, but I loved making them. Then it turned into rugs. I got a little bit bigger and a little more brave. They were all done by hand. Then Josh bought me a sewing machine, and I taught myself how to sew and immediately started making bags out of all this fabric that I had. Partly because as a dancer, male or female, everybody carries bags, and secondly in New York, everybody carries bags; I thought it was a great way to turn something that was fine art to me—not only the fabrics, but how I combined them into paintings, whether they were patchwork or hand-sewing and embellishment and embroidery on the fabric or combining different fabrics together. Instead of hanging them on the wall as tapestries or something to look at, I started making bags and realized that people could and would use them every day and love them as bags. You put handles on the painting, and suddenly it would sell.
Time Out New York: Like movable art.
Bradon McDonald: So in Mark Morris, I carried my sewing machine on the road for years. I would set up a sewing studio in every hotel room, and I would sew all day and perform all night. I would have an annual bag sale in New York. They started in my apartment and when it got too big, I moved to the MMDG headquarters and they would host a bag sale for me in the fall. I usually did it at holiday shopping time.
Time Out New York: Why didn’t I know about this?
Bradon McDonald: I don’t know! [Laughs] It was outside the realm. It started off as a hobby, and then it got more and more serious to the point where it was all-consuming. I got a little bit scared and backed away from it, because it was taking so much time. And at that point, I was fully devoted to performing; nothing besides Josh could distract me from what I had to do as a performer. Then, I sort of outgrew the MMDG in terms of numbers and time for the sale and so I rented a gallery on the Lower East Side and placed the bags on the wall like artwork. So it was a gallery setting: White walls, and the bags were hanging like paintings to show off the embroidery work. The name that I sort of trademarked is “thread painting.” I do layers and layers of freehand embroidery on the machine and build up colors a little bit like Rothko, a little bit like Cy Twombly, a little bit like Jackson Pollock. That sort of vein of vibrating colors together in different techniques and patterns and shapes and colors. I worked all year and had 100 bags; I hired one woman to sew the linings. And then a little bit like Mark Kostabi, I taught her how to make some of the patterns so that when I got orders, yes it was my design, but I could also have someone else reproduce it. Which comes into play with how I design now: I like the couture, I like the one of the kind, I like the handwork, but I also am fascinated by how those techniques can translate to mass market, and how that aspirational-editorial image can drive a ready-to-wear line or a line for Target. Or like Christian Siriano and his line of shoes for Payless. I love high art, and how can you take that spirit and bring it in an affordable, exciting way to the mass market?
Time Out New York: Do you have your own line now?
Bradon McDonald: I don’t have my own line now.
Time Out New York: And did you before the show?
Bradon McDonald: Only bags: bradonPAUL. Paul is my middle name. I still have it trademarked, but I haven’t used it in the last two years because of school, because of working in the industry and because of Project Runway; there just wasn’t a whole lot of time, but it’s definitely something that I will come back to. One other thing as far as design is for five years I costumed and performed with a burlesque show in New York: Lady Rizo and the Assettes. I started [doing] that with Amber [Star] Merkens at MMDG; Amelia [Zirin-Brown], Lady Rizo, was her best friend from Oregon, and it was this unbelievable group of people. We would maybe have 30 people in the show, including a live band, and for five years I did costumes and sets and performed with this group. That is where I made the transition to creating garments from fabric and not just shopping for costumes and altering things. I pushed myself because I really wanted to start making garments. So I did some small, tiny little garments as you might imagine with a burlesque show, and I also did some huge things.
Time Out New York: Like what?
Bradon McDonald: A ten-foot rotating Ferris wheel that stuck to my back that was partly set and then became a costume. Newspaper suits that would tear off during a number. A 25-foot skirt for Amelia that became water, that became a shadow screen—she wore it in different ways. Over five years, I created hundreds of looks for the show; Joe’s Pub was a big venue for us; we also performed at the Highline Ballroom, the Brooklyn Lyceum. It got a pretty big following; the music producer Moby was at our first show, and then he started performing with us, so we got momentum right away. That was where I made the transition—and a really clear transition—from performing to designing.
Time Out New York: That must have been constant, steady work—you had to make things fast, right? Like pre–Project Runway?
Bradon McDonald: Yes, definitely. On a shoestring budget with unconventional materials. A lot of the time, Home Depot would be my first stop.