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A Korto Above 

Rumor has it that Sarah Palin's shopping spree cost more than the reported $150,000. The babydoll black frock that Sasha Obama wore on election night is being marketed by manufacturer Gerson and Gerson as the “Sasha” style. First Lady to-be Michelle Obama received love-it-or-shove-it reactions to the red-and-black dress she wore in Grant Park; one critic called the Narciso Rodriguez sheath a “lava lamp look.” 

And for one Arkansan, a dream got a little bit closer. Korto Momolu, 33, alumna of reality TV show “Project Runway,” wants to design Michelle Obama's inauguration gown. A tall order — and one a million designers would love to fill. Momolu is not deterred. “I have a few connections,” she said.

No doubt she does; in its five seasons on Bravo, “Project Runway” has created a fashion enthusiasm sensation. People who didn't previously know the difference between chartreuse and teal are now hooked on the show and preach the gospel of “making it work” (designer mentor Tim Gunn's signature advice). When Momolu showed her clothes at September's Harvest Fest in Hillcrest, the crowd packed Kavanaugh Boulevard like they were attending a rock concert. When I asked if my election-obsessed family would be tuning into the “Project Runway” season finale or the third presidential debate, my mom said the choice was easy.

“ ‘Project Runway.' The networks should have known better than to schedule those two at the same time.”

 

The format of “Project Runway” is simple: In each episode, designers complete a timed challenge, the segment ends in a runway show and elimination. The final three designers get three months and $8,000 to create a collection for the Bryant Park tents of New York Fashion Week, and the season finale shows the collections and names a winner. Supermodel Heidi Klum hosts and judges the show, along with fashion editor Nina Garcia, designer Michael Kors and a rotating fourth guest-judge. 

This year, “Project Runway” enthusiasm in Little Rock was high; Momolu, who was born in Liberia and lives in Mabelvale, set herself apart early as a contender for the win. In the first challenge, which required the designers to make outfits from materials found in a grocery store, Momolu made a bright yellow, low-necked kimono-style dress from a tablecloth. The judges loved her embellishment: She topped the design off with a salad — a collar made of kale and brooches of tomatoes.

One of Momolu's most memorable creations of the season was a taupe coat dress constructed from woven Saturn Vue Hybrid seatbelts. The coat fetched $1,026 in the online auction that occurs after every episode of the New York-based show.

“Project Runway” awards its winner a spread in “ELLE” magazine, a Saturn Vue (seatbelts intact) and $100,000 to start his or her own line. It's every fledgling fashion designer's dream.

As diehard fans already know, Momolu was named first runner-up in the Oct. 15 season finale, second to Leanne Marshall, 28, of Portland. Momolu beat out some wacky competitors: the tan guy who loves hot pink, the leather fanatic who designs for “hookers and pimps and whoever is tough enough.”

But she won the $10,000 Fan Favorite prize at Bryant Park for her collection. The 10 pieces — long and short dresses, and one pant and blouse — were in shades of turquoise, tan, green, ivory, and yellow. Many of the models carried circular fans and wore Asian-inspired buns. Large-beaded necklaces provided an African motif. The beads came from the Argenta Bead Company, and most fabrics in the collection were from Cynthia East Fabrics. For serious reality TV fans, a model wearing a short, emerald dress was familiar; she was Little Rock's Danielle Evans, winner of season six of America's Next Top Model. The runway music was from Momolu's African drum teacher in Arkansas.

Now, Momolu is busier than ever; she recently participated in a roundtable talk for African artists at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and she has received more than 100 e-mail requests for wedding gowns (gratifying, since she almost got kicked off the show in a wedding-gown challenge).

Since the show aired, Momolu has won a following from people all over the country; Box Turtle sells her clothes so quickly that owner Emese Boone does not have time to put them on the store's website.

Momolu, who hopes to create a Martha Stewart-esque lifestyle brand that includes home pieces in addition to clothes and accessories, said “Project Runway”  “breaks a door down.” 

“I've gone to L.A., to New York — people know me, they know my stuff immediately. If I do a line, I'll already have a fan base.”

 

Even before “Project Runway,” Momolu had a growing presence on the Little Rock fashion scene. She'd sold her pieces at Box Turtle, the boutique Jeanté and to private clients.

She created major buzz when she first participated in Box Turtle's fall fashion show more than a year ago, with fashions that had a cohesive theme and models that were professional.

Boone said Korto showed about 12 pieces at that first presentation: high-waisted pants, shorts, dresses, coats, purses, jewelry. “She blew us away,” Boone said. “Not only were the clothes impeccable, but she knew how to put on a show.”

Momolu gave a professional showing that a Little Rock audience hadn't before seen.

“I wanted to set a standard of how it's done in New York, because Little Rock is just as good,” Momolu said. “If you're going to do it, go all the way. Make a collection where all the pieces are united in some way and there's a theme.”

 

In March, Momolu presented in front of “Project Runway” alumnus Mychael Knight at the Designers Choice Fashion Preview at the Metroplex Event Center; it was one of Little Rock's biggest-ever showings of local designers. A week later, Momolu auditioned for “Project Runway.”

Ever since its premiere, Momolu has known that she belonged on the show. But her daughter, Alyse, was only a few months old when “Project Runway” was in its first season, and Momolu did not want to compete as a new mom.

“I prayed that it would still be around in a few years,” Momolu said. “And luckily it grew a huge fan base.”

To prepare for the timed challenges (contestants usually have just a day or two to complete a complex garment) and sudden-death eliminations, Momolu worked to perfect her technique. She learned how to drape, or design directly on a mannequin dress form, rather than using a pattern. Fellow designers say her work became more sophisticated, her palette brighter.

Momolu also started to incorporate beading into her pieces, like taking a necklace and making it part of a dress. “My work has gotten more complicated and more artistic,” she said.

Momolu's won two “Project Runway” challenges with an outfit inspired by the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games and a punk-rock look created for a fellow contestant. The punk look was so popular that Momolu created a line of similar T-shirts. The handmade shirts are on sale at Box Turtle for $40.

 

One Arkansan had been sure for weeks that Momolu would make it to the final three. Star Akel, a Little Rock jewelry designer and a client of Momolu's, bought her ticket to New York Fashion Week the day she learned Momolu would be a contestant on this season's “Project Runway.”

Akel was drawn to Momolu's work because of her tailoring abilities, her knack for innovative combinations of materials and the detail in her designs.

“If you just glance at the clothes, you miss the details,” Akel said. Her construction is flawless. I booked my ticket because I knew she was going to make it to the finals. I even thought she would win. That's how I believe in her so much.”

Akel liked the collection so much that she bought one of the dresses in an auction after the show aired. The dress — short and tan, with billowy sleeves, a scooped neck, and a thin snakeskin belt — sold for $430. The highest-selling item from the collection was the final dress to grace the runway, an emerald ball gown with beads built into the neckline. It sold for $1,025. According to Momolu, four garments in the collection will be coming back to Arkansas.

 

Momolu has particularly become known for her skill at creating clothes for all body types. 

“The industry is so superficial,” Momolu said. “My model was a size 4-6 and she was one of the big girls on the show; that was pathetic. I make clothes for the everyday, average person who wants to look elegant and chic. If you're over a size 14 you don't have to wear frumpy clothes.”

Momolu is hoping a retail chain like Dillard's or Macy's will invest in her line. “I want to do a line that anyone can get,” she said. “With other designers it's frowned upon if you can go to the mall and buy their work, but I want everyday people like me to wear my clothes — not just celebrities and rich folks.” Momolu plans to start with an accessories line: handbags and jewelry.

Because she was born in Liberia and educated in Canada — where she went to fashion school and her parents moved as refugees — Momolu has fans abroad, as well. At the invitation of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, next March Momolu will make her first visit to Liberia in over 18 years, to attend a women's conference.

For now, Momolu, her husband, and her 4-year-old daughter plan to stay in Arkansas, her husband's home state. “Moving is something that would have to be for the greatest opportunity of my life,” Momolu said.

In the meantime, she can get to work on “the Michelle.”

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