Update: Viewers can watch Afa Ah Loo on the next "Project Runway" episode, which airs Thursday, March 28.
SALT LAKE CITY — "Project Runway," newly returned to Bravo after 11 seasons on Lifetime, has entered season 17 and a Utah resident, Afa Ah Loo, survived another week to make more dresses on the long-time reality design competition show.
In the Thursday, March 21, episode, Ah Loo proved himself as someone to watch. He was a part of the highest scoring team and although Sebastian Grey's design took first prize, the judges loved Ah Loo's look.
Ah Loo, who now lives in Utah with his wife and daughter, grew up in Samoa. After showing his work at LA Fashion Week he stopped in Utah to visit his sister before going home. While visiting, he met his now-wife, Laura Ah Loo.
"I went back home to close my business and say my last farewells to my family at home and I moved back to Utah to marry my wife and live here," Ah Loo said. He's been working as a fashion designer in Utah ever since.
Becoming a "Project Runway"-worthy fashion designer hasn't been an easy journey, but Ah Loo had his mother's love and support the whole way. His first exposure to fashion was watching her sew throughout his childhood, although he didn't learn himself until high school.
"That's when I took home economics — not by choice — and that's where I kind of started learning how to sew," Ah Loo said. "I was so curious how clothes were put together. I was always turning clothes inside out and seeing how they were made."
He started making dresses for his little sister and made his first adult-sized dress as a gift for his mother's birthday. But for the most part, Ah Loo kept his love for sewing secret.
"I never told anybody other than my really close friends and my family that I knew how to sew, because in Samoa if a man sews then he is gay," he said. " … It was just one of those things that I was afraid of the misconception, of the judgment that came with people knowing I was doing something considered a woman's job … So I kind of hid it from a lot of people."
Ah Loo's mother was his biggest supporter. He said she always encouraged him to do what he loved no matter what other people thought. But it wasn't until after her death that Ah Loo started pursuing fashion as more than a hobby.
"I gave myself permission to really just go for it," Ah Loo said. "I realized that throughout her life, (my mom) was always encouraging me to live my best life. And to always be whoever I wanted to be and set no boundaries for myself. When she passed away … (I) went on my very first fashion show. And that's where it officially started, where I was really telling people 'I'm a fashion designer.'"
Since then, Ah Loo has established his own fashion company in Salt Lake City and is now a "Project Runway" contestant. When Ah Loo first applied for the season the show was still on Lifetime and he was turned down. However, after the show returned to Bravo he was sent an email inviting him to apply. At first, Ah Loo didn't trust the email because he had already been turned down. But after doing some research to find out if the show really had switched back to Bravo, he was excited to be on it.
Along with returning to Bravo, season 17 has a new host and show mentor; supermodel Heidi Klum and fan favorite Tim Gunn have not returned to Bravo with the show. American supermodel Karlie Kloss has replaced Klum as host, with season four winner Christian Siriano replacing Gunn as the contestants' mentor. There are also new faces on the judges panel this season: Fashion designer Brandon Maxwell and Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth have joined long-time "Project Runway" judge Nina Garcia, the creative director for Marie Claire.
Ah Loo thought the group did an excellent job stepping into their new roles.
"They gave great feedback and helpful feedback. Sometimes you don't agree with the feedback, but ah well, you're there to be judged, so it's fine," Ah Loo said. "I couldn't have asked for a better panel of judges."
Ah Loo was also hugely impressed by his fellow contestants. He said he's made close friends and learned from many of them. During the first runway show where the contestants showed their past work, Ah Loo was blown away by the other designers.
"I felt very blessed to be in this season because I felt like the competition was equal. There was no amateur person there. Everybody knew what they were doing and everybody brought their A game. … Of course, it was very competitive, but at the same time people were able to help each other and be in that collaborative space," Ah Loo said.
When it came to setting himself apart from the competition, Ah Loo focused on colorful and boldly patterned designs. He credits this style to his culture and upbringing in Samoa. Ah Loo also prides himself on designing clothes for everybody.
"There are a few other designers in the cast this season that design for every shape in body and that's the same with me too," Ah Loo said. "I'm very inclusive with my design, no matter what gender or size or shape or background or height or whatever. I design for everybody."
Ah Loo said "Project Runway" has pushed him as a designer and inspired him to think outside of the box. He learned many valuable skills he'll use on his next fashion show at the Gateway on April 13.
But one of the biggest things Ah Loo learned from "Project Runway" was to embrace differences.1 comment on this story
"Not everybody is going to agree with your point of view. Not everybody is going to love what you design or your artistic creations and that's OK. It's OK that people love different things," Ah Loo said. "That's what makes human beings unique is that all of us are different. All of us have different souls and artistic spirits. … That's really what I learned from 'Project Runway,' is that it's OK to be different."
"Project Runway" airs on Bravo on Thursdays, 6 p.m. MST.