By Jason McDowell Creative Director Published Oct 16, 2009 at 8:05 AM

Ra'mon-Lawrence Coleman's life has gotten a little more busy lately. Coleman earned a chance to participate on Lifetime's hit series "Project Runway," a fashion design reality competition. But while he was eliminated after only six rounds, he still managed to impress the judges on several rounds, even winning one, all the while maintaining a genuine attitude. Now he's in Milwaukee.

Tonight, he'll be showing his 2010 collection at the fifth annual "RunUp to the Runway," an event sponsored by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra League's Evening Associates in collaboration with the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Coleman will appear along with designers Shannon Le Molter and Miranda Levy, Project InterCon and a bevy of local boutiques.

In addition to fashion, the Milwaukee Art Museum will be making available "Andy Warhol: The Last Decade," which showcases the artist's late and most prolific period to attendees.

We got a chance to sit down and talk with Ra'mon-Lawrence Coleman about brain surgery, "Project Runway," and whether or not there are cheese hats in his future. So you were born in Chicago, went to school in Iowa, lived in Minneapolis and now you're living in Milwaukee, correct?

Ra'mon-Lawrence Coleman: That is correct. That is a very abridged version of my time line, but yeah, that's right.

OMC: Oh right, you traveled around the world, too. So what is it about the Midwest that you like?

RLC: Well, I've lived in other major metropolitan cities in the U.S. and abroad. Being a Midwesterner myself holds appeal to come back here. One, the nostalgia; my family is here and my roots are here. And two, as it relates to fashion, people tend to think the most influential driving elements of fashion originate in places like New York and L.A. I really find that to be... the exact opposite. The designers that are based there tend to look at other places for sources of inspiration. So the great thing about Chicago, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee is that there is a striving independent scene and a true rawness for art, whether it's fashion or different medias like painting and music that truly give you a view of what the future is gonna be. The great thing about being back here is that I get to witness that and also be a creator in it.

OMC: Before you were a designer, you were going to be a neurosurgeon. How did you make that leap?

RLC: Not so gracefully, to be sure! [laughs] I went to Iowa to go to medical school, I completed a year, with the goal to become a neurosurgeon. Through the whole exploration of medicine, I kept thinking to myself this was something I could be great at but was wondering could I wake up every day and say 'I am so passionate about this; this is the only thing I can think of doing?'" The answer for me was "No." Before even going down that path, I'd always been a very theatrical child involved in the arts so in my heart I knew I wanted to do something in the performing arts. So after leaving Iowa, I decided to go to the School of the Art Institute. While I was there, I was in the performing arts program and part of that was exploring costume design. They have a formal costume design program, but they have a fashion department. So I thought that if I learned the basics of fashion, I'd be able to reinterpret that into costume design on my own. After going through one class in the program I just thought "This is it." It clicked immediately. It felt right. Every day there was a new exploration I was really excited about. My heart felt like this was what I was supposed to be doing.

OMC: So you hadn't designed clothes before then?

RLC: No. Not before then. Never sewn. Never draped. Never designed anything.

OMC: How did your family react to the switch?

RLC: They were none to happy, I'll tell you that. There's always that prestige of being able to say "My son is a doctor." [Laughs] I gave up a whole scholarship. And I willingly gave up a concrete future for more of an unknown future. We perceive the arts as a bit of a risky career versus something in medicine where you're more stable. So my parents weren't really happy but eventually when they actually saw that it was not just a dream and that I actually had talent they came around. Now my mom is like my number one fan and she wants to be my manager someday.

OMC: You worked for Target for a little while?

RLC: Yep. I worked for Target for five years. I designed Mossimo, their classic, more contemporary line and partnered with a couple other brands under that label, too.

OMC: Did you get a chance to express yourself through their clothes or was there a "Target Aesthetic" that you had to stick to?

RLC: The thing about my foray into mass market is that -- first of all everything a designer does will have their stamp in it -- but really for mass market it was more important for me to stick to the identity of what those brands stood for. It teaches you how to be a better designer because the future of fashion isn't necessarily dictated by the catwalk or the runway. It's moreso about what really works for the mass market. The beauty of what I do under my own label, the Ra'mon-Lawrence line, is design something that is very conceptual or very high end that will retail anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars and then be able to take that and then translate that same passion and that same eye for detail to the mass market and resell it for under a hundred dollars...that is the testament of a true designer. That's what I do on a daily basis. I think that's what the future of fashion is all about.

OMC: Since you've been working with these mass-market companies creating very wearable clothes do you plan on working in the more conceptual, catwalk areas of fashion? What does mass market bring that conceptual doesn't? Or vice versa?

RLC: There will always be a commonality between the two because mass market is always taking from high end. The difference truly is execution. You might do an exotic feather or fur or leather, something high end but then reinterpret that into a feather print, a faux fur, or poly urethane that looks like leather. It's the same inspiration but it's done in a way so that you can buy into that trend. To make it even more clear: what you see on the runway, there are only a select few people who have the disposable income to afford that. There are people who look at Vogue, In Style, Marie Claire that want that same aesthetic but can't afford it. That's where mass market comes in. The average person, whether they're from Milwaukee or Idaho or wherever, they might have $15 in their pocket left over from their paycheck and you know they want fashion in their lives probably even more than the person who has three thousand dollars that they can just throw away.

OMC: I can definitely understand that. So how about some "Project Runway" gossip? When I see the assignments that are handed out on the show, such as the paper outfit project or only having a half an hour to up with at a design, I'm immediately at a loss of ideas...

RLC: You're at a loss? You're at a loss?!? [Laughs]

OMC: It's hard to comprehend a pair of socks, let alone an entire outfit. I don't understand how you make it work.

RLC: You can look at it a couple of ways. It's a reality competition show. So there's parameters to it that are designed to make it a little more challenging. In the real world, if I wanted to make a dress out of paper I dictate the time limit. I dictate all the materials I can use. I dictate the number of versions... I have control over the whole process. On the show we don't have that luxury. The show itself has a variable that makes every challenge a little bit unrealistic. That aside everyone on the show handled the challenges based off of their personal experiences. For me, when I found out we had the paper challenge I was like "This is perfect because I was trained at an Art School. I know what it's like to work with mixed media and unconventional material." So immediately I had a ton of different ideas. Regardless of that you have to trust your gut instinct because of the time restrictions or the materials you're forced to work with. But to answer your question, going into each challenge, when they made the announcement, I didn't think "Oh, I'm gonna do this." It takes a while for me to really come up with a solid concept. Mostly I based it off the material. The way I work, once I find a fabric that I love, I let the fabric guide me.

OMC: Your familiarity with paper gave you an advantage during that challenge. But do you feel like that familiarity with science fiction came back to bite you on your final project, the Sci- Fi costume? Did your concept get muddled up with all of the possibilities presented in that genre?

RLC: First of all, yes I am a sci-fi geek and I have no problem admitting that. But for that outfit, I immediately had an idea of how to take a design to the next level from a previous challenge, but I had to use specific materials which I had remembered seeing before. But sometimes they remove fabric from the store or sometimes they sell out, so the fabric I wanted was no longer available. So instead of scrapping the idea, finding new fabric and coming up with a new concept I stuck with the idea because it was a one-day challenge. Then I gave myself two hours at the end to come up with something new. Ultimately THAT was probably my downfall. Sometimes when you're in this competition you want to design a little bit too much and you miss the obvious. And again, it goes back to the reality of the situation. You can only do the best that you can with the situation that you're given. I don't regret any decision that I made leading up to that. One thing that is true to me, and I don't think anyone can deny it, is that I'm not a safe designer. In this season they pushed innovation and overall I felt there were very few people that were truly innovative. I really wish the channel was in HD because it's easier to see the details; there were a lot of safe designers in this season. Ultimately, I thought of myself deserving to be in the final three, as did many people on the show and across the country. But I went out honest to who I am and it's even more rewarding that I didn't lose sight of that.

OMC: Do you agree with the choices that the judges are making? I saw designs that I thought looked wonderful and the judges would hate it. Or they would love something that I couldn't stand.

RLC: There are cases where I do agree and obviously, including myself, cases where I don't. One problem was that there was no continuity. There was such a constant switching of judges that they didn't see how people were evolving. They don't see where the designers were consistent, or how they were becoming stronger, and they have no reference of the designer's previous work. That was a disservice to all of us. Then there's also personal taste. When you have a challenge where there is a starlet or a costume designer judging there's always their perspective of "If I had to do this, this is what I would have done." So everyone has their level of what they personally love. The great thing about having stronger, consistent and, in some cases, judges who are not necessarily in the field of the competition that they're given is that they can be a little bit less biased.

OMC: I noticed that when one judge loves something, they all love it and when one hates something they'll all agree. I'm surprised that there aren't more arguments or real discussions.

RLC: Huh, yeah that's true. Another thing to look at, and I want to be respectful, obviously, is the caliber of judges. I questioned the validity of the credentials of the people who are coming on to judge. It's still is very fascinating to see the different types of judges they're having as guests. This season also had that connection to the beauty of L.A. instead of New York, where previous seasons were filmed. L.A. is very different than New York because New York is very much about the runway and the industry. L.A. touches upon the other part of fashion; the red carpet, costume design, entertainment, art. So that's probably why they're bringing in this array of judges. I just wish there was a little bit more consistency. It would be more fair to the designers and the audience.

OMC: OK, enough of that drama. What's the new Ra'mon-Lawrence Coleman collection gonna look like?

RLC: I just showed the Ra'mon-Lawrence collection in New York and I will be giving that same presentation on Friday at the Milwaukee Art Museum as part of Milwaukee Style Weekend with several new additions that no one has ever seen. The new additions will be very conceptual art focused with a slight Warhol influence, so it's also a celebration of the Warhol exhibit currently showing at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The thing about this collection is that it is truly the most wearable collection that I have put out. It rings very true to who I am as a designer. There will be very conceptual elements. It's very print driven. There will be lots and lots of color, which is different for me. I feel like given what's going on in our economy, people are really hungry for color. I really wanted to give a happy, uplifting collection. There are a lot of interesting details, but overall it's extremely wearable. It's womenswear and people will be blown away by the menswear.

OMC: What fashion choices would you like to see in Milwaukee and which would you like to see leave Milwaukee?

RLC: The one thing I always love is people who are risk takers; I would like to see more of that. It's an opportunity for people to step out of their comfort zone. I like it when people mix silhouettes and then mix textures and prints. That can happen a lot more here. People who aren't afraid to step out of the mold. One thing that should go away is head-to-toe denim. And as much as I like plaid I'd like to see a different pattern out there. And people have to be more comfortable and confident in their body types and knowing what's right for you. You can be conservative but you can also be well fit. People bypass a garment that fits them well for something that's trendy but you can find a balance between the two. That is most important.

OMC: So you're fine with the cheese hats then?

RLC: Y'know, I'm not gonna step on that, because I'm down with anybody that has hometown pride. I have hometown pride in Chicago, so I find it amusing. As long as you rock it with confidence it's OK with me.

OMC: Anything else?

RLC: Yeah, I'm gonna be a stronger presence in the Milwaukee art fashion community so you'll be seeing more of me. There will also be a relaunch of my Web site, that will include an online store as well as some new capsule collections that I'm collaborating on with other artists and designers. As far as me as a personality everyone should keep an eye out because they'll see much more of me on television, too.

You can see more of Ra'mon-Lawrence Coleman before he hits the small screen (again) as he debuts his new collection this tonight at the Milwaukee Art Museum.


Jason McDowell Creative Director

Jason McDowell grew up in central Iowa and moved to Milwaukee in 2000 to attend the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

In 2006 he began working with OnMilwaukee as an advertising designer, but has since taken on a variety of rolls as the Creative Director, tackling all kinds of design problems, from digital to print, advertising to branding, icons to programming.

In 2016 he picked up the 414 Digital Star of the Year award.

Most other times he can be found racing bicycles, playing board games, or petting dogs.