08.26.09

Project Runway's Jailbird Sings

Kenley Collins, America’s favorite infamous cat-hurling designer, talks about her debut collection at Fashion Week, her next reality show, and what she learned behind bars.

It’s been a busy year for 26-year-old designer Kenley Collins, the wickedly talented Project Runway finalist, alleged spousal abuser, and aspiring fashion star.

She developed a clothing line showcasing her unique style, a mixture of vintage rockabilly and 1940s' coquette, which she plans to show next month at New York’s Fashion Week. She began filming a new reality show, which follows the designer and her retinue (including publicist and personal attorney) around town. She built a Web site. And—oh yeah—she got into an epic, relationship-ending brawl one morning last spring, in which she allegedly hurled a number of items, including a cat, at her sleeping ex-fiancé and which led to her arrest and two days behind bars.

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“Jail inspired me!” Collins says from a swivel-chair in her Brooklyn studio. She wears black ballet flats, cigarette-cut jeans, a sheer white button-up top and her trademark siren-red lipstick. “It made me appreciate freedom. As soon as I got out I made a kick-ass line and did a photo shoot with 10 of my pieces. Everyone kept saying I put new meaning in the phrase ‘pussy-whipped.’” She giggles and takes a spin in her seat.

“After two days they let me out on my own recognizance,” she says. “I mean, listen, nobody got hurt. He really just didn’t want me to break up with him, that’s all. Looking back I’m like, ‘Huh? Did that really happen?’”

The whole year has been something of a blur.

“Everyone kept saying I put new meaning in the phrase ‘pussy-whipped.’”

Before the fall of 2008, when Collins rocketed to stardom on Runway’s fifth season, the Pompano Beach, Florida, native and daughter of a tugboat captain lived a quiet, anonymous life. As a child, Collins hung out on docks with sailors, took family gambling trips and dreamed of being a designer someday. “I mean, dude, I was always hanging out with a bunch of guys on a boat,” she says. “Other people, like, go to the Caribbean or wherever on family vacations—we went to Vegas. I would be out there gambling with my dad! Vegas is our place, man.”

She got more serious about fashion at the age of 16, when she began scouring vintage clothing stores and creating her own looks. “Really, I taught myself to sew,” she says. “I did take classes at Sew Fast Sew Easy for a bit, but just to refine what I already knew. When I was just a young girl I was taking vintage clothes and reconstructing them—pairing tops with Contempo Casual pants and modeling my designs with my best friend Jillian. I just, like, did it.”

Collins studied marketing at Florida State University and then moved to New York, taking a sales job at midprice clothing emporium Missy Wear. Then last year, Collins got herself cast on Project Runway, clawing her way to the finals with a combination of genuine talent and unchecked bravado that steadily drove audiences and her castmates batty. Over the course of the season, she dressed in 1940s-style frocks and elaborate hairpins. She ticked off the judges by constantly fighting back against their criticism and at one point set off a feud by designing a wedding dress a little too evocative of Alexander McQueen. She finished as the second-runner-up.

“I just tried to have fun with it,” she says. “People don’t like confident women—I would defend my designs and people would tell me I was rude. I never ripped off any designs—I mean, we weren’t even allowed outside resources. When I was off [the show] I looked at the Alexander McQueen dress they told me I knocked off and was like, “Ugh! Why’d you have to make that dress McQueen?! But honestly? I’d never even seen it.”

“The girl next to me was in there for, like, stabbing her man in the head, like 25 times. She was hardcore.”

Soon after she was nixed from Project Runway, Collins says she received offers for Tila Tequila-style reality shows from VH1 and MTV, which she immediately rejected. “I mean, they most likely would have named it something like, Sew in Love,” says Collins, who doesn’t have time for “lap dances from random men who write in to date me.”

Instead she retreated to Brooklyn, where she lived with then-fiancé, Zak Penley. The two had an occasionally tumultuous relationship. And then came March 18, 2009.

In Collins’ retelling, she was just trying to break things off. According to TMZ, the “cat-astrophic” incident, in which the designer was accused of throwing a laptop, an apple, water and a cat at Penley, ended with eight New York police officers rushing to the scene. She was charged with two counts of assault, criminal possession of a weapon, and harassment.

“Please,” she says now. “What I really said was, ‘Here! Feed your cat!’ and handed it to him. It was all just really ridiculous.” During her two days in jail, Collins wore a “comfy” black Gap T-shirt, jeans and a red hooded sweatshirt that “doubled as a great blanket.” All in all, it wasn’t so bad. “Oh gosh!,” she squeals, spinning in her chair, “I had those women cracking up! But the girl next to me was in there for, like, stabbing her man in the head, like 25 times. She was hardcore.”

Since then, she’s tried to stay focused on her designs. She developed a 15-piece recession-friendly collection inspired by Amelia Earhart.

“You know, Amelia Earhart was a designer, too. She had a line in Macy’s,” she says. “The entire collection is silk, but I wanted to make it affordable, you know—for the recession and all. I took my more expensive designs and created things like this”—she points to a flirty A-line skirt with ivory tulle. Her collection is sensitive to the varied female form, featuring gray knickers she’s dubbed “Pilot Pants” that she promises “anyone can wear—like, a smallish woman or like, a bigger one”; box pleats on the back of delicate paper-thin tops “to enhance the feminine drape” and a remarkably steady construction technique.

Unfortunately, folks wanting more of her family life to play out on screen in her new reality series will be disappointed. “It’s just me, me, me, and my support team,” she says, referring to a small cluster of loyal friends and business associates, made up of her PR agent Leckie, a former design student at Parsons; her assistant Kory, a shapely hipster with bleach-blond hair and black roots, and Jake, her “loud, totally Italian New York” lawyer who keeps people from “messing” with her. The series, shot by a veteran Runway cameraman, hasn’t yet found a television home.

“I mean, life is fun,” she says just before Kory comes in to tell her she’s wrapping up for the day. “I’m just not going to mess around. I’m going to do it, and do it with awareness. I don’t want anything to be a waste.”

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Elizabeth Gates is a graduate of The New School University, where she cultivated her love for fashion and writing.