Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
See a slideshow of Nikki Poulos' designs
By Mary Jane Fine
Nikki Poulos has enjoyed what she considers modest success in the fashion world. Shoppers can find her label in Anthropologie shops. Her bathing suits have made a splash in the swimsuit edition — inside pages, she notes, not the cover — of Sports Illustrated.
And while many clothing designers would kill for such up-market exposure, Poulos wants more. To that end, she has hooked her wagon to NBC’s coming Fashion Star.
Fashion Star is a reality show. As in Project Runway. As in Top Chef. It promises celebrity and fame and fortune and … well, here’s what the show’s website has to say:
“It’s going to take vision, determination and guts. From a self-taught former engineer to a recent design school grad to a stay-at-home mom, one of these 14 designers will become the next big fashion brand! Check back often — bio pages will be updated each week with new photos, videos and more, as each contestant strives to become America’s Fashion Star.”
Learning about the show was pure serendipity: Poulos opened the newspaper one day and there it was, a one-line notice inviting applications. She whisked off an email. The show whisked off a response. Done deal.
“I think the timing is right for me right now,” she says. “I’ve been doing the business for three years, starting to build my customer base. I feel like everything’s meant to happen.”
Whether it will happen for Poulos is a closely guarded secret, of course. Fashion Star was taped in Los Angeles last summer — it premieres on March 13 — and on a recent morning, Traci Saulsberry, a press manager for NBC, is eavesdropping, via speaker phone from L.A., just to ensure that no clues about outcome are given away or even hinted at.
But no worries, there’s plenty to talk about without spoiling the suspense. The dining area of Poulos’ just-south-of-Ocean Ridge bungalow — friends lived nearby and she loved the funky, half-hidden neighborhood, just steps from the ocean — shares space with her work area: tracing-paper patterns pinned to a now-naked dress dummy, swatches of fabric bearing her own Deco-inspired graphic prints, a mobile clothes rack hung with bathing suits and maxi-dresses in orange and hot pink, turquoise and lavender and sunny yellow and minty green. She aims for the Jean Harlow-esque style of ’30s and ’40s Hollywood.
“People ask me, ‘Who do you cater to?’ and I say, ‘the American woman,’ ” Poulos, 43, answers. “She needs to look glamorous, to feel glamorous, to walk out the door and feel like a million bucks.”
From outback to on camera
All of this is so different from her earlier life, her earlier career as a marine biologist. Poulos and her brother and two sisters grew up on a 54,000-acre cattle ranch in the Australian outback — “the middle of nowhere,” she calls it, an Aussie accent hinting at her homeland — about 550 miles west of Sydney. An isolated place with no electricity, the nearest neighbors 20 to 30 miles away. Her parents flew a small plane to get most places.
She and her siblings rode horses and motorbikes. “You sort of made your own fun,” she remembers. Her fun included pattern-making and sewing — and imagining a life somewhere else.
In the 1990s, she designed and marketed a line of natural, chemical-free children’s wear called eco-baby. The proceeds paid her way through college, which led her into coral reef conservation and, in 2001, to Florida for further study. Then back into fashion design. An equation, almost: coral reefs = ocean = swimsuits.
Right now, she’s working on her Fall 2012 line, which she describes as “a little more structured … city clothing, maybe work wear,” and which she’ll show later this month in South Carolina, during Charleston Fashion Week. “It’s going to be a show-stopper,” she predicts and then, perhaps fearing she sounds immodest, explains, “Every time I do a new collection, I think it’s so much better than the last one.”
Each new collection — pattern, hastily stitched mock-up, fabric choice, sometimes graphic print — is designed at home by Poulos but produced in Broward County by others. “I don’t sew a thing,” she says, “but nothing goes out of my space unless I’ve signed off on it.”
What remains now is the reality check: the reality-show check. How will America greet her work? The Fashion Star website promises contestants “real-time consumer feedback” and “interactivity” that allows “viewers at home to buy the winning designs each week” and, if that’s not enough, “a multimillion-dollar prize” to launch their design line in top retail venues.
But whether Nikki Poulos becomes the last designer standing is all but moot. For her, the show is really about exposure.
“It’s really about pushing my brand out there,” she says. “I don’t plan on being a reality star. It’s more about my business than about me.”