When Chicago designer Chelsey Carter, 31, was eliminated from season 18 of “Project Runway,” the fashion internet nearly exploded. No one could understand why the poised, coiffed, cut-and-sew owner of local brand Alex Carter didn’t win. Questions swirled: Did something happen off-camera? Was it racially motivated? Did the coastal elites again underestimate a Midwest genius?
Carter has lots of opinions on this elimination situation, but a tight NDA with Bravo keeps her mum. Instead, she points to articles online written by fans of the show. “The internet went up in smoke and they were not happy about it and they still are not happy about it,” says Carter, multitasking by taking this interview while also packing a day bag and ordering an Uber. “I’m very grateful to see the outpouring of everyone’s opinion and how quickly I was supported.”
“Project Runway” provides contestants with weekly design challenges, and judges Elaine Welteroth, Nina Garcia, and Brandon Maxwell issue the votes. (Designer Christian Siriano is the mentor for contestants and Karlie Kloss hosts.) Carter won big with the Heritage Challenge, which enabled her to utilize her signature coats to win. But she flailed with the sheers competition after being asked to create an outfit in a pastel color.
No matter. As Siriano said on the show, if her sheer fabric had been black, that dress would’ve come off differently. And as Carter says right now: “Overall, it was literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I feel I came out better for it. It was very transformative. I feel much more in charge of the direction and intention behind what I do, and my capability in doing so.”
The Uber arrives, but Carter is still able to talk. Her calender and email is full. Her wedding is this September; she’s marrying Chicago attorney Eddie Sanders. There’s plenty to do, including sewing her own gown, tailoring the menswear, and possibly helping her bridesmaids get the perfect fit for their own dresses. The hubbub of the show meant letting some wedding details fall by the wayside. And now? She’s working double time to keep up — all the way from managing the guest list of around 140 to fleshing out the vendor details.
Carter’s ability to multitask isn’t surprising to those who know her, including former professor Nancy Lu Rosenheim, who taught the designer at the Illinois Institute of Art–Chicago. Says Rosenheim, “She’s unforgettable … very driven by a mission. Usually, students are trying to find their vision and she had one.”
That vision expanded recently when Carter teamed up with Converse during the NBA All-Star Weekend and dropped the remainder of her Hues collection online. Hues is a color-tastic trip through every aspect of dressing, from casual (green sweatpants) to business (red suiting that’s both simple and sexy) to spring gala-ready (an orange gown). Currently, select Hues styles are available at shopalexcarter.com, with pieces starting at $75.
But let’s start with the sweatpants and sweatshirts. “I’m cozy gang all day,” explains Carter, who originally hails from St. Louis but moved to Chicago in 2006 to study at the Illinois Institute of Art. She believes designers should be able to have more than one style. More than one moment. “I don’t like when designers box themselves in … but to each his own,” she says. Hence the wide variety and swag of the Hues collection. “I design for the grad student all the way to the divorced mother of three,” she says.
Carter also designs for celebs. Chance the Rapper and Erykah Badu have worn her creations. For Chance, it was a jacket, an element for which she is most known. In fact, Carter owns 60 coats right now. As a Chicago-based designer, she understands why a beautiful coat is both necessity and a fashion statement that could last all winter long.
“They are my love language,” she says, while describing the process of making her blue shag coat, which is in the current collection. “I love an outerwear moment. You can wear whatever you want underneath and your coat can be the point that you make in terms of your self-expression.”
Here’s hoping she won’t have to wear a coat at her fall wedding, but if so, it’ll predictably be lovely. Until then, she’s back to the wedding walk-throughs, dress designs, and guest lists. “I’ve released collections before and curated photo shoots, but I’ve never been a wife and never been a bride. I am making my dress and [the fabric] is gorgeous, so I do want to do it to the fullest.”
Fishman’s Fabrics, 1101 S. Desplaines
“It has your more luxe reorderable fabrics. It’s a dream.”
New Rainbow Fabrics, 612 W. Roosevelt
“It’s right around the corner. They have a lot of stuff, but I usually only go there for linings, chiffons, organzas, and things.”
Textile Discount Outlet, 2121 W. 21st
“Almost everything is closeout. It’s where I typically go for custom things.”
Photos by Maria Ponce; Makeup by Henrí Mitchelle
AT THE SHOOT
Our studio shoot with Chelsey Carter was as dynamic and joyful as our subject herself. Carter wore her own wardrobe, including the cover’s cobalt blue crocheted tiered cardigan from her soon-to-launch collection. She gravitates toward hues saturated in vibrancy and color. “Blue, by definition, symbolizes — amongst many things — wisdom and confidence,” says Carter.
Photographer: Maria Ponce
Makeup: Henri Byrd