"No mustache!" I spouted off without thinking when Daniel Esquivel walked into our interview room with a clean-shaven face. The Project Runway season 11 finalist hailing from Austin became a fan favorite for his positive attitude, structural designs that balanced the fine line between young and old, and of course, the quirky facial hair.
But the adornment is no more: "It's all about a new chapter," he says as he warmly greets me with a hug.
Project Runway is a unique reality show in that contestants are not just trying to win a measly date or small sum of money — they're trying to set a high-end fashion career afloat. So within the confines of typecasting and tireless hours, each are challenged to create their personal best. Every episode.
Aside from a few inevitable emotional flare ups, Esquivel managed to keep his cool, sweetly — yet confidently — presenting his work to the judges, often while cooing in his Texas drawl, "Isn't that pretty? Isn't that cool?"
We spoke to him the day before Project Runway "Finale, Part 2" (Thursday, 8 p.m., Lifetime) and though he was voted off last week during "Finale, Part 1," we learned that he still showed at NYFW — and he considers that a victory, in and of itself. As we talk, he proudly parades a model around the room who tries on two dresses, letting us in on the rare, positively determined breed that is Daniel Esquivel.
CultureMap: So have you been in hiding, unable to emerge until you were officially off the show?
Daniel Esquivel: No, you know, coming back from being on the show was a reality check that no matter what the out come is — I'm still a winner either way. All I wanted to do was to show at NYFW by being on the show, and that's what happened.
"I am the same person on that show as I am sitting in this chair — I got real lucky. I think I was the luckiest one on the show."
CM: I know from covering NYFW, that eight designers show full collections at the Project Runway show in order to keep the media from finding out who wins before the show airs.
DE: And that's a blessing! Richard, Samantha, Amanda, Layana [and me] all showed. And of course Michelle, Stanley and Patricia were the finalists. All of us who didn't have our names out there [as finalists], we got a lot of [press] attention.
And it felt kind of cool, because my collection walked out first. When the producers told me that would happen, I was overwhelmed. I was like, "You know what, that's what I came here for!"
CM: Designers have to come up with new inspiration every season, year after year. Do you ever feel you're stretching to make something work?
DE: No. By having the opportunity to go to Germany [on episode 12], man, that just opened porthole in my head. I was so influenced by the architecture. What was cool was coming back to Austin to make it. Here, I was influenced by Nick Cave, who was showing "soundsuits" at AMOA-Arthouse.
I was also influenced by sci-fi. I'm a big science fiction fan, especially from the '50s. So, that was all the influence on the NYFW collection, called "The Cloning of Marina," after my model.
CM: What was it like have to produce actual work within an environment that's a television show?
DE: What people don't understand is that a lot of us got sick. I got emotional in the middle [of the season] because what people didn't know is that I was sick. It is hard and it takes a toll on your body, going to bed at midnight, getting up at 5 a.m. and working another 12 hours. It was day after day, but we did get a day off every now and then.
CM: Do you feel like people were forced into certain roles?
DE: YES. But you know, I am the same person on that show as I am sitting in this chair — I got real lucky. I think I was the luckiest one on the show.
To me, everybody else was portrayed a certain way where [producers] pushed it to the extreme — but some people were the same, naturally extreme. Everyone has the right to their own opinion, so I didn't really take to heart when people talked negatively of me.
CM: Having to work within that context is kind of mind-blowing. Was there just as much cast interaction when you were off camera?
DE: I roomed with Stanley, Tu and Richard, and we got along real well. Me and Richard really clicked after we roomed together for a while, and when we were supposed to be asleep, would stay up and talk about stuff we had in common. We had to entertain ourselves — we had no TV, no Internet, no nothing.
"It's OK to start, it doesn't matter how old you are. I'm going to be 50, and I'm so happy right now."
CM: Well that might have been why you got sick!
DE: I guess so! [Laughs]
CM: I have to ask you about the quote that was heard 'round Texas: Lifetime has quoted you as saying your dream place to work would be Dallas...
DE: I get a lot of flack for that! So this is what happened, it was an interview I did with Lifetime. The question on Lifetime was, "Where would you have your ideal place?" My answer was really long! I said it would be fun to work out of Austin but also use the resources in Dallas. They chopped to the answer "Dallas." I love Austin!
CM: In critiques, judges often said, "Oh, it's too old." Who do you think your client is?
DE: This is what I think [that reaction] was: I'm very minimalistic when it comes to jewelry and accessories. I don't do much of that, and I know [the judges] were going for a total look, but to me, less is more. I would take the suggestions of the hair and makeup people and the judges would criticize me, but I'm a gentleman and I wasn't going to stand on stage and say, 'The hair people..."
At that point, you're there on the runway, and I stood by everything that they did. I just learned to keep my mouth shut.
CM: You're clearly expanding rapidly — what's happening this summer?
DE: [Looks over at his business partner and asks, "Can I tell her?"]
I'm going to be working with a manufacturer. It will be spring 2014. It's going to be a commercial line, so it's going to be affordable for everybody. It's going to happen! Babysteps.
CM: Congratulations! That's amazing. Are you having fun with all of this?
DE: I like that I get a message across that it's okay to be yourself. [Pauses and begins to cry]
It's OK to start, it doesn't matter how old you are. I'm going to be 50, and I'm so happy right now. If you have any problem — mental or physical — there's help out there. I went through that. I went through substance abuse, I went through depression, and I'm not embarrassed about that.
Despite this outcome, this is a win either way. This is a platform which I stand on. I wake up in the morning with gratitude that I get to do what I'm doing.