KSU grad struts his designs down Bravo’s ‘Project Runway’

Kristen Kotz

Courtesy NBC Studio

Credit: DKS Editors

Stephen Whitney Baum, who is better known as “Suede,” didn’t plan on becoming a fashion designer when he was growing up in Seven Hills, a suburb of Cleveland.

The 37-year-old designer wanted to be an actor as a teenager. His parents, however, didn’t approve of him moving to Los Angeles or New York to pursue acting because they wanted him close to home.

Instead, Suede decided to enroll at the Kent State School of Fashion Design and Merchandising. He graduated in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in fashion design.

“I applied to design school not knowing what to expect,” Suede said. “I ended up loving it . I am a very creative person. It was a great way to express myself.”

Since graduating, Suede has worked in the fashion industry as a creative director for the Lee Juniors and Lee Girls brands of Lee Jeans. He has also designed for Fubu. He now has the opportunity to show off his design skills in front of the camera as one of 16 contestants on Bravo’s “Project Runway.”

The nickname “Suede” comes from his junior year at Kent State. He and several other students were working on their final projects in one of the school’s classrooms. They were all stressed out, so Suede had everyone pick a piece of fabric from the swatch barrel. Whatever fabric they selected would be their name for the rest of the day. He pulled out a swatch of suede.

“The name just kind of stuck,” Suede said. “So all those people who think I just created it for the show are wrong.”

Suede went to the New York open call for “Project Runway” in April. He had already auditioned for the show twice before and had been turned away. Suede said he decided to audition for this season because he had dreams of Tim Gunn, one of the show’s hosts, telling him he was the winner of “Project Runway.”

He got the call letting him know he was going to be on the show, and the show started filming the first week of June.

“It was amazing,” Suede said. “You never know until you get that call.”

The top designer on “Project Runway” receives a spread in Elle magazine, $100,000 to start his or her own line, an opportunity to sell clothes on Bluefly.com and a 2009 Saturn. The three finalists also have a chance to showcase their own lines at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York.

Suede has already won a challenge on the show. On the second episode, Suede won the Bluefly.com competition. This show featured guest judge Natalie Portman. The episode’s task was to design a cocktail dress from eco-friendly fabric his model, Tia, had purchased.

For the dress, Suede wove together pieces of the yellow and red fabrics his model chose to form a bodice with a v-shaped neckline. It has a ruffled skirt that moves away from the model’s body and ends a few inches above her knees.

Bluefly.com made 150 recreations of Suede’s dress and sold them for $280 each. The Web site’s entire stock sold out in less than a day.

Suede said being on “Project Runway” has given him exposure to people in the industry he might not have met otherwise. He said Gunn has been a great mentor and taught him to trust his instincts.

“Tim teaches you to listen to your inner voice,” Suede said. “It was really great to work with him and the guest judges.”

Suede said he is inspired by designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, but his biggest fashion influence is Madonna because she constantly changes her style.

“It’s like a fashion show,” Suede said. “You don’t see the same Madonna each time she comes out.”

In 2000, Suede gave a $10,000 endowment for a $1,000 scholarship to be awarded to a senior fashion design major at Kent State annually. The winner of the scholarship, which is called the Stephen Whitney Baum Critics Award, is chosen by Suede at the senior portfolio critique.

Suede is also the first graduate of the fashion school to give an annual award to a current student. In 2001, Suede became the first graduate of the fashion school to return as a commencement speaker.

“Stephen is one of those alumni who have kept up with the school,” fashion school director Elizabeth Rhodes said. “He has taken students as interns, comes to the portfolio show and started a scholarship. He has always been there when I needed him.”

After the hoopla from “Project Runway” is done, Suede will launch a menswear line, tentatively called Stelar III, next spring. He said the line will feature high-end men’s denim and will be available in smaller boutiques nationwide.

“Right now, I think the sky is the limit for Suede,” he said.

Contact all reporter Kristen Kotz at [email protected]