Each season, 15 designers compete for the chance to showcase their designs at New York's Fashion Week and to win $100,000 to fund their businesses. The competition takes place on the Emmy-winning Project Runway, a reality show all about discovering the next great American fashion designer.
For its contestants, the show means exposure, if not always the prize money or thrill of being on TV. “Exposure is really one of the most critical elements in getting a company off the ground,” explains Victorya Hong, a Season Four designer who managed to launch her label, na.be, at New York Fashion Week, the same week her elimination episode aired. For Season Two finalist, Daniel Vosovic, the reality of having made a name on the show opened up opportunities that just aren’t available to his more qualified, but less famous friends, many of whom have had trouble landing jobs. For example, he recently launched a line of uniforms and handbags for NYLO Hotel, all before ever designing a collection under his own name.
While the show’s popularity proves the designers’ potential, it can only go so far in turning unknowns into household names. Whether that name recognition translates into sales and a viable business is anybody’s guess, but determined alums like Zulema Griffin, Kendra Francis, Kit Pistol, Vosovic and Hong are not leaving their careers to chance. In fact, they have found creative uses of Web 2.0 technologies to build on their hard-earned fame.ZulemaTube
"My mother taught us to fight through adversity, to never give up," says Griffin. The Season Two designer's mom suddenly passed away in late December, just as Griffin was preparing for her February runway show. She knew she had to find a way to show her collection despite her loss.
With just two-and-a-half weeks and hardly any money left after her mother's funeral, Griffin turned to the Web. Using her wife's film industry connections and her sister's tech know-how, she took her fashion show online.
The show, a polished and politically charged video entitled, Revelations, was created as low-budget as one can go. "It should have cost $5,000 to make -- in fact, that was the budget -- but we managed to do it for $200," she says. She saved by sourcing experienced African-American models through Craigslist and ModelMayhem . Fortunately, the models were willing to work just for the exposure. She was also able to call in favors for the post-production work on the video.
As a marketing strategy, Griffin cross-promoted the clip on social media sites, like YouTube  and MySpace  as well as her personal website . The show was also posted to relevant fashion and Runway fan blogs, receiving kudos for finding a new method for bringing a runway show to the masses.
Griffin's innovative idea also caught the attention of merchandisers, who like to see collections up close. She's now putting together a viewing for those merchandisers to turn interest into sales. "It's about breaking through the clutter. As long as the online fashion show complements a more traditional showing, and the video quality reflects the target retailer's values, doing so could only help emerging designers," Says Alice Demirjian, the director of fashion marketing at Parsons The New School for Design.Ms. Network
Since ditching MySpace  for Facebook , Francis, a designer from the premiere season of Project Runway Canada, hasn’t looked back. Between selling out her spring samples in 15 minutes and meeting both her photographer and makeup artist for her Spring 2008 collection online, she has found the social networking site indispensable for her business. “It’s so easy to use. I’ve created a group and everyone from fans, friends, and models has been reaching out to me," she says. The designer also discovered the promotional benefits of Facebook, “Whenever I have an event, I just post it on my page and everyone connected to my group receives an e-mail about it. I can reach so many people so quickly,” Francis adds.
She even sold out her samples from last year on the networking site. "I wanted to get rid of my spring 2007 samples last year so I put them on Facebook's Marketplace. They were gone in 15 minutes," she recalls.
As convenient as it is to connect with industry professionals online, Francis still prefers meeting them in person so she can better assess and develop a rapport with her collaborators.Brand Maven
Fresh from the recently wrapped fourth season, Kit Pistol is eager to capitalize on the buzz surrounding the show. She subtly pushed her brand throughout the season.
Currently a stylist for E! Entertainment, Kit Pistol wore a bow in her hair on every episode. "Each episode was essentially a commercial for the designers so I wanted to make the show work for me," she says. The signature look is from her line of hair accessories retailing at the upscale Fred Segal boutique and on her website . In selling her products directly to her fans, Kit not only gets to know her customer, she also has an easier time converting her accessory customers to private customers. But sales on her online store still do not compare with having a traditional retail presence, which is why her schedule is packed with in-store appearances to further boost her products’ profile. (She keeps track of her meet-and-greets through her blog .)BlogStars
Since his elimination from the show in 2006, Vosovic has been blogging for both BravoTV.com  and OutzoneTV , as well as his personal blog on MySpace. From dissecting the latest trends to dishing on the latest Project Runway episode, his posts read like a knowledgeable yet approachable friend. His blogging efforts -- not his designing efforts -- prompted art book publisher Watson-Guptill to tap the designer to write Fashion Inside Out: From Inspiration to Runway and Beyond. This book will offer a behind-the-scenes look at how Vosovic’s first collection will evolve from conception to customer.
As much as he enjoys expressing himself through blogs, the designer says he has found it tricky to promote his work online. "Blogging on a regular basis is definitely time consuming. I also have a feeling that my fans care more about my personality than my work," he says.
A designer who could benefit from revealing her personality online, Hong was the designer that viewers loved to hate on Season Four. Up until a month ago, she expressed ambivalence about using tools like MySpace to extend her brand. Now she's regularly blogging  on her own recently relaunched website .
With her collection already featured at the Lori Schwarz Showroom in New York, Hong is still flooded with e-mails from fans looking to purchase her designs. To meet demand, the designer will be offering her Spring 2008 pieces directly to customers through an upcoming online store. Yet, the designer believes in building her business the old fashioned way, by meeting people at events, creating runway shows, and establishing presence in showrooms. Her online branding efforts are just an extension of how she uses traditional methods.
Obtaining exposure for any fashion designer can be challenging, even for Project Runway alums. The trick is maintaining brand recognition once your name is no longer on the little screen. After all, "The fashion industry operates in such a way that it is very difficult for people to be successful, so it is up to emerging designers like myself to create non-traditional avenues to enter the market," Griffin explains. Demirjian agrees that maintaining an online presence is essential for up-and-comers, but she cautions that going digital is not a replacement for becoming established the old school way -- attending tradeshows and showing in showrooms.