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A Story of a Coat

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When this coat makes its appearance at Tucson Fashion Week, it will bring an unusual fashion story full circle. By Gillian Drummond. Cover photo courtesy of Project Runway/myLifetime.

Photo by Gillian Drummond

Photo by Gillian Drummond

It started with an unusual challenge on Season Five of Project Runway. The fashion designer contestants had to make an outfit out of the spare parts of a Saturn hybrid car. They were let loose in some Saturns, given four minutes to collect parts, and a day to complete their outfits.

Contestant Korto Momolu realized pretty quickly that the champagne-colored seatbelts would give her something stand-out, if a little demanding, to work with. She set about not only pulling all the seatbelts she could, but bartering with the other designers for theirs.

Photo courtesy of Korto Momolu

Korto (left) and Camerone at El Paseo Fashion Week. Photo courtesy of Camerone Parker.

Then came the construction of the piece. She would weave the belts together and sew the edges for the body of a coat, breaking a commercial sewing machine in the process and busting up her hands badly. The sleeves were seatbelt lengths set horizontally, the ends sewn together.

The seatbelts were not just thick, they were each about 3/4 of a yard long. Added to that, they are made up of strong nylon, so they can be durable and waterproof. Cut the material and you get a very prickly edge, like lots of ends of a fishing line. Korto (pronounced “cut-toe”) had to make sure the edges were sewn up so the garment didn’t actually hurt. Nevertheless, the model got poked, says Korto. “I had to put tissue under her armpits.”

The weight of the coat was 35 pounds. The impact the design had was even bigger. The champagne color of the belts made them shimmer under the Project Runway lights. Guest judge Rachel Zoe said she wanted to buy it. Sitting watching the show in her Tucson home, model and radio personality Camerone Parker said the same thing: “I gotta have that coat.” Meantime Korto, not wanting her hard work to end up in anyone else’s hands, had lined up some friends to bid for it as well when the coat was auctioned on Project Runway‘s website.. “That piece really showed who I was, how I could take [and work with] something that’s so simple like a seatbelt,” explains Korto, who has deep affection for the piece.

The coat fetched $1000 at the auction. The winner? Camerone Parker.

Photo by Gillian Drummond

Korto signed the inside of the coat for Camerone. Photo by Gillian Drummond

And that should have been that. Except Camerone, a fan of the series since the beginning, couldn’t forget that episode, and Korto couldn’t forget the coat. “I was looking for it for some years. I figured whomever had it would find me,” says Korto. Camerone did, during El Paseo Fashion Week 2013 in Palm Desert. Korto was a participating designer and Camerone made up her mind to go, and to wear the coat.

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Korto Momolu has continued to make a name for herself since Project Runway. Photo by Marvin Bartley.

Camerone knew it would spark interest. The now infamous seatbelt coat has been deemed one of Project Runway’s top five iconic pieces, she says: “People know this coat even if they’re not regular watchers of the show.” Still, even Camerone was surprised at El Paseo Fashion Week. “I had no idea the response I was going to get. It started the minute I got out the car,” she says.

And it ended with Camerone meeting Korto, and the fashion show paparazzi going wild. “She really wore it. She was a show stopper,” says Korto, who signed the inside of the coat with a Sharpie. “Thanks so much for letting me see my love again,” she wrote, and she and Camerone remained in touch.

Korto didn’t win that round of Project Runway, although she went on to be Season Five’s first runner-up. And since the show, her brand has taken off. A native of Liberia, she moved to Canada in 1990 following the previous year’s Liberia coup. She studied in Ottowa and at New York City’s Parsons School of Design. She now lives in Arkansas with her husband, who left the military to open a barber shop.

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Korto’s designs will take to the runway during Tucson Fashion Week. Photo by Marvin Bartley.

After some high-profile exposure for her brand, including a line in Dillard’s, Korto has repositioned herself and her designs. She admits a lot of it has to do with the fact that she is a new mother, also that she is almost 40. Right now she is concentrating on her online retail store and a new 2015 collection that, she says, “starts from scratch.”

“I felt like I was selling myself out,” Korto says of doing the department store chains. Her new collection is called Rebirth and uses golds, bronzes, beiges and pops of orange. “It’s soft and soothing,  a fresh start, like a new baby,” she says.

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Korto’s designs are often inspired by her Liberian heritage. Photo by Marvin Bartley.

Visitors to Tucson Fashion Week will see the new collection as Korto and Camerone reunite at the Project Runway Showcase at the Fox Theatre.  Korto’s work and  the work of fellow Runway designers Bert Keeter, Daniel Esquivel, Mila Hermanovski and Peach Carr will be showcased. Hosting the show will be Camerone Parker wearing – you guessed it – that coat.


Camerone and her coat. Photo by Gillian Drummond.

Wearing it isn’t easy. The coat weighs 35 pounds. Camerone wears just a silk shift under the coat and never takes the coat off. It’s also unlined, still raw just as Korto created it. Camerone attached a large strip of bandage to the inside of the neck so it wouldn’t rub.

But the garment has a following all of its own. Every time Camerone tweets a photo of her in the coat there is mass retweeting.

“It’s like I’m following this coat,” laughs Korto of meeting up with her creation again in Tucson. Camerone may have to watch out. Says Korto: “I might steal it from her when she’s not looking.”

But actually she needn’t worry. Camerone says the coat and Korto are already conjoined. “I made a promise to Korto that if something happened to me, the coat will go back to her.”

* See Camerone, Korto and other Project Runway designers at the Project Runway Showcase, October 18th at Fox Tucson Theatre. Tickets and more info here.  



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