Designing Change: An Interview with Project Runway Junior's Tieler James

03/08/2017 08:54 am ET
Tieler at work in the studio
Photo courtesy of Lifetime
Tieler at work in the studio

My husband and I have many traditions that we hold dear, one of my favorite being our Sunday night TV catch up night. We’re both educators, so the chance to sit down, have some food and watch our favorite shows on the DVR is a great way to start the week. With our kids tucked in bed, we get out the snacks and tuck in for a night of whatever was recorded. A few weeks ago, we were catching up on this season of Lifetime’s Project Runway Junior. That evening’s episode featured the traditional trope of the show’s mentor Tim Gunn visiting with the final designers and their families prior to showing their collections. As we watched this all unfold, it came time for Tim to meet designer Tieler James and his two moms. He lives in Abita Springs, Louisiana and is a junior in high school. He had previously competed on the show “Threads” and did well, encouraging him to move forward to Project Runway Junior. As Tim met with the family, Tieler recalled how growing up in the south wasn’t always easy for a creative kid with two moms who happened to be gay. He was sharing a story about how he was bullied at school and almost thrown out the window of a moving school bus. My heart was in my throat and I was sobbing uncontrollably listening to him talk about the bullying he faced. But Tieler grew from that experience and he wants to use his position and influence as a designer to combat LGBT bullying and bring awareness to the troubles LBGT youth face. His courage at the young age of 17 stuck with me, so I decided to see if I could contact him to talk more about him, his life, and his future in the fashion world. I checked out his website and sent a note asking if we could do an interview. My phone rang a few minutes later and it was one of his moms, enthusiastically setting up the time to meet.

I sat down with Tieler via Facetime and we had a nice chat the week of Mardi Gras.

Me: Good morning Tieler! I can’t tell you how honored it is to be here chatting with you!

Tieler James: Hey Mr. Tom, I need to tell you that I just woke up! (Note: I forgot about the time difference between Louisiana and Michigan).

Tieler and Tim Gunn
Courtesy Photo
Tieler and Tim Gunn

Me: Mr. Tom, I love that. I have to tell you that I am a card-carrying member of the Tim Gunn fan club. He is an amazing man and educator and I consider him one of my heroes. Talk to me about your experience with him on the show.

TJ: Me and Mr. Tim actually have a lot in common so working with him was basically like putting a mirror in front of me and I’m just talking to myself. We had a difference of opinions at times, but in the end it all worked out really well and I’m just very happy that I can have someone like him in my life.

Me: How much time does Tim actually spend with you as the designers each week during the critiques?

TJ: It depends on the person. Some are longer than others, 30 to 45 minutes. Like I said, he gets me, so our time together was usually pretty short. He would always check in and then say “Ok, you do you.” That advice got me far!

Me: What’s a typical day of shooting for PRJr like? You see the clock in the work room, but it doesn’t really give us an idea as to how the day goes due to the heavy editing of the show.

TJ: A typical day on set is very wild. Call times can sometimes be very early. They expect you to be the same peppy kid they see in the middle of the day when you’re fully awake immediately each morning, but that was never really a problem for me. In terms of work its set up very odd. They put you to work and get you in the groove of working and then all of a sudden it’s lunch and you don’t have a choice, you have to eat. Since I was always on my ADD medicine I was never hungry, so I would just sit there on the floor thinking about the garment upstairs. It was really torture for me. After lunch it was right back to work for another three hours or so and then you were done, just like that. When the work day was over it was interview time, this was my favorite time because my interviewer was incredible because we would vibe over Lil' Kim and how problematic Azealia Banks is, and then the day was over and you'd just wait for the same thing to happen the next day.

Me: Wow that is a crazy schedule for sure! So how long were you in New York City for the filming?

TJ: 5 weeks. We’d shoot an episode in about two days and then we’d have a day “off” to relax and catch up.

Me: What did you do on your day off? Had you ever been to New York before?

TJ: Yes, I’ve been several times. I went to The Met a lot, the fashion exhibit " Manus x Machina" was there and it was my absolute favorite. To see the infra- structure of some of the world’s greatest designers was amazing!

Me: As a former high school teacher, talk to me about the experience and how it affected your high school year. Did they have tutors for you during the filming of the series or did you just focus on the show and your fashion?

TJ: I go to NOCCA: New Orleans Center of Creative Arts in New Orleans, so the school was very lenient on what they allowed me to do in terms of missing school. But I was still missing school and that set me back a bit. So while everyone is learning moles of atoms and all that fun stuff, I’m sitting on the runway with the other contestants doing school work on our own while we are supervised by a teacher provided by the show. So when I returned back to school, I was very lost in everything but it wasn't hard to get back into the groove at my school.

Me: I’ve studied your work and I’m dying to know who your biggest influences are in the fashion world.

TJ: I have so many influences in the fashion industry that I look up to but I look up to each of them in different ways. People like Alexander McQueen and John Galliano I look up to because they literally came from nothing and are noted as creative geniuses in and out of the fashion industry. I look up to Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto because they are two incredible people that have literally broke into the Europeans fashion circuit and continually don't care what people have to say about them. And then of course Raf Simons and Alessandro Michele for taking over two very iconic fashion houses and really turning them upside down.

Me: McQueen was a genius. So how did van Gogh come to be your influence for the final collection? He’s a favorite of my students at the college where I teach. What brought you in to his work?

TJ: Art has always been an influence in my life. My grandmother would take me to the New Orleans Museum of Art and we would have a full day in there looking at art. As for Van Gogh it just felt natural to work off of him, as a person, and his art work. I have always felt really connected to his work because of the amount of detail and emotion he put into each of his creations. That’s how I have always viewed fashion. Always put emotion and hard work into the garment and people will notice.

Me: I end my presentation on Van Gogh with this quote from him: “I would sooner perish of passion than die of boredom.” Strong words from a very creative man.

TJ: Indeed. At the time, there was no one like him. He was revolutionary in the way he viewed everything. He’s the Aretha Franklin of art, he’s so full of heart and soul!

Me: I love that, I’m totally adding it to my lecture! What do you do to find inspiration outside of the reality shows? Being creative “on-demand” is a challenge for some of my students in the studio. How do you keep it fresh and going strong?

TJ: Being in an art school in the queer part of New Orleans, I am constantly surrounded by things that inspire me whether it’s another student’s art, music, a vibe that I feel, or a show going on in the theatre, so I’m never really deprived of inspiration. Overall though I’m really just inspired by things in my life whether it’s women (which is always a constant in my collections), nature, architecture, art, really anything. I’m really just a kid with ADHD with an okay eye.

Me: Most of the artists and designers that I know have the same issues with ADHD, we’re constantly on, wired, and looking for what’s next. It’s a gift and a curse at the same time. So what’s it like working with the other designers? Did you all become friends or were there rivalries you didn’t see on the show?

JT: Working with the other designers was honestly so freaking cool, I loved each one of them so much and to just be around people that had the same vision of what they wanted for their life was just awe- inspiring. I never was really competing with anyone on the show, I was just constantly challenging myself to see what I can do in a certain time restraint.

Me: So what’s next? I hear word of a show in Vancouver, BC that will involve some special models, can you tell us about this?

TJ: Right now I’m currently working on my autumn/winter 2017 collection "Jeanne d'Arc" for Vancouver Fashion week and this is my all-time favorite collection. The collection is based off the life and trials of Joan but it really goes deeper than that. The collection is widely unisex to play off the aspect of Joan's cross- dressing and gender- bending. I think in the fashion community non-binary people and trans people are really disrespected and undermined and I don't think that's okay. The fashion community produces gray sweatpants and an oversized hoody and slaps a label on it with the words unisex and calls it a day, but queer people are so much more than that. Trans and Non-binary people deserve actual fashion, they deserve actual fashion that can be chic and eccentric and beautiful. It’s time to get over the stereotype that the in-between is boring, so I guess that's where I come in. To my knowledge, I will be the first teenage designer to use a transgender model on the runway and I think that it’s really important to have a trans woman (Her name is Juliet and I absolutely adore her) not only on the runway but in this collection because it shows that trans people are strong and beautiful and can be viewed by the fashion eye as a part of this community.

Me: As a gay dad, seeing you with your moms was amazing. Talk to me about growing up with two moms in the south, what advice do you have for our two kids being raised by two dads here in the birthplace of the Republican Party (Jackson, MI)?

Tieler and his moms Tahmi and Kelley
Courtesy Photo
Tieler and his moms Tahmi and Kelley

TJ: Growing up with two moms in the south and being gay was definitely not the easiest. I was constantly tormented by others boys for being who I am and it really sucked, but my moms really made it better. They understood where I was and what was happening. I definitely wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my moms. Advice to your kids: It’s going to be hard and at times it will get overwhelming, but just know that it’s going to be okay. The hate that those ignorant people have for you and your dads don’t even come close to the love that the community has for you guys and the love that your dads have for y’all.

Me: Thanks so much for that! So I take it you have a strong support system down there?

JT: Yes, NOLA has a very tight-knit LGBT community and when I first came out, we attended PFLAG meetings. But really, we’re just one big happy family!

Me: I love NOLA, I’m jealous you’re so close by. You tweeted that you were happy that Ginger Minj from RuPaul’s Drag Race was following you. I adore that show. I had often wondered if Project Runway could get any gayer, and then Drag Race comes on the air. Who are you rooting for in the new season?

JT: Shea Coulee, Aja, Valentina, the club kids, that’s who I root for!

Me: Club kids rule! So where are you going to go to school once you get out of high school? I know some great art school up here in Michigan by the way.

JT: After I finish high school I really want to go to college. Even though I know a good bit there is still a ton of information that I don’t know and that I want to learn. Yes I could teach myself, but I want to be taught the correct way by professionals. I’ve looked at a few school around the U.S. but my number one choice is Parsons. Parsons has this aura of being very stuck up and snooty to the outside world and I really want to be the one that goes into that school with my beat up shoes and overalls and show them that it doesn't matter who you are or where you came from (in terms of self and geography). I want to challenge their status quo.

Me: I know that you will Tieler! What words of advice to you have for any other up and coming designers or artist?

JT: Know who you are. Have a good support system. Oh, and meditate with amethyst, it helps with creativity!

Me: Great advice, thanks for chatting with me today!

You can find more of Tieler and his work at: http://www.tielerjames.com/home.html

And on Twitter: @designertieler and Instagram: #designertieler

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