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Bishme Cromartie: ‘I don’t want to be known as a Project Runway winner forever’

By Alex Rees, CNN

(CNN) — Maybe it’s the ascendance of fast fashion or the increasing reach of industry conglomerates, often seen at the expense of smaller labels and independent creatives. It could be due to the frenetic turnover of brands and microtrends spinning amid social media-forward news cycles — what’s that old adage, “one day you’re in, and the next you’re out?” — or wider economic headwinds. Or perhaps it’s all of the above; 2023 is a challenging time to launch a career in fashion.

But for Bishme Cromartie, winner of the recent All Stars season of Bravo’s long-running fashion reality TV competition “Project Runway,” time is relative, history’s in the making — and the moment is now. “I’m one of those people that like to stay in the present,” Cromartie told CNN, “but I also like to travel to the future a little bit to see how I want things to look, so I’m already moving to get myself there.”

Speaking with CNN Style both before and after his “Project Runway” win and debut at New York Fashion Week debut, Cromartie discussed both the road behind him and what’s ahead, why reality TV was the right starting point and how he intends to make his mark in the fashion business. “I’ve just been training and preparing for this moment,” he explained. “I know I’m already there and I’m just catching the people up.”

Bishme Cromartie: The 16-year-old me is so happy right now: he always wanted to be on “Project Runway,” and he always wanted to showcase a collection at New York Fashion Week. (The 32-year-old me) today, I’m balancing both. I’m truly at a place where I’m like, ‘This is me and I want you guys to embrace it.’

“When I first went to Los Angeles, where my studio is currently based, no-one knew who I was. No one could pronounce my name properly — and now I’m working on video and movie sets. But I’m still pushing and showcasing to people that I want to convert being a “Project Runway” winner into a brand.

“Right now, it’s celebrate time, but I’m already in the group chat asking my team what can we do to keep the ball rolling. As there are only three of us, building out the team is vital, and I’m trying to decide whether to stay in Los Angeles or come to New York. I’m just trying to get my foot in the door so that I can keep running.

I’ve always had this game plan, and after I started saying what I would do, I started moving as if I was already doing it. (“Project Runway”) takes energy. It is like a bootcamp, but it’s also a cheat sheet for moving into the fashion industry. There’s going to be hard challenges, there’s going to be long days, there’s going to be critics. It’s funny because I used to love MySpace and AOL chatrooms and all that stuff. I’m good at trolling. The trollers can’t out-troll me. A lot of times people do try to bring you down, but it’s part of the game. It’s part of the fashion industry. You have to take that on.

And I don’t want to be known as a “Project Runway” winner forever. I’m giving myself a year to two (and then) I want to keep making grander and bigger things — far, far away from reality TV. I think the way you do that is being consistent.

One of my dreams has always been to be a creative director for another brand: I would love to be worrying about my collection debuting here at another New York Fashion Week and then having to fly out to Milan or Paris (for another show).

I think I had that prize money spent way before it even before the show even happened. I had a list of expenses. A lot of it will be going into building up the brand — manufacturing, product development, consumer research… I have to pace myself; I have so many ideas, and it’s like, ‘we’re not there yet.’ I have shoe ideas, bag ideas, I have ideas about how I can integrate AI into my runways. I can’t do it all, so right now, (my mantra) is to work with what I have — and also know that the funding will be coming bigger than what it is now. I remember times I didn’t even have what I have that!

Going through business meetings or getting feedback or told no over the past year, I’m just like, ‘well after, after the (show ends) you guys are gonna change your mind. Come back to me then and we’ll talk.’ And now I’m seeing these people who said ‘no’ call back and want to reschedule meetings. The buyers, the investors, they’re coming my way. But I also know how to negotiate and I want to make sure that I’m in the right thing — not taking all of the opportunities, but the right ones. I’ve been waiting a long time for this, but I know that you can f*ck it up really fast.

I have to remind myself that I’m already making an impact in the fashion community. Everything I’ve been doing until now I’ve learned from myself. I’m self-taught. I went to an inner city school in Baltimore; I was designing high school gowns while I was in the ninth grade. The first people who trusted my design eye were my community, my peers. The thing that helps me stay on track is that I know where I’m from and I know what I want to do to help those who may look like me and have the same dream they want to chase. How can I make it less hard for them?

If I can get here from where I’m from and the things I’ve learned, then anyone can. Honestly, you just have to keep going at it.

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