You might recognize her face from television — Gretchen Jones won first place on Project Runway back in 2010. In the years since, the fashion director and designer has tackled a whole new slew of creative career feats, and now, she's stepping in as our Guest Style Editor for July. We couldn't be more excited to share her insights over the course of the month, but we're equally excited to introduce you to her general life philosophy, particularly after sitting down to ask her a few personal questions. Even if you're hesitant to call yourself a fashionista, you'll find piles of wisdom in her thoughtful responses below, where she explains the crucial values she brings to everyday scenarios (like kindness and detachment), how (and why) she's rethinking her role in her larger industry, and what it really means to achieve your dreams as a "grown ass woman."
Your professional path is more public than most. Can you tell us what has transpired since your winning Season 8 of Project Runway?
You know, regardless of my participation on an internationally televised show...The fashion industry is set up, especially for those participating in it, under the title of "designer" for public display (and judgment). Sometimes I struggle with this facet, other times it feeds me. I suppose one wouldn't make the choice to participate in said industry without embracing the platform...even long for that kind of exposure! That said, it’s been a sometimes rewarding, sometimes challenging six years since participating on Project Runway.
The quick breakdown is — I have won more awards since winning Season 8. I've started and closed down a fashion label. I achieved my ultimate "dream job" working as a fashion director for a brand name. I've realized my dreams didn't quite align with my lifestyle. I've resigned from what once (for over 30 years of my life, and I’m only 34) was my ultimate professional dream. I've taken two sabbaticals within the six-year period to step back and recalibrate my spiritual self. And I've experienced an evolution in perspective that has completely changed my focus and vision for not only myself on a personal level, but the future of my industry.
Currently, I have taken a step away from the actual act of fashion design because I started asking myself questions like — What effect do I want to have on the world? What is my macro objective for greater impact inside and outside of my industry? My non-traditional path has meant making some objectively risky choices, and I’ve learned from those. Through all those crazy experiences, I’ve concluded that the kind of impact I want has evolved as much as I have…to say nothing of the industry at large. (I mean…have you heard about all the turmoil in fashion lately!?) I am asking myself new, bigger questions that I don’t have the experience or understanding to resolve.
Reflecting on my career and the challenges I now face, I’ve come to the conclusion that I want and need to refine my skills. Sooooo, I am preparing to go back to school to get a MBA at the University of Art London's College of Fashion. I literally just found out I was accepted into the program and I’m basically trying not to pee with excitement!
Beyond that, I’m basically waiting for the next big opportunity to cross my path. I’m a big believer in manifestation and the power of dedicating yourself to the vision you have for yourself…which basically means (in my humble opinion), do the work to open yourself to the opportunities the world will lead you to. And I have faith that my ability to be flexible yet focused will lead me to an amazing set of new experiences to be challenged and rewarded by! I’ve got my hands in some things…I’m just not quite ready to tell the world what they are just yet.
Being on a television show is very vulnerable and offers up a lot of exposure, both welcome and unwelcome. How did you handle the attention and pressure?
If I’m being REALLY honest, which is hard for me not to be, I had major PTSD from the experience and had to go to therapy for the three years after the show. I pretty much knew what I was getting into with that experience, but I didn’t know how it was going to affect me both short- and long-term AND both internally and professionally. In a matter of words, I’d NEVER do it again, but I’m grateful for the experience.
The most challenging part of the experience was honestly how it affected the already super intense pressure I put on myself. Sure, I got a LOT of hate mail (more than fan mail, actually) and had to deal with the odd interpretation on my personality that was represented on the show. Yes, I had some interesting doors open given the experience…But at the end of the day I still had to get up each day and choose to continue to try to achieve my dreams. It in no way is a golden ticket to riches and success. And most of the offers that came my way weren’t at all aligned with my moral compass or vision for myself. So I had to wake up and choose to stay focused, be inspired and stay the course even as it started to veer from the ideal version of what I intended my life to look like. When I look back at my wild path, I am in awe of all that I’ve experienced. And very proud of the way I’ve remained resilient, yet flexible, in my pursuit of happiness.
What did that experience as a whole (the competition, the win, launching your line, returning to the PNW) teach you about yourself? What was most surprising?
Gosh! I’ve learned SO MUCH about myself in the past six years. The transition from age 28 to 34 is a pretty intense, yet beautiful one. Humility, kindness and detachment have probably been the biggest lessons I’ve learned.
- Humility — What was really important for me to understand about myself is that I am humble by nature (regardless of the interpretation of me portrayed on television). I believe there is a BIG difference between confidence and arrogance. Confidence is rooted in a deep understanding and belief in oneself. I think humility can live right next to confidence, even complement it. Arrogance is based in insecurity and fear…and typically leads to poor behavior. I have a strong sense of self. I believe in my abilities, but I don’t really like to brag. I let my work and work ethic speak for me. And staying true to that nature is why I have achieved the things that I have. It’s a bummer that being a confident female still to this day gets cast in a negative light.
- Kindness — To me, living and working with your intentions set on being kind is the key to true happiness and success. One of my mottos is "Kill it with kindness." Inspiring, powerful and impactful leadership for me, is rooted in creating playful, supportive environments and make for a far richer experiences and final outcomes. But also, kindness means removing judgement from your modus operandi. I am in an industry that forces a LOT of judgment into your day-to-day experience and life. Add putting myself on a platform for millions to judge me/my work on (i.e. Project Runway) and your perspective on judgment and kindness changes like WHOA. I’ve realized over the years that I just don’t really operate with ill intentions ever and I’m super proud of that. I also think it is the special sauce that makes one actually happy, or err…successful.
- Detachment — This one was/is a HUGE one for me and has many facets. Detachment from my creative output means the most to me right now. What I’ve learned over the past 6 years is that at the end of the day, design is NOT about self indulgence. Your concepts must sell and not every idea can be as precious as we want them to be. I’ve learned what to fight for and when to back down (when pitching concepts). And that real success is staying in business, not choking your vision to death holding onto it. I’m a better creative for understanding the balance needed in a collection, a garment, or an idea. Not every piece can or should be so special that it lives on a pedestal. And letting go of that need enables room for the greater whole (your team, your business) to thrive.
I’ve also learned a lot about detaching from the internal perspective of what the outside perspective is! I used to be very attached to what I thought to be industry pressure for me to perform. Now I realize most of that pressure actually lives within me. I no longer care what others think about my path. I used to feel like I needed to stay the course with the trajectory I was on because I once said I wanted it (publicly). Now I realize it is far more important to give into yourself and your evolving desires…making room for both to grow.
Your passion for fashion and design seems to have never waned. We are inspired and in awe of your love for your industry and art. Have you always been a committed person, or did this quality develop when you discovered your ideal career?
What a generous and lovely statement! You know…every time I find myself struggling with my art and industry, I think about what new direction I could take, if I should give up and try something new. And every single time I find myself in the end saying "NO! This is it! Stay the course and don’t give up!" Which is strange because that’s not my conscious self, but my inner voice speaking. And let me tell you, I’ve been in the midst of a deep dark space. Feeling really open to maybe letting go…but then again, my heart still (just within the last few weeks) is telling me this path is the only one for me.
I’m one of those fortunate (or not depending on how you look at it, sometimes I feel it to be burdensome) people who truly always knew what I was going to do with my life. Clothing and fashion have been my focus since my very first memories. I believe what we wear is how we communicate with the world, how we find our tribe(s) and hold a power. I wish more [people] understood and embraced it. I know everyone feels differently, more confident and present, when they feel good about how they are dressed. There is power in presentation…in many ways I believe we are letting go of that (e.g. leggings and athletic wear as normal day-to-day clothing) and I can see how it’s affecting the way we engage with each other and ourselves. I wish more people took pride in how they present themselves, [because] they’d be happier and have richer experiences for doing so. And that doesn’t have to cost a lot in time or money.
What I’ve found over the years isn’t just that I am passionate about fashion, but that I’m relentless in my pursuit to participate in my industry. Resiliency, truly getting back up every time I fall down is perhaps my greater trait. More recently I’ve found that my interests are turning away from so desperately wanting to be designing each garment in a collection. For 30 years all I wanted was to be a fashion designer and now all the sudden I want to move beyond it. My interests are evolving and I’m growing up and out of that dream. What I really want to do now is create on a larger scale. I want to be the composer, not just the pianist so to speak. Perhaps it is getting older. Maybe it’s the way in which the industry has changed over the last 15 years…What I find my sights set on now is refining my business understanding, learning how to use my creativity to lead a (fashion) company, not just a design team. I want to change the industry at large, rather than create a trend for a season.
So, I suppose my commitment is deepening over time, but [it has] always been there.
What are three pieces of advice you would give to someone considering embarking in the fashion and design field? What are three pieces of advice you would give to someone considering applying for a reality television series?
Well, my industry is not for the faint of heart. It is not as pretty as it looks in magazines or down runways, it’s mostly long days in ugly rooms where the beauty lies within the mind.
My first piece of advice would have to be: Do your research and know what you’re getting into if you want to work in fashion. If it’s not something you are deeply passionate about, it will chew you up and spit you out. I also think it’s important to understand not everyone gets to be a star designer, but almost everyone going into the industry think’s that’s what they can AND want to be[.] Fashion is the second largest industry in the WORLD — number one is food. The hidden magic in that is the many, many ways one can work within the industry that aren’t even in the design studio! So again, do your research, be honest with yourself and the life you want to live and carve out a space for yourself that feeds your spirit as much as, if not more than, your ego.
My second piece of advice would be: Patience needs to be your guide, even though the industry is so [fast-paced]. There is no easy, fast way of achieving a credible career and beautiful product. Sure, talent means a lot and can catapult you up the ladder of acclaim and success more quickly…BUT, good work comes through years of dedication and experience. WANTING to learn from those you admire takes time, and working for/with talented, skilled people who can impart wisdom and guidance along the way will only make it easier to fulfill your fullest potential.
I have been dedicated to working on my craft and art for almost 15 years and I feel more so by the day that I have so much more to learn. I am a better designer for working with people who were and are better than me in most facets of design. My vision only comes to fruition (and in the most beautifully executed way) through working with good people who make me want to push myself to be better every single day — for myself, but mostly for them!
My third piece of advice is simple: Get outside yourself. This industry moves faster than most. This industry functions only due to all the different facets operating at the same time (from growing the raw goods to manufacturing them into materials, from using those materials to create and develop designs to producing the finalized versions, from merchandising those collections and products to selling them to the trade, to styling it [all] and presenting it for the public eye, to promoting and marketing it all to finally selling it consumers...and then there’s still dealing with the end of a product’s life!?) In my humble opinion, learning more than just the part you love and want to participate in will make you better at what you do in the end. AND [it] will make you appreciate all it takes and from whom to make your role exist.
As far as reality television. Ooof. I think it’s important to:
1. Really understand what you are hoping to get out of the experience and stay focused on that.
2. Really understand how much you don’t have control over, because it’s basically everything.
3. Really understand how different what you get out of it will be from what you wanted AND how you will never not be connected to that experience even when you don’t want to be anymore.
So think about it, don’t just act!
At Clementine we are making a shift. One that recognizes the quality and strength that comes with experience and wisdom and celebrates being a "grown ass woman" who truly creates her own trajectory — how do you resonate with this shift?
Boom! I LOVE this question. Firstly, I resonate with this shift because it’s a shift I am experiencing in my own grown ass self! Bravo for owning what you are and embracing the shift. After all, it’s going to happen regardless.
I feel pretty strongly about this — potential is only in the eye of the beholder! If you want something, you alone are responsible for making it happen. Every day you are lucky enough to have choices. Making an effort to achieve your dreams no matter how big or small is the difference between being the grown ass woman you want to be or not. That said, creating your own trajectory is NOT a solo experience. As I’ve grown wiser and matured, I’ve realized the tools in my toolbox aren’t skills like being an expert at Adobe Suite (blegh!). It’s the people I know. It’s the loving relationships, both on professional and personal levels that I’ve built and can call on. Again, my best work comes through working with good, kind people. But in the end I alone have to be the person I want to be (Remember, kill it with kindness!) in order to inspire and engage those people. YOU have to be everything YOU want to be. It’s truly that simple.
Who are your biggest influences and idols (both professionally and personally)?
I’ve sort of given up on idols. I certainly love hearing/reading about people’s stories and admire many peoples' pursuits. But I’m literally blanking on anyone I idolize. Weird! But good maybe?
I suppose my influences ebb and flow. Professionally speaking I tend to be perpetually, if not [obsessively], compulsively researching street style, retail, runway, influencers and red carpets. I literally can’t help myself from doing it all day long. My husband has coined the term "sharking" for my insanity!
Personally speaking, my husband is definitely a huge influence. He allows me to be myself in ways that have completely changed me. I feel at peace with myself in ways I didn’t before we met. It’s as though he gave me permission to let it all hang out. Beyond him, my friends are MAJOR influences on me. I consider them my family (my tribe) and they encourage me to be everything I want to be, but also let go and be present in my day-to-day life. And that’s priceless support, because even though they want me to achieve all of my goals…they actually don’t give a damn what I do.
Do you have any personal mantras, sayings or readings that help you stay centered and grounded when life is crazed?
I have two and they come from some of my favorite people.
1. My mother always tells me “What you settle for is all you will get.” I live by this one!
2. My [step] father always told me, “Honey, you're not broken, you’re just bent” any time I felt frustrated or scared or weak.
p.s. Have you met The NY Metropolitan Opera Singer?