Project Runway 5: Meet the Designer - Korto Momolu
In recent seasons, the roster of Project Runway designers has included several designers with impressive industry credentials: education at some of the most well-known fashion schools, internships or employment with major fashion powerhouses, or lines already sported by celebrities in fashion centers like Los Angeles or New York.

Korto Momolu's background, on the other hand, was more understated, and didn't immediately telegraph how modern and exciting her work would often turn out to be during Project Runway 5. Let's take a look at this designer's background and see how it brought her to the final three of this season.

As she's referenced several times on the show, Korto was born in Monrovia, Liberia. Her family left Liberia and became refugees in Canada. This has had a profound impact on Korto and her family, and she's called herself a “poster child for never giving up.”

She has said that in her life, “The most traumatic [experience] would have to be the civil war in Liberia and how it tore apart my family and the only place that I knew as home. The devastation alone was bad and even though I was blessed to not have to be in the country at the time it affected me the same. My parents were greatly affected. They worked so hard for everything they achieved and to lose everything and start from scratch was hard but we did it and kept the family and our traditions as tight as we could. What doesn't kill you will make you stronger and it did, for all of us.”

Korto was always interested in design, and was encouraged by her high school art teacher to pursue it as a career. She wasn't able to immediately attend fashion school due to the turmoil her family was going through, but eventually she did attend L'Academie des Couturiers in Ottawa once the family settled in Canada.

This early educational experience within the rigors of fastidiously-made couture would appear to have been crucial to some of her success in Project Runway. She admits, “I was not a great seamstress then but design-wise, I was good. It took a while to get my trade together.” She says that when her first design, the yellow tablecloth dress from the Gristede's challenge was called “impeccably made” by the judges, she was gratified, she said, “that all my hard work paid off.”

She also studied at Parsons, but unlike many other designers, it was not the bright lights of the big city that determined her next move. She married Benny Briggs, who is from Arkansas, and the relationship brought her to Little Rock. She has, it would appear, bloomed where she planted, staging fashion shows, making custom designs, working as a stylist, and selling her designs at local boutiques Jeante and Box Turtle.

As we saw when Tim Gunn visited her in Little Rock, Korto's creativity extends beyond clothing. She performs drumming and dancing with an African dance troupe, does West African braiding hairstyles (although notes that she's technically not allowed to do this – even to her own four-year-old daughter, Alyse – in Little Rock without a cosmetology license), dabbles in fashion photography and does make-up. Additionally, her fashion talents extend to beading and making cowhide handbags, “complete with cow horn handles.”

While she noted in the Olympic challenge that she is a modern designer, working with the aesthetic of now, not a retro look, she still does look to her own past as a design inspiration. “I put a lot of my cultural influences into my clothes. I like my clothes to tell a story. I try to but in a little detail that comes from my country [Liberia]–it's like a little treasure I put into each piece.”

In addition to the influence her African roots have had on her fashion, there's another nuance to her work that differentiates it from many of the designers we've seen on Project Runway. Korto says she does focus on making designs that are accessible to women of varying shapes and sizes.

“My designs are flattering to women of all sizes even though they have a lot of detail on them,” she said. “They can be worn by anyone from a size two to a twenty. Women of all sizes are beautiful, and they all want to look great. In the real world, people look like me and they want to buy clothes.”

Korto had her eye on Project Runway early on, saying, “I knew from the first original 'Gristedes' challenge in season 1 that I would try out.” Having watched her somewhat unflappable and methodical working style throughout this season, it's probably no surprise that she didn't rush into applying right away. “I didn't feel I was ready,” she said, “to put myself out there like that.” She instead wanted to continue to develop her skills.
“I had to clean up my craft and perfect it,” she said, “I had to make sure to be the best when it came to presentation and execution. Once I felt like nothing would be a challenge for me, I went for it.”

Bringing three models with her to best showcase her looks (“A lot of my clothes, to me, don't look good on hangers,” she said), she headed to the auditions in New York City last April. One of the pieces was actually a coat dress she'd already sold to a customer! She temporarily borrowed it back, and both she and the willing customer thought it was one of the deciding factors for the judges. It probably didn't hurt that she'd also made sure to accessorize the outfits with handbags and jewelry of her own design.

She had told herself that she would just try out the once and let go of the idea if she didn't make it, but as we've seen, Korto did and will be competing for the top spot on Wednesday's finale of Project Runway.

- Leslie Seaton, BuddyTV Staff Columnist

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