Coming into Fashion

Carol Hannah Whitfield '07, CofC alumna
by Lindsey Jones ’05

photography by Jörg Meyer

Carol Hannah Whitfield ’07 rose from relative anonymity to full-blown stardom on one of cable television’s top competition reality shows.

Do you know about Carol Hannah’s sweet tooth?” calls out fellow designer Logan Neitzel. “She likes cookies.”

“Does she eat cookies while she’s making dresses?” I ask, only half joking.

“Nooooo,” says Carol Hannah Whitfield ’07, who has me on her pink BlackBerry’s speakerphone while she packs up a dress in her New York City studio. I can hear rustling fabric, and I suddenly envision her – straight pins clenched in her teeth, a white dress in one hand and an Oreo in another. Yikes!

“People are going to start looking for cookie crumbs in their dresses,” says Logan. Carol Hannah groans, and I know she’s probably rolling her eyes.

Truth is, Carol Hannah is way too cautious to let her dresses get sullied by cookies – or by anything else, for that matter. But, even if she weren’t, there are a lot of people out there who probably wouldn’t mind finding a few crumbs in their dresses, as long as it proved the garments had been custom designed and custom made by the Carol Hannah Whitfield, a top-three finalist on the sixth season of Project Runway.

Now in its seventh season, the popular reality TV show pits fashion-designer hopefuls against one another in a grueling, months-long competition for an editorial feature in Marie Claire magazine, an all-expenses-paid trip for two to Paris and $100,000 to start a clothing line.

Carol Hannah Whitfield '07, CofC alumnaAs one of the three finalists chosen out of 16 designers (including Logan, with whom she and another contestant, Epperson, opened a studio in Manhattan last November) to show a complete collection at Bryant Park during New York Fashion Week, Carol Hannah made it through the entire sixth season of the show – making a name for herself in the world of design, not to mention in living rooms across the country.

And while reality TV viewers love to hate the typically vain and over-the-top Project Runway contestants, Carol Hannah – with her goofball antics (airplaning around the workroom), Southern drawl (during one episode, supermodel host Heidi Klum blurted out, “Did you just say y’all?”) and clever but gracious wit – made that difficult for the Season 6 audience. In fact, she was the type of character viewers love to love – quirky, yet astonishingly talented.

All Sewn Up
I was in college, rooming in a downtown apartment with Rachel Whitfield ’05, when I realized that her younger sister, Carol Hannah, was going to be famous.

I wasn’t the only one. Anyone who peeked inside her Rutledge Avenue apartment knew this sprightly blonde was uncommon. Where most college girls have futons and desks, Carol Hannah had an industrial sewing machine and a dress form named “Nonny.” And – instead of the trendy, mass-produced clothes that hang in most college girls’ closets – Carol  Hannah’s closets were filled with custom-designed dresses she’d sewn from fabric that she chose herself.

It’s no wonder people were constantly telling her she should go on Project Runway. She clearly had what it takes. (“I used to watch the show with my sister and best friend and yell at the TV because I thought I could do better,” she admits.) She may have been “just” a sales clerk making minimum wage at the Banana Republic on King Street, but we all knew she’d be famous one day.

Of course, my roommates and I thought Carol Hannah becoming a world-renowned fashion designer was our idea. It wasn’t.

It was Carol Hannah’s idea. OK, maybe not the world-renowned part. But she’d wanted to be a fashion designer ever since she started sewing dresses for her Barbie dolls at age 7. By middle school, she had moved up – making clothes for actual people – and, by high school, she’d progressed to prom dresses.

Yet, when it was time for the Anderson, S.C. native to start thinking about her future – which almost certainly would involve fashion design – she opted for the traditional university experience.

“I thought about going to design school for a little while, but decided against it because I didn’t want to pay so much money for a piece of paper that said that I could do what I already knew how to do,” she says. Besides, she points out, “What good is talent if you can’t make a successful business out of it?”

With that in mind, she headed to the College, where she majored in business and minored in marketing and studio art.

Her professors quickly saw that Carol Hannah was talented – even though she mostly kept to herself, quietly assured.

Carol Hannah Whitfield '07, CofC alumna“She had a lot of depth and a lot of substance, but she was sort of shy,” says Sarah Frankel, associate drawing professor, who led Carol Hannah’s independent study in fashion drawings. “As I got to know her, I got to know her sense of humor, and she developed a really, really lovely confidence.”

It was that confidence that spurred her to enter Charleston Fashion Week’s Emerging Local Designers Competition just months after graduating. It was her talent and her vision, however, that won her a spot on the CFW runway. As one of six finalists, she created a whimsical, colorful collection of cocktail dresses, and it was met with glowing enthusiasm.

Incidentally, the experience left her with everything she needed to audition for Project Runway: plenty of clothing samples, a reassured belief in herself, and an audition tape that captured her personality, her design process and her aesthetic.

“In Charleston, there are a lot of things that are very flowing and very organic right next to things that are very hard and very solid, so my pieces are all a reflection of that,” she explains in the video before it cuts to a clip of her biking on the Battery, and she concludes, “That’s it.”

And, with that, she takes off.

College Chic No More
Carol Hannah stood before the judges in her self-made dress. She’d made it through the first round of auditions, and she was in her casting session, showing the judges some of her favorite pieces and calmly answering their questions. When asked if the collection was from her senior project in design school, Carol Hannah laughed: “Oh, I went to school for business!”

That – along with her composure and, most importantly, her workmanship – made an impression. Three weeks later, she got the call. She was going to be on Project Runway. The only problem? She had to keep the news to herself. Aside from her parents, sister and one friend, no one else could know the outcome of the audition. That meant she had to lie, sometimes dozens of times a day.

“I lied to almost every person I know,” she recalls.

I, for one, have an e-mail exchange in my inbox from November 2008 that abruptly ended as soon as I’d asked, “What ever happened with Project Runway?”

Little did I know, Carol Hannah had wrapped up pre-finale filming just a month before. Her excuse for being MIA – that she had moved to New York – was only partly true. She had moved, but she had also spent several of those missing months filming the show in Los Angeles. In fact, she hadn’t moved to New York until after the finalists were chosen – at which point she had three months to create an original collection to show at Bryant Park, New York’s fashion mecca.

Carol Hannah Whitfield '07, CofC alumnaOn top of that pressure – and the pressure of keeping her life on the QT – Carol Hannah was fretting that it was all for nothing, that the show might not even air due to a legal dispute between the show’s former network, Bravo, and its new network, Lifetime.

“While making the collection, I was truly terrified that I was wasting my time,” she admits. “I felt like a giant black cloud was sitting on my shoulder, and every time I read something about it, I freaked out. I don’t know how I would have reacted if the show never aired. That would have been tough – to do something so difficult and do well and not be able to tell anyone? No thank you!”

And if she did tell? If she let the secret slip to just one other person? According to her contract, she would owe Lifetime one million dollars. It was definitely an incentive to keep the secret – and it might not have been a big deal if the show had aired when it was scheduled to, shortly after it was filmed. But, even after the finalists had completed their collections and shown them at Bryant Park, the show didn’t see the light of day until almost a year later.

Eventually, however, the wait was over. The legal dispute was resolved, and finally Carol Hannah could make her life-altering announcement.

“Dear everyone, Sorry I lied to you for a year. Love, Carol Hannah,” read her July 9, 2009 Facebook status, which included a link to Lifetime’s announcement of Project Runway’s Season 6 cast. The word was out: Carol Hannah Whitfield was on the show.

It was an exciting time and, in the days to follow, Carol Hannah’s Facebook status updates included, “Maybe I should get a TV,” “I’m in People magazine. Weird!” and “Carol Hannah is, yes, very excited about being on Project Runway. But can we please talk about the more important fact that Harry Potter comes out in less than a week?!”

The importance of the exposure she was about to get didn’t quite sink in until August 20, 2009, when 4.2 million viewers tuned in for the season premier of Project Runway. Still, footage of Carol Hannah was relatively sparse in the first few episodes: Show after show, she seemed to lurk somewhere in the background until the end of the hour, when a model in a splendidly draped gown would sashay down the runway and the camera would cut to its designer’s self-assured smile.

She may not have had formal training or a ton of experience, but Carol Hannah had what it takes: confidence. She knew she could do this. And she did.

Tailor-Made Success
Since the show, Carol Hannah has sold dresses faster – much faster – than she can make them. In fact, she gets so many orders through her website, she recently began using a factory to keep up with the demand so that every minute of her day isn’t spent sewing.

When she’s not sewing, she’s making patterns, packing and shipping, picking up fabric, updating her retailers, consulting with clients, giving interviews and doing photo shoots – and mixing it up every so often with an impromptu bout of break dancing. In her free time, she scans blogs and fashion sites to keep on top of trends and answers e-mails (“so many e-mails!”) on the subway – and somehow she finds time to train for the marathon she’s running this spring. She usually makes it to bed around 2 or 3 a.m.

Which is precisely why Carol Hannah and her studio-mate Logan are such frequent patrons to Cupcake Café, a spot around the corner where they draw another hour’s sustenance from cup after cup of Americana.

“We pretty much live off coffee,” says Logan, adding that Carol Hannah usually supplements her hot beverage with one of the café’s ornate, flowery cupcakes. “I don’t know if anyone knows this, but she’s this little 100-pound girl with the appetite of a 400-pound girl.”

Carol Hannah Whitfield '07, CofC alumnaShe may be a little girl, but she’s not shying away from the big world of fashion – or from the Big Apple. Although she originally moved to New York “for the fabric,” Carol Hannah has since fallen in love with the city, and plans to stick around indefinitely.

“I love the diversity and the architecture and the fact that you can get the best pizza you’ve ever had in your life at 4 a.m.,” she writes on her blog, although she admits, “I had no idea what the word cold actually meant in South Carolina.”

Carol Hannah is heading back down to the Palmetto State in March to judge the very competition that led to her success – the Emerging Local Designers Competition at Charleston Fashion Week, where she will also debut her new bridal line.

“It made sense to me to go back to where I started, to launch this line from home,” she says.

It also makes sense that, the day after the CFW runway show, she will have a trunk show at Maddison Row, the chic bridal boutique on Spring Street where she worked as a bridal consultant just two short years ago. It’s hard to believe, but very soon, her own gowns will be on display among the designers’ dresses she used to sell: Vera Wang, Carolina Herrera and Monique Lhuillier.

Despite the perks of her success – the all-expenses-paid jaunts to Dubai, the encounters with Christina Aguilera and Lindsay Lohan, the trips to the Emmys – Carol Hannah has managed to stay not just grounded, but radically humble and content.

“In the long run, it doesn’t take much to make me happy. As long as I can keep making my dresses, I am happy as a clam – and that’s a lot easier to do when 5 million people aren’t watching. My life is not about TV or being the center of attention – or,” she laughs, “being fabulous,” adding that, although she’s grateful for the Project Runway experience, she’s even more “grateful to know the difference between reality TV and reality.”