If there’s one most beloved designer from the handful who’ve made it to Bryant Park via Project Runway fame, it is Chris March. That’s because he’s a hilarious, friendly, cuddly bundle of gay joy who can wield a drill and a glue gun as well as a sewing machine. Thankfully, the fashion bear is back with his own TV series, the soon-to-be Bravo hit Mad Fashion. Premiering tonight, Mad Fashion offers an up-close-and-personal look at March and his superqueer design team as they take fabulous projects from concept to creation each week, with guest stars like Jennifer Coolidge along for the ride.
March, whose career took off after he appeared on season 4 of Project Runway, also has a new book out. I Heart Chris March is photographic proof of the insane creativity of March, who spent a decade creating wigs and costumes for San Francisco’s famed Beach Blanket Babylon, the world’s longest-running musical revue. The book offers childhood Halloween photos, Project Runway creations, and everything in between.
The designer — who has worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, from Madonna to Beyoncé — has seen his work appear on Broadway, in Cirque du Soleil, and at Mardi Gras festivities as well as on the red carpet. We caught up with March, a part-time activist who also donates his time and designs to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, to find out about what makes Mad Fashion must-see TV.
The Advocate: I’m an old San Franciscan and I know you have a huge following there.
Chris March: Yes, I do! [Laughs]
Now that you’re in New York, how has that changed your fashion sense?
That is an interesting question. I live near the garment district. The New York world is definitely geared toward fashion. So many people work in the fashion industry, photography, all sorts of satellite businesses that have to do with it, so there’s no way that it can’t affect you, and it just kind of makes you think with more of a fashion edge. I work a lot more in fashion than I did in San Francisco, so it’s kind of exciting in that way too. All the opportunities I’ve had here I never would have had in San Francisco, so it’s definitely been a good thing for me.
Mad Fashion, which premieres tonight, is great. Did you have any trepidation about doing another reality show?
I had a little trepidation just until I found out the format of the show and what we would be doing. It’s kind of funny to me ... because I was on a competition show [Project Runway], which is very stressful and nerve-racking and stuff, I kept having to get used to the fact that my show was fun and that I wasn’t going to work every day competing with a bunch of people. It was a little bit different.
In the first episode you’re designing an outfit for shoe designer Ruthie Davis, but watching Matt and you drill and tear apart her shoes — it was so brutal.
[Laughs] Oh, well, I’m kind of surprised that people are sort of terrified at that part of the episode. That’s something that I do every day. I’ve had to cut into some very expensive items in my career; there just comes a point where you have to grit your teeth and do it and hope that you don’t make a mistake.
How do your clients react to that, usually?
Well, that’s one of the reasons that they hire me, actually, because they know I can work with that kind of stuff and do a good job with it. She was not exactly into the idea of wearing the shoes at first and then we kind of talked her into it. I just thought that it made it a much more fashionable look than just gluing shoes onto her outfit.
So that’s why we had to hack into it and make some changes and add some spikes and some glitter.
And in the end she was thrilled.
I was kind of thrilled at how great she looked, I had no idea, because you know we don’t really get to see it all together at one time until she puts it on at the end. I got to see it the first time everybody else did, so it was really exciting.
Is it important for you to challenge your clients’ comfort zones? Or is that just a by-product of what you do?
I think that’s a good way to put it — it is a by-product of what I do because most people aren’t quite as outrageous or have quite as outrageous as a sensibility as I do. But I also don’t want to make people feel ridiculous, so I try to get a good sense of ... what they’re comfortable with and maybe what they’re comfortable with but they’re not exactly telling you. So that you can kind of give them the right outfit that makes them have this tremendous experience that they never even thought of. It’s easy to be safe, but it’s more fun to be outrageous. So I try to work within those lines.
You designed a Mardi Gras float ensemble for Jennifer Coolidge. Is that one of the episodes?
Yes, that is one of our episodes. I don’t know how much I’m supposed to say. We got a call from Jennifer Coolidge. She lives part-time in New Orleans. She has this fabulous, huge mansion there, and she was chosen to be the celebrity queen of the Orpheus parade, which is one of the biggest parades there during Mardi Gras. And she called us on a Thursday and she needed the outfit by Monday afternoon.
Oh, my gosh.
So I’ll just leave it at that. It was a very, very fun episode. And Jennifer Coolidge was incredibly fun to work with. It’s probably my favorite episode.
She’s hilarious, so I can imagine how fun it is between the two of you.
Oh, my gosh, you can’t imagine how funny she is in person. I was unprepared. I haven’t seen the episode — I’ve only seen the first episode. So I don’t know what stuff is on and what doesn’t [make it], but she’s so funny, and she’s so tall and beautiful, and she just has this great imposing kind of comical presence. She was very nice.
Speaking of tall and imposing beautiful women, you’ve designed for some really big names in recent years, including Madonna, Prince, Beyoncé. Do you have a favorite?
Your Meryl Streep dress was relatively understated by Chris March standards.
Well, see, that’s the thing: I have many different gears for designing, and when Meryl Streep calls you up and says she wants a kind of updated Hollywood glamour gown for the Academy Awards, you don’t make her a sequined drag queen outfit [Laughs]. You make her what she wants. I definitely have a huge interest in that kind of fashion as well; it’s just that people often don’t give me the opportunity to do that. She had seen my collection at Bryant Park when I was on Project Runway, and she thought that I could make her something that she would look really great in, and she trusted me to do it. Luckily it turned out really well, because she was fantastic to work with and it was such an exciting experience.
Meryl made all the best-dressed lists that night.
Yeah, that was the best part, because boy, you’d hate to crash and burn. I think a lot of people were shocked when they heard her say my name on the red carpet. I ran into Michael Kors and he said that he was watching and he was like, “Who designed that dress?” and he said that when he heard my name he literally screamed out loud. He was so happy that I’d made this beautiful dress, because it is a tough thing to do. The entire world has their eyes on their work, and if they don’t like it you’re in big trouble.
You came of age as a designer doing these really outrageous costumes for Bleach Blanket Babylon, which you did for a decade, right?
Yeah, I worked there for 10 years. We actually do make something for Beach Blanket on the show.
Does your experience there continue to influence your work?
Boy, it’s definitely where I learned a lot of the crazy skills that I have: Where I learned about making giant head pieces, where I learned a lot about different materials, how to use them and everything. So I always feel like it’s always in the back of my mind like a foundation of everything that I do. But that was a long time ago, and I have grown and learned and worked with a lot of different people since then, and I think that is one of the fun things about the show, is that we make some more legitimate things, but we give them this crazy spin or edge like we’re going to make someone this glamorous cocktail dress but make it out of something that nobody would ever imagine we would make something out of. And you can’t tell what it is until you get up close to it or until somebody tells you. And that’s one of the fun things that’s different about our show than just some other plain old fashion shows. We’re a little crazy.
It’s nice to see that you’ll be able to use these kinds of skills in a way that you really couldn’t on Project Runway. On Project Runway those skills were often seen as a limitation: “Don’t get too costumey, Chris.”
Yes, exactly. Boy, if I have to hear that word one more time in my life. One of the funny things they did say on one of the very last episodes that I was on was that a lot of great costume designers have become great fashion designers as well. So I kind of like to have my feet in both worlds. Sometimes I just do costumes, sometimes I just do fashion, and sometimes I blend the two. I think we definitely blend the two on Mad Fashion, but we definitely are along the fashion world because that is what people call me up and ask me to make for them.
You have an unusual habit of signing Stevie Nicks on every outfit you do somewhere. What’s the meaning behind the Stevie Nicks signature?
[Laughs] That’s a very funny thing they wanted to capture. It’s a funny kind of superstition that I guess started about 20 years ago. I had a photo of Stevie Nicks in my workshop that we put on the ceiling above our work area and we always just had this joke that Stevie Nicks was looking down on us and blessing everything that we did. So one day I wrote her name inside of something I made because I was having a particularly difficult time with it and I was like, “Oh, I hope Stevie helps me with this thing,” and we just started doing it. We started writing her name inside of everything that I’ve made for the last 20 years. And I’m a huge fan of hers, and in fact in two weeks I’m going to see her and I’ve got tickets in the front row center — finally.
Between Project Runway and Mad Fashion, you are now a reality TV maven. Do you get groupies? Do you get hit on all the time now?
Just walking down the street every day I get stopped by people all day long. People want to just say hello or tell me how much they liked me on television or how much they liked the human hair, of course, that I had in my finale collection. And also, now everybody comes up to me and says, “Oh I can’t wait for your show.” So it’s nice, everybody’s very nice and very fun, and people want to take my picture and all that kind of stuff. So it’s something that is an everyday part of my life now. I don’t know what I would do without it. [Laughs]
Has it affected your dating? Are you married? Single?
It’s kind of funny, because the way that I met my boyfriend was because he saw me on Project Runway and sent me an email. And I answered it, and we met, and we’ve been together ever since: four years.
Congratulations. A lot of people would send an email to somebody they saw on TV, and it would go nowhere.
I know. Not that I’m bragging or anything, because I was shocked, but I literally got hundreds of emails from people during my time on Project Runway asking me out on dates. I had no idea that people would even care. And his was the only one that I answered, out of all of them.
Your design team seems equally queer. Is anybody on the team actually straight?
Oh, yeah, well wait, I want to hear your opinion. What do you think of everybody?
I loved it. We were watching, and I was like, “Matt is clearly gay, Alex is clearly gay. Izzy looks like she’s a lesbian,” I’m assuming the young girl is straight. I just kept watching and trying to peg everybody, and I was just like, “I don’t care, the whole team just seems superqueer and I love it.”
Oh, Izzy is totally straight.
No way, really?
Izzy is ... a gay man trapped in a woman’s body. Because she’s worked in theater her entire life, so all her friends are gay. She has a total gay man sensibility, but she’s not a lesbian at all. She loves men; she’s just kind of one of the gay guys just like everybody else. But she’s really, incredibly talented and really fun to be around obviously.
What do you hope viewers will take away from Mad Fashion when it premieres?
I guess my main thing, or one of the main reasons I wanted to do the show, was to show that reality television doesn’t have to star people who are just nasty for a living. I want people to have fun watching the show because we’re having fun. And that’s really why we’re doing it.
I don’t think there was anything particularly snarky about the show at all.
Yeah, I mean we have fun with each other, but they’re not pointing a camera at us because we’re yelling and fighting and throwing drinks in each other’s faces. I wanted to have fun and show our creativity and that we just have a fun time in the workshop and that you can enjoy a show just to enjoy it rather than having to have a bunch of drama.
Tell me something about yourself that only gay folks would understand.
Well I probably have over a hundred pairs of high-heel shoes. I collect them. Over however many years, from like the mid ’80s on — yes, I’m that old — I’ve been in drag several times in my life and I collect a lot of stuff and I do have a lot of high-heel shoes that I’m sure a lot of people would be jealous about. [Laughs]
Do you still do drag now? Do you ever get behind the dress anymore?
Not as often as I used to, just because people want me to look the way I look, and for me to do drag I have to shave off my beard and it usually takes two to three weeks to grow it out the way I like it, so most places don’t like me to look different.
Now that you’re a star, you can’t do that.
There is one episode where I dress up, and they wanted me to shave, but I couldn’t shave. You’ll see.
You’re a hairy drag queen? Looking forward to it, then.